Garden of Gary Ratway and Deborah Whigham and their Digging Dog Nursery

Stepping through a dark-leaved doorway in a beech hedge into the display gardens at Digging Dog Nursery, located in Albion, California, you feel a bit like Alice falling into the rabbit hole. What awaits on the other side? A potted boxwood draws you through the hedge…

…and then wow! A ribbon of emerald lawn leads you past a deep bed of flowering perennials, shrubs, and trees, set off by a mist of blue catmint in front.

Owners Deborah Whigham and Gary Ratway, the husband-and-wife team who founded Digging Dog 35 years ago and operate it as a mail-order nursery of unusual and hard-to-find plants, kindly allowed me to stop by earlier this month, on a day the nursery was closed. I was passing through on a family road trip up the Northern California coast, and I was thrilled to visit the nursery’s display gardens that I’ve heard so much about over the years.

Fog was settling over the gardens on that late August afternoon, softening the light and making foliage and flowers, like these eryngium, seem to glow.

I didn’t recognize most of the plants, so I can’t ID them for you. You cool-climate gardeners may know them anyway, and we hot-climate gardeners probably can’t grow them. So let’s just soak in the beauty, shall we?

Flowers the color of crushed peppermints

Looking back along the path

Steely blue eryngium

At the end of that long grassy path, steps are planted with geranium and other low growers.

From the steps you get a view of another long path, and an unusual sight…

…weeping silver pears (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’) trained on vertical arcs of rusty steel along the path. They remind me of leaping dolphins, or the crests of large waves.

A tidy pot of horsetail reed acts as a focal point and marks a crossroads where another path leads off to the right.

Past the horsetail pot, the path terminates at a wooden bench. But let’s turn right at the intersecting path, where you see…

…a raised circular pond, taller than any stock-tank ponds I’ve seen, encircled by perforated steel panels. Very cool!

Waterlilies float on the surface, including coral-pink ‘Colorado’, which I grow in my own pond. Beyond the pond, hornbeam columns and a wavy, Oudolf-inspired hedge add geometry and architecture to a meadowy garden. Pointy conifers make a sawtoothed frame in the distance.

I stepped around the pond and then looked back to admire those striking weeping pears, silver against a dark-green hedge, with the early-turning foliage of some other trees (I forget the name) beyond the hedge. In the foreground, small burgundy-leaved shrubs add yet more foliage color.

Here’s Gary, the designer of this beautiful garden. He’s also a landscape architect and founder/owner of Integrated Design, and a delight to talk with.

Tall grasses and flowering perennials mingle in harmony.

Great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), one of my favorites here.

Another view

Rattlesnake master rising tall and pale

Vivid crocosmia against a backdrop of tawny ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass

All these vivid colors, not to mention the cool weather (around 60F), made it feel like late October or early November to this Texan.

Hydrangea and grasses

My daughter took this picture of a globe thistle (Echinops) and shared it with me. I wish I could grow these!

One of many handcrafted benches in the garden

This small overlook offers a view of the hornbeam columns and wavy hedge.

Fuchsia dangling alongside the path. These were blooming everywhere in the Mendocino area.

Another lovely path with a bench at the end

Jerusalem sage (Phlomis) and red hot poker (Kniphofia)

Such beautiful scenes, everywhere I looked

Even the non-gardeners were enjoying the visit.

A small orchard and vegetable garden, sited where there’s enough sunlight amid all the tall redwoods on the property.

The walls and columns that provide architecture and create garden rooms are Gary’s creation, made of rammed earth, and blend in nicely with the plants and gravel paving.

A clematis scrambles up a column.

Inviting paths to explore, everywhere you turn. I could spend hours here.

More fuchsia

A nearly black shrub makes a perfect foil for bright-green fern and hot-pink anemone.

Anemone closeup

The peeling ginger trunks of paperbark maple glowed in the late afternoon light. (Thanks for the ID, Evan.)

At its base, a shining white anemone

A closer look

Gary and Deborah’s home is located on the property, behind the nursery. I’m not sure how much of the gardens is their personal space versus nursery display gardens. It seemed to blend seamlessly as Gary led us through. This, however, is their own back patio, where a sunset-hued succulent wreath hanging on a metal chair frame caught my eye.


A grotto-like pond filled with waterlilies is accented with potted plants including a stunning Stachys ‘Bello Grigio’. On a back ledge sits a toy VW Bus, a reminder of one Gary once drove.

More glowing succulents and grasses (sedges?) on a dining table

And more unique pots and plants by the back door, including a giraffe-necked, nearly black aeonium.

I adore that pinched pot on the right.

One of Digging Dog’s many four-footed ambassadors

At the front of the house, you walk through a sparkler-like tunnel of giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea).

Grasses and rammed-earth wall panels

Huge thanks to Digging Dog owners Deborah and Gary for welcoming us into their home and garden and showing us all the beauty they’ve made there! It was a delight to meet them.

If you’re not familiar with Digging Dog Nursery, check out their online catalog and see what treasures you can find. If you’re in the area and want to visit, they do also sell retail, but check their hours, as they’re off the beaten path and not open to visitors every day. Their website lists their summer hours currently as Tuesday by appointment only; Wednesday-Saturday 10 am to 4 pm.

Up next: Dramatic coastal views at Goat Rock Beach, Mendocino, and Russian Gulch State Park. For a look back at the beautiful Sunset Test Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma, click here.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

The Austin Cactus & Succulent Society hosts its Fall Show and Sale on September 2 & 3, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, at Zilker Botanical Garden (2220 Barton Springs Road). Come see rare and beautiful cacti and succulents and shop for plants and handcrafted pottery. Admission is free with paid entry to Zilker Botanical Garden ($2 adults, $1 children and seniors).

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Edibles, outdoor living, and more at Sunset Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma

While touring the Cornerstone Sonoma gardens in Sonoma, California, a couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed a two-fer. Sunset’s Test Gardens relocated to Cornerstone in 2016, and after a year of growth they’re already looking amazing. A glowing vertical garden of sempervivums, planted in the orange Sunset logo, greets you as you enter.

Sunset, publisher of Sunset Magazine, sold its longtime Menlo Park location in 2014, leaving behind its beloved display gardens, which I toured during the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling in 2013.

Sunset’s new gardens at Cornerstone were designed by Homestead Design Collective, whose co-founder Stefani Bittner is a fellow Ten Speed Press author. She’s co-author of The Beautiful Edible Garden, a terrific book about designing edible gardens that not only taste good but look good year-round.

The Sunset gardens consist of 5 distinct spaces: Flower Room, Farm, Cocktail Garden, Gathering Space, and Backyard Orchard. I explored the Farm garden first, drawn in along a basil-lined path through round trellis arbors by TerraTrellis. A wood-framed greenhouse stands at the end of the path, with meadowy plants visible through its glass walls.

Inside, a few simple pots of succulents adorn the airy space.

Along the path, sour gherkins dangle enticingly from one trellis.

A double axis means that when you look back, you enjoy an enticing view that way as well. This way the path leads to…

…the ready-for-lounging Cocktail Garden: “In this drinkable garden, everything growing can be mixed, muddled, or blended into tasty libations. Culinary bay, pineapple guava, pomegranates, and lavender make the foundation plantings, and a hop vine (whose dried flowers add the bitter note to beer) makes a beautiful, robust trellis climber. Potted specialty citrus and mints show our readers who are short on space that they can still grow a bounty in containers.”

Pomegranate against blue sky

Leaving the edible gardens, I admired prairie-like flowerbeds of grasses and pollinator favorites like Echinacea purpurea (this cultivar is ‘White Swan’) and Verbena bonariensis.

‘White Swan’ echinacea and tall verbena. The grass looks like bamboo muhly, but I’m not sure.

A burgundy-leaved crepe myrtle stands out against bright greens and yellows.

A classic and crowd-pleasing combo of purple coneflower and tall verbena.

A serpentine decomposed-granite path leads through the flowers and grasses to the Backyard Orchard garden, where a beautiful galvanized-wire sculpture of a tree makes a striking and appropriate focal point.

Tree of Life, the creation of New Zealand sculptor Regan Gentry, represents a California chestnut and was originally the centerpiece of a Cornerstone garden called Ecology of Place.

When that garden was removed to make way for the new Sunset gardens, the sculpture was left in place, glinting in the sunlight above verbena and surrounded by the orchard’s new fruit trees.

There’s a sense of movement in those swirling silver wires.

Next is an easy-care foliage garden in Gathering Space, “an updated take on an outdoor living room, inspiring us to move the party outside.”

This looks like a distinctively California garden to my eyes: upscale picnic table on a golden decomposed-granite patio, olive trees, and silvery and chartreuse low-water plants. ‘Platinum Beauty’ lomandra (I’m planning to trial this one soon!) edges the bed behind the picnic table. I think that’s ‘Beyond Blue’ fescue around the olive tree.

I wonder if this could possibly hold up in our climate. Our unrelenting hothouse summer is often the deal-breaker for those dry-loving and high-country plants I covet.

Here’s a pretty touch: star-shaped Aloe striata (hybrid) planted amid the blue fescue.

This, however, could be an autumn scene in Austin: Gulf muhly in flower with purple coneflower and tall verbena. Beautiful! We won’t see flowering like this in Austin for at least another month, starting in early October, so it was a treat to enjoy it in August.

Up next: Gary and Deborah Ratway’s garden and acclaimed nursery Digging Dog in Albion, CA. For a look back at the remarkable conceptual gardens of Cornerstone Sonoma, click here.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Cornerstone Sonoma showcases conceptual gardens in scenic wine country

It wasn’t easy, but I finally visited the gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma in Northern California, which have been on my bucket list for years. Due to my own poor planning, I first missed them after the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling, when I rented a car to explore up to Stinson Beach but inexplicably forgot to push on to Cornerstone. Doh!

Determined not to repeat that mistake, I planned a visit to Cornerstone during a family road trip from San Francisco to Portland earlier this month. We arrived on a beautiful, sunny day in time for lunch and then poked around in the market’s charming shops along olive-lined lanes. As the midday heat eased, I headed eagerly to the gardens — where I learned to my dismay that they were closing in 5 minutes for a wedding! As we were escorted out by staff, I watched the bride, adorable flower children, and elegantly dressed guests heading into the gardens and glowered.

Foiled? Not hardly! The next day, while my husband and daughter went zip-lining among coastal redwoods, I drove an hour back to Cornerstone for a quick visit before my hour-long return trip to pick up my family. Was it worth all that trouble? Yes! Let me show you what it’s all about.

Mediterranean Meadow by John Greenlee

Cornerstone’s gardens consist of 9 small conceptual installations created by landscape architects and designers. Each plays off a particular theme, idea, or mood. Inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-Sur-Loire (also now on my bucket list), the Cornerstone gardens were designed to be temporary and originally numbered 20. However, to accommodate the relocation of Sunset’s test gardens in 2016, they were whittled down to the 9 that remain today.

Ornamental grass expert John Greenlee designed Mediterranean Meadow, a billowy meadowscape accented by two striking sculptures: an openwork steel sphere by Ivan McLean, which allows glimpses of the swaying grasses and golden hills beyond…

…and a stacked-stone ovoid with bands of terracotta and white.

In the distance you see a tall steel mobile sculpture…

Time Killer by Diego Harris, which is currently for sale if you have a large space in need of a special something.

Peeking through a window in its steel base, I spotted another artful installation…

Daisy Border by Ken Smith. Cornerstone’s website explains:

“Composed of classic daisy pinwheels — a common garden decoration on American lawns — the border is at once artificial and natural. Made of plastic, it nevertheless registers sun, rain, and wind.”

I like the contrast between the colorful, toylike pinwheels and the muscular agaves and tawny grasses in the next garden.

Garden of Contrast by James Van Sweden and Sheila Brady

Designed by the late James Van Sweden and by Sheila Brady, Garden of Contrast is maybe the most famous of the Cornerstone gardens. I was happy to see this one! Toothy green Agave salmiana reach up to touch the dusty-green leaves of olive trees, while tawny Mexican feathergrass sways in the breeze below. Three species of plants, all of which grow in Central Texas, planted to perfection!

As Cornerstone describes it, “This design offers a new paradigm for the American Garden. The garden’s ground plane, a plant tapestry[,] combines texture and form, color and scent, while a canopy of olive trees adds a third dimension that changes in color and opacity as the seasons advance.”

In springtime, wine-colored drumstick alliums and orange California poppies thread through the grasses and agaves, adding sparks of seasonal color. I’d love to see that.

I couldn’t get enough of the contrast between muscular, stiff-leaved, saw-toothed agaves and feathery, pliable, strokable grasses. Actually I stroked the agaves too.

This agave is a monster at over 6 feet tall. Behind it, a diagonal line of rosemary bisects the garden, separating the sunny, grassy side from the olive-shaded, woodsy side.

Under the olives rests a huge steel-and-stone sphere, also by Ivan McLean, who writes:

“Noyo cobbles are the name of locally, Sonoma County area, found stones, 4″ to 8″ or so in size. It took 2 yards to fill this 60″ sphere, about 6,ooo pounds. It’s placed in a garden whose theme is ‘contrasts’, so you have the sphere made from squares and rectangles filled with round stones and a very heavy sculpture looking very light, at least that was the idea.”

In the Air by Conway Cheng Chang

I imagine plenty of engagement photos have been taken in the romantic and heart-adorned In the Air garden, designed by Conway Cheng Chang. Rebar arches help vines clamber over billowy, sedge-lined paths on one side.

On the other, a geometric arbor supports a cloud of white roses, and interlocking steel hearts playfully divide the garden in two.

Hearts and sedge

Love must be in the air.

As Cornerstone describes it:

In the Air intends to be playful and critical, spontaneous and composed. Air penetrates and circulates through all living organisms. It fills the in-between spaces and supports human life and emotions. The garden was created to reveal the form of air and in doing so help us understand and appreciate it.”

Purple clematis

And another purple clematis

Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers by Mario Schjetnan

A memorial to Mexican agricultural workers, Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers is the creation of Mario Schjetnan.

A maze of walls — red-painted plywood, corrugated steel, and rock-filled gabion — seems to reluctantly allow entry, each with photos and text about the dangers faced by migrants desperate to cross the border to find work.


A simple shrine hangs on a gabion wall, offering a place for prayers.

On the other side of the wall lie plots of edibles symbolizing the agricultural fields of California.


Eucalyptus Soliloquy by Walter Hood and Alma Du Solier

Towering eucalyptus trees line the roads in Sonoma, and Eucalyptus Soliloquy pays tribute to them. A gabion wall stuffed with eucalyptus leaf litter and a trellis screen of pinned eucalyptus leaves line a long path toward a view of a pond.

Cornerstone says, “The Sonoma landscape features eucalyptus windbreaks that divide field and vineyard. Eucalyptus Soliloquy is a conversation between distant groves and a built landscape of borrowed trees, orphan leaves, branches and seeds.”

Rise by Roger Raiche and David McCrory

Rise, designed by Roger Raiche and David McCrory, is one of my favorite gardens at Cornerstone. Its iconic steel culvert tunnel makes a playful path through the garden and seems to shrink you, Wonderland-style, to childlike dimensions as you pass through.

See what I mean? Cornerstone says:

“Rise is a celebration of color, texture, diversity, light, space and life. The plantings and landform, modeled on a natural landscape, are exaggerated to enhance the sense of separation from reality. Likewise the pipe exaggerates the sense of transition from one world into another.”

Walking through, you get a porthole view of a neighboring vineyard.

But the garden itself transports you to a tropicalesque jungle of dramatic foliage.

Sizzling! Later, Loree Bohl of Danger Garden asked me if I’d seen the Marcia Donahue garden at Cornerstone. I immediately knew she was referring to this distinctive garden.

Donahue’s artwork adorns the garden, like this tree necklace and some of her ceramic bamboo sculptures (previous photo).

More of her bamboo, at left of the tunnel.

Flowering fuchsia adds its own bright adornment, like dangling earrings.

Rise overlooks a large rectangular pond that stretches invitingly behind several of the gardens.

As you approach, hedges frame a view of the pond and ornamental grasses that overhang the far side.

Waterlily circles seem to skip across the water, echoing the rhythm of the tall grasses.

Beyond that, rows of grapevines establish their own rhythm, leading the eye to distant hills.

Bai Yun (White Cloud) by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot

Bai Yun (White Cloud) is hard to photograph but absolutely mesmerizing in person. Fluffy clouds of wire mesh, suspended by metal posts, drip with hundreds of raindrop-like crystals over a desertscape of prickly pear and white dunes. Shadows are surely an intentional part of the design as well.

Such creativity!

You can’t help musing about drought, the preciousness of water, and gratitude for rain when you look at it.

Serenity Garden by Yoji Sasaki

Along a straight main path, narrow paving strips extend on either side into a green lawn in Serenity Garden. Cornerstone says, “Each element in this garden has been carefully selected for its effect, particularly of its ability to point to or register the ever-changing aspects of nature — shadows, wind, borrowed scenery and material texture.”

I wasn’t moved by this garden, but I did stop to appreciate the rough bark of the pine trees along the back hedge.

Birch Bosque

On the other hand, I loved this bosque of birches in the garden next door. I have a thing for bosques. I find the simple geometry of tree trunks, open space, and (usually) a hedge enclosure to be very soothing.

This garden lacked signage, and it’s not included in Cornerstone’s list of gardens. A little online sleuthing told me that it was formerly a garden by Topher Delaney called Garden Play. The original blue-striped wall and rope balls no longer exist, and an enclosing hedge now frames a view of a vineyard (previous photo).

That settles it: I am going to have a bosque of my own one day. But what kind of tree, I wonder?

Pollinator Garden

Another garden not listed on Cornerstone’s website, as of this writing, is a brand-new space that I believe was labeled as a pollinator garden.

A barn-like structure (wedding venue?) with a central hallway frames it nicely.

Bright with coneflowers, salvias and more, it’s sure to be a hit with insects, birds, and people.

Children’s Garden by MIG Incorporated

The last Cornerstone garden is a children’s garden by MIG. I was struck by the fact that this kids’ space is largely organized around a mini vineyard. Starting ’em young out in wine country!

A few colorful playhouses and birdhouses on tall poles add a little kid flavor.

But really, this space is all about the grapes. Which is an appropriate way to end a post about a garden in Sonoma.

Up next: The picture-perfect Sunset Test Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.