Kate Frey: What my Sonoma County garden means to me

Kate and Ben Frey walk through their home garden in Hopland on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. The Frey's gardens have gained international acclaim after they garnered gold medals at the famed Chelsea Flower Show in London. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)


We think of our gardens in many different ways. For some of us it’s a lawn for the kids to play on or a deck outside on which to enjoy the fresh air. For others it is plantings and hardscape designed to perfectly enhance the style and colors of our house.

Many of us embrace all of these aspects of gardens in different forms and capacities. But we also want our gardens to be about plants. Our goal is to use plants to create our own personal paradise, artistic endeavor or place of nature — no matter how small.

I am in this group. Now that the year is over and another about to begin, the days are short and cold, and my garden is mostly cut back and dormant — existing in simplified form, I have the time to reflect and consider what my garden meant to me over the last year and what it can be for the next and many after that. You may find that some of these aspects of gardens apply or speak to you, too.

My garden is a place of refuge. It is a long rectangle, with one long side bordering a road, and is entered by a small rustic wooden gate. Live oaks planted 20 years ago, now silvery trunked and high canopied, instantly create a green, sheltered scene, and walking through them is like passing through a curtain from the outside world into a refuge within.

A rustic wooden fence festooned with hops and scented honeysuckles forms a permeable barrier to the road, and within the garden a floral wonderland dwells. Rustic structures, evergreen shrubs and trees provide structure and shade — and are festooned with plants at their feet. The garden is naturalistic, with an impressionistic style planting. Plants repeat, mingle with others and overflow every bed. The paths are woodchips and the beds mulched with compost. As soon as visitors walk in the gate, they invariably say, “I instantly feel relaxed and at ease.” The garden has this effect on me too whether I’m looking out the window, walking though or working in it. The outside world disappears and I feel happy and productive. It is an important place.

My garden is a part of nature. Though it is not in any sense, an eco-system, the plants, flowers, fruit and their physical structures support many different organisms like beneficial insects, bees of all varieties, butterflies and their larvae, moths, hummingbirds and many other birds. Most of the plants were chosen for this purpose and are no less interesting and floriferous for their ability to support life.

The garden is not an authentic reproduction of a natural landscape but a conception of one. The effect on me and visitors is that of a natural place. Being surrounded by plants and the life they attract is an experience that affects us deeply. The feeling of relaxation that the garden generates is supported by many studies that show time spent in nature lowers stress and anxiety levels and enhances mental well-being. In order for our gardens to behave this way on our minds and bodies, they must contain plants. Mine is profusely planted for both the creatures that visit, and to generate or mimic a feeling of being in nature. But I also am in love with plants. Plants are a connection to the natural world from which we came and live. They are both indispensable and symbolize the cycle of life. With them we can express artistry and create scenes or compositions that make us happy.

My garden is a place of inspiration. A garden is never finished, it both grows and declines at all times. Plants reach their peak, flower and decline over the course of a season, year or lifetime. Each plant and each combination of plants generate anticipation — and when they come to fruition, and create a chorus of beauty — even fleeting — I feel a great sense of inspiration.

My garden is a place of creation. I have personally planted everything in my garden. Together, they have created a vibrant environment that I relish spending time in. As I watch them grow and mature, and assume a presence and personality in the garden, I have the satisfaction of seeing something special I created with my own hands. Last spring we removed weedy trees along the road, and planted a garden there of mostly heat and drought tolerant plants with bright flowers that support hummingbirds, butterflies and bees: hummingbird mints, California fuchsia, monkey flowers, penstemons and gray-foliage native salvias. The whole area was mulched with good compost. In a few gaps we planted tomatoes, and the reflected heat and light from the road generated the earliest, most productive tomato plants ever, and the flowers, more hummingbirds than I have ever seen here before.

My garden is a place of beauty. The garden changes immensely over the course of the year. Spring and summer are the peaks for flower color and compositions. Each week I have favorite flowers and combinations. From the cascade of perfect white bells of manzanita flowers above vibrant bearded iris, to vivid red salvias and upright sprays of hummingbird mint flowers, a white evening primrose flower gleaming in the moonlight, hummingbirds guarding the cigar plants, and the haunting perfume of osmanthus, beauty is expressed in many ways.

My garden is a place of discovery. Each season and each year, there are discoveries in the garden. This year it was scent. The pervasive violet-like scent of Verbena lilacina ‘De la Mina’, a native plant that blooms all summer was a high point. All summer, and now in the coldest point of winter, the honeysuckles Lonicera x heckrottii ‘Goldflame’ and Lonicera x americana have bloomed profusely without pause, perfuming the night garden with a light frankincense fragrance.

My garden is a place of life. My favorite winter resident bird is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A tiny, very cute rounded bird with a small, thin beak, it incessantly grooms our garden plants of insects. It is one of the most garden-friendly wild birds and will groom trees of insects just a few feet from me — and can seem like a friend. Each season brings different birds and insects to the garden, feeding on different plants. Seeing them each year is to feel the continuity of the seasons.

My garden is a place of order. Though the summer garden and its profusion of flowers and foliage is my favorite time of year, I love to get everything cut back and pruned in winter. The well-pruned fruit trees and grapes, perennials cut back to the ground, shrubs with old wood or lower branches removed, grasses cut to neat balls, and everything mulched and tidy with compost ready for the upcoming season, makes me happy. Creating and seeing order each day gives me a feeling of accomplishment.

My garden is a place for people. My greatest joy is seeing the pleasure that my garden gives to people. A garden can be a place that also cultivates people and brings them together. Our new garden along the road gives me great pleasure as everyone who drives by can each get a little beauty in their day.

My garden is a place of potential. Each year as I reflect over the previous season and what worked and what didn’t and how everything performed, I begin to plan for the upcoming season. Some plants bloomed all summer, but were pale in color like the catmints, while others spread and decimated their neighbors. Some, like calamint and seaside daisies, were so floriferous and low-maintenance, I need more of them. There are some gaps in the beds and I have the pleasure of contemplating what will fill them.

My next step is what I want each area of the garden to look like and perform over the coming year.

Kate Frey is an award-winning garden designer, based in Hopland. Her column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at:,, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool