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.

Garden Dialogues with John Fairey at Peckerwood

Heading east through pine country toward Hempstead, Texas, I arrived after a couple of hours on the road at Peckerwood Garden last Saturday. The draw, aside from a chance to see this beautiful 45-year-old garden again, was to hear its creator, John Fairey, talk about it in conversation with Houston landscape architect Keiji Asakura.

Part of The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s Garden Dialogues series, this was my second Garden Dialogues (and third CLF event), and I find them valuable for a chance to hear about design directly from garden creators including landscape architects, designers, artists, and self-taught master gardeners like John Fairey.

As I took my seat (wow, what a stunning location for a garden talk, right?) and read the brochure for the event, I was startled and pleased to see that I was quoted in it — anonymously, but still! The quote came from my 2012 article about John Fairey for Garden Design magazine:

“John has expanded the palette of plants for gardeners in the South, Southeast, and Texas,” says [Bill Noble, director of The Garden Conservancy]. “His garden has a lot to teach.” After a lifetime of teaching, Fairey remains himself an eager learner, continually experimenting with plants and treating his garden as an artist’s canvas on which he paints with light, foliage, and even the wind.

How about that!

The garden that afternoon was indeed painted with light.

And although there wasn’t much wind, a congregation of filament-foliaged Mexican grass trees (Dasylirion longissimum) gently shimmied as air currents caressed them.

Painting with wind and foliage

Sarah Newbery, Peckerwood’s foundation board president, introduced Mr. Fairey and his interviewer, Mr. Asakura.

For the next hour or so, they conversed about how the garden came to be, the plant collections, lessons learned, and Mr. Fairey’s plant-hunting expeditions. I’d heard some of the stories before, but others were new, and it was wonderful to be part of an intimate group of keenly interested garden lovers from Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, and other cities who’d come to listen and learn and pay homage to a man who’s done so much to advance our knowledge about rare plants and gardening in Texas.

I took a few notes on my phone:

Mahonia is Mr. Fairey’s favorite plant collection. He’d like a better collection of cycads.

The light, mystery, magic of the garden — that’s what he wants visitors to appreciate.

His number-one design advice: start with your inside views and design outward from that. Number two: consider positive and negative space when planting trees and shrubs in order to create rooms and define spaces within the garden.

Visit Edward James’s garden Las Pozas in Xilitla, Mexico. It’s all about space. Also, go visit the ethnobotanical garden in Oaxaca, Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca — “one of the great gardens of the world.”

After the conversation and questions from the audience, we were invited to walk through the garden. Sarah Newbery pointed out plants and features and gave us more of the history of the garden.

As I strolled along I struck up conversations with other attendees and met such interesting people as Carolyn Kelley, one of the landscape architects who designed the plaza and gardens at Austin City Hall (for my post about the City Hall gardens, click and scroll halfway down). I also met designer Richard Hartman of The Plant People in Fort Worth and Adam Black, Peckerwood’s lion-maned director of horticulture.

A gate constructed out of plow discs, with a wood-and-wire trellis fence and arbor screening John Fairey’s private residence from the larger garden

The dry garden near Mr. Fairey’s house is one of my favorite areas, with a kaleidoscope of bold form and texture. The vertical pleats of the tall cacti (and who knew these would grow in southeast Texas?!) echo the vertical lines of the home’s steel siding.

Abstract sculptures reside in the garden too, like this wedge-shaped vertical piece holding its own amid bold-leaved palms and agaves.

One more look

Thanks for another great visit, Peckerwood, and for another interesting garden discussion from The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

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 Daylily Society is organizing a free garden tour on Sunday, May 28, from 10 am to 2 pm. Four private gardens featuring lots of daylilies will be open to the public, including Tom Ellison’s lovely Tarrytown garden.

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers 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.

Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy created to revitalize Austin’s botanical garden

For 23 years I’ve been a regular visitor at Zilker Botanical Garden, strolling its paths, picking my way across the Japanese garden’s moon bridge, watching the prehistoric garden grow into maturity. My children had a blast exploring its trails when they were younger, and I’ve enjoyed witnessing the garden’s seasonal changes.

One thing I haven’t enjoyed, though, is seeing Zilker Garden decline due to understaffing and budget cuts by the City of Austin, which operates the garden through its parks department.

In recent years I’ve noticed that limestone paths are crumbling, streams have run dry and ponds have sprung leaks, and planting beds seem a little forlorn (with the exception of the always impeccable Hartman Prehistoric Garden). Despite the best efforts of volunteers who help with garden maintenance and garden club members who work hard to fundraise for the garden, Zilker Botanical Garden has lost its shine.

It’s painful to say this about a place that I love, but Zilker Garden is not so much a botanical garden as an urban park with some pretty plants and a great deal of history that’s worth preserving (especially the Taniguchi Japanese Garden). And that’s a huge shame since Zilker Garden, located in Zilker Park with a view of downtown, has so much potential to wow visitors and give residents a place to delight in a truly beautiful garden in the urban heart of Austin.

Cat Newlands, executive director of Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Cat Newlands.

Happily, that transformation is now underway thanks to the efforts of Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy, which was established in 2015 to improve ZBG through fundraising, physical improvements, program development, and transitioning day-to-day operations from Austin Parks and Recreation Department to the conservancy. Nine months ago, Austinite Cat Newlands was hired to head the conservancy. I sat down with her a few weeks ago to talk about the conservancy’s plans for Zilker Garden and how they’ll get there. Here is our interview, edited for brevity and style.

Pam Penick: What is Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy working on right now?

Cat Newlands: Raising money and visibility for the garden is our top priority. The conservancy has a new website to manage donations. We’ll begin taking control of tasks currently being run by Austin Area Garden Council (AAGC) or City of Austin Parks and Rec. So we’ll begin absorbing the gift shop and garden festival from AAGC and then gate and admissions and event scheduling from Parks and Rec. Later we’ll take on full management of the grounds. We’re planning for a robust public-private partnership with the city, where we’ll lease the land for something like 30 years with two 30-year extensions, similar to the Waller Creek Conservancy. Over time all the garden will be under the conservancy’s management.

PP: What is the Austin Area Garden Council (AAGC), and how does it fit with the conservancy’s efforts?

CN: AAGC is a council of 32 garden clubs, which was formed in 1955. They’ve always had fundraising to develop the garden, like the annual Zilker Garden Festival, and they built the Zilker Garden clubhouse in partnership with the city. They run the gift shop. We’ll keep them operating as a nonprofit, and hopefully their focus can shift to advocacy for the garden clubs and growing their membership base, which has declined. The conservancy was born in partnership with AAGC people who were dedicated to seeing the garden come back to life and with city parks staff who say, “We have this gem, and we just can’t keep up.”

Zilker is still a very serene and green place in the heart of the city, but it can be so much more.

PP: Is there any resistance at the AAGC to the conservancy taking over fundraising and management of the garden?

CN: In theory, everybody’s on board. To be fair, the 1,000 to 1,500 members of the AAGC clubs are a little nervous about what they might be seeing next and what their role will be, and what kind of changes this will mean for them. But most are really open to it. And they were very supportive with an end-of-year campaign. They showed up at about 7 times our goal.

PP: What will the master plan for ZBG look like?

CN: We’d like to see an expansion of the children’s and edible gardens. We’d like more mixed plantings and themed areas rather than single-plant display beds. We might move some of the smaller beds and gardens — the daylily garden and iris garden — but mostly we’ll extend into the undeveloped areas of the garden. We’ll do request-for-proposals to have a design firm develop the first phase of our master plan. The city is supporting that expense in part.

We should have a completed master plan within the next 3 years. We’re going to focus significantly more on the hardscape than on what goes in each garden — for example, making sure we have an event space and a wedding venue. Other botanical gardens have planted first and then had to go back and redo their master plan [once they realized they needed spaces they didn’t plan for].

PP: As ZBG evolves, what will differentiate it from Austin’s other major public garden, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center?

CN: We’re more like a zoo in that we can display exotic plants simply because they can grow here. [The Wildflower Center grows only plants native to Texas.] We’re not in competition with each other. You’re not going to go to the Wildflower Center and see a Japanese Garden, for example.

PP: What does ZBG’s staffing look like these days?

CN: The city has brought in Cindy Klemmer to manage the garden and preserves. She comes from San Antonio Botanical Garden and has a long history working at botanical gardens across the country, including at Longwood. Her vision for ZBG is a botanical garden.

We have 6 people on staff on garden maintenance, which is below the national average. The parks department readily admits that ZBG is neglected, as are all of Austin’s parks, because their dollars do not stretch as far as they need to. We also don’t have as many volunteers as we used to. The number of volunteers from the garden clubs has drastically decreased. I think a lot of that has to do with an aging membership. The clubs struggle to get new, younger members. But the parks department has done a good job of finding groups that are willing to volunteer and do work hours in the garden. We’ve had volunteers from local tech companies, for example.

PP: As the conservancy takes on garden operations, will you offer membership?

CN: Yes, we will eventually offer membership. We’re trying to figure out how to do it with the city. It will be a lot easier if we wait until we have control of the gate [admissions]. The city is incredibly supportive. Mayor Steve Adler is coming to our Starlight Social and doing the ask of the group [for fundraising].

PP: What is the Starlight Social?

CN: Starlight Social is our first big conservancy-hosted event. It’s a “we’re here” event. We’ll introduce attendees to the work we’ve done and what we’re trying to accomplish. There’s a lot of opportunity for volunteering, fundraising, sponsoring things.

We’re going to showcase the garden’s streambed repair. There was a large leak in the stream between the Japanese garden and the rose garden, and we did a full repair in addition to upgrading the landscaping around it and the water plants that are in it. Environmental Survey Consulting worked on it, and the plants were donated by Taniguchi Architects. (Owner Evan Taniguchi is the grandson of Isamu Taniguchi, the founder and designer of the Japanese Garden. He’s also on the conservancy board.) We’ve also added mixed plantings to the rose garden and have almost doubled the size of the oak grove, our event space. The Starlite Social will be held in the oak grove.

CN: Tickets cost $100, but 100% of ticket sales will go into improvements in the garden. We’ll also have a small silent auction to raise funds. But the primary purpose is to introduce ourselves to people we hope will want to continue to be involved with us.

PP: What is your background?

CN: I’ve spent 20-something years in nonprofits. I came here from Skillpoint Alliance, which does workforce development. I’m from Austin but spent 17 years in the Seattle/Tacoma area. The work attracted me to Zilker Botanical Garden. I came here as a kid. For me it was an opportunity to be part of a startup and be part of an Austin entity.

PP: Do you like to garden?

CN: I’m not a gardener. I’m not good at gardening. But I think it’s been beneficial to have someone who’s not a gardener come in. My perspective is what makes sense for the business.

Starlight Social graphic

My thanks to Cat for her time in talking with me. I’ll be cheering on the conservancy as it works on raising Zilker Garden’s profile and transforming it into the downtown gem it’s meant to be.

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 — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The upcoming talk with James deGrey David has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

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