Randy and Sue Frost show off their colorful hillside on the Forbes Library Garden Tour


For the Gazette

Published: 06-02-2017 12:53 AM

Some garden sites are more challenging than others. But to say that Randy and Sue Frost’s property poses landscaping challenges is an understatement.

They purchased their house, on Coles Meadow Road in Northampton, in 2001, while it was still under construction. It sits on nearly two acres of steep, rocky, west-facing hillside. The dramatic gardens the Frosts have created will be featured on the Forbes Library 24th Annual Garden Tour June 10.

As you approach the house, you first notice a half-dozen or so towering arbor vitae that flank the driveway. These pencil-slim evergreens highlight the site’s verticality. While it appears that they have been pruned into elongated lollipop shapes, the topiary effect is not the Frosts’ design. “Deer come from the meadow across the road in the winter and feed on the trees,” Sue explains. “They chew as high as they can.”

The Frosts says they accept the presence of deer and other wildlife as a natural part of living in a rural setting.

“I’m really more of a rock person than a plant person,” Randy says. “Most of my gardening consists of moving rocks and digging holes.”

Sue nods in agreement. “He loves moving rocks around,” she says, gesturing to an artful arrangement of large rocks on either side of the winding path that runs through the garden. “He uses a ‘come along’ tool for the big ones.”

Popping with color

The Frosts hired a landscape designer to make a plan and do some foundational planting of shrubs and ground cover for the area in front of the house. The front slope, supported by a stone retaining wall that edges the driveway, is now a densely planted area that pops with color. Lavender lilacs under planted with vinca and hosta grow close to the house. Further down the slope, large burgundy barberries mix with Mugo pine and golden and green cypress.

Blankets of creeping juniper, geranium and daylilies flow around rocky outcroppings, providing a patchwork of complementary green shades around the shrubs and trees.

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A Cornelian cherry dogwood and a star magnolia are among the small trees planted near the house. The magnolia is surrounded by several carefully placed rocks and a cloud of grape hyacinths and forget-me-nots. “We love the blues,” Sue says.

Call of the rocks

Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College, says he did not consider himself a serious gardener when he and Sue bought the house. Having grown up on a farm in Kansas, he says he vowed never to “do this kind of work.” But his resolve was soon to waver. Behind the house rose a steep hill covered with dirt and random weeds. A small amount of stone peaked out along the edge. Randy says he was curious.

“I started scooping out dirt and uncovering the rock underneath,” he explains. As he exposed the rock, he brushed off the dirt, allowing its warm, brownish gray hues to dominate the hillside. Over the course of several years, Randy exposed the craggy, dramatic rock face. This opened up an ideal site for the impressive rock garden he has created there.

A viewer can’t help but marvel at the amount of color that dots the rock face. “This is the pink period,” explains Sue, gesturing to the bright patches of moss phlox in all shades of pink and lavender that nestle happily throughout the rock garden. “Next we have the yellow period,” she adds, when the abundant creeping sedum comes into flower. Sue insists that she only assists in small ways with the garden. “I am very good at buying plants. I put in some annuals every spring,” she says, pointing to a patch of coleus, ageratum and Dusty Miller. “And I do a lot of watering.”

Interspersed with the phlox and sedum are lovely vignettes of sempervivum, clumps of dark green moss and yellow and green variegated sedum. Pale green lichen splatters across the rocks. In one corner a creeping cotoneaster spreads over a large expanse of stone, creating an etched effect. A volunteer white pine sapling emerges from a crevice of rock; wild columbine and ferns have established themselves nearby.

Randy has created a gravel path that winds around the edge of the garden. Beside the path, a bed of heuchera in shades of orange and red adjoins a patch of variegated green and white hosta. Carefully positioned rocks punctuate the plantings everywhere, giving the garden a Japanese feel.

Friend, family contributions

The Frosts say they are lucky to have received many gifts of plants from friends and family. Sue’s brother, who also lives in Northampton, gave them a small red Japanese maple sapling several years ago that has since grown into a lovely focal point. Sue’s family in Kansas gave her blue columbine that bloom when the yellow sedum is in flower. Friends gave them peonies that have taken hold near the house.

The gravel path leads to a fire pit at the top of the rocky slope, where the Frosts like to entertain guests. Randy built a large, gently curving stone wall that serves as a bench where guests can sit and enjoy the sunset. “It’s a great place to have a glass of wine in the evening,” Sue says.

Relatively new to gardening, the Frosts say they enjoy taking garden tours and getting ideas from other peoples’ yards. Their garden is sure to inspire visitors looking for ways to make the most of rocky, sunny sites.

Forbes Library Garden Tour particulars

The Forbes Library Garden Tour takes place June 10, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance at Forbes Library, Cooper’s Corner and State Street Fruit Store, all in Northampton; Bay State Perennial Farm in Whately; Hadley Garden Center in Hadley and North Country Landscapes & Garden Center in Westhampton.

Tickets can be purchased on the day of the tour for $20 at Forbes Library only.

The garden tour also includes a raffle with many garden-related prizes, including gift certificates, compost, a landscape consult and gardening supplies. The raffle prizes are displayed at Forbes Library where tickets can be purchased through June 8 and on the day of the tour at one of the gardens.

All proceeds fund books, equipment, and programs for Forbes Library.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.