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.

Planting an agave is a thorny endeavor

Last weekend, after creatively wrestling this bad boy out of the car, my family helpers and I slid it onto a utility cart and rolled it into the back yard. This new whale’s tongue agave to replace Moby, while far from mature-size, is still large enough at 15 gallons to make planting — heck, even unpotting — a challenge. Especially as I would be planting it on my own, with everyone else at work or school.

For the uninitiated, whale’s tongue agaves, like most agaves, are well armed, with hooked thorns along the edge of every leaf and a sharp terminal spine at the end. The leaves are stiff (meaning they can poke you good) but also fragile; if you tip the plant on its side, the leaves can break and your beautiful plant will be permanently marred.

So how to plant it? First of all, you must wear eye protection. I recommend wrap-around safety goggles. You also need thick work gloves, sturdy and protective shoes, and, if you’re smart, a long-sleeved work shirt and pants. I wore short sleeves because it was hot, and I caught a few spines along my arm.

A mere flesh wound — no biggie. Definitely protect your eyes though.

After removing Moby last fall, I cleaned years of decomposing leaves out of the planting bed and added a yard of gravelly soil. It had settled over the winter, so it was prepped and ready for easy digging. I dug a hole just a little wider than the pot (since the soil was already loose, not compacted; otherwise, I’d have dug a wider hole to loosen things up for growing roots) and exactly as deep as the root ball. You don’t want an agave to settle deeper after a few rains; that leads to rot. So plant it high, but don’t leave the root ball exposed.

But first things first: how to actually unpot and plant this monster? I had to get creative. The plant was very heavy, but I was able to roll it close to the hole on the utility cart. I carefully slid it off the cart (this may have been when it bit my arm) and wrestled it over to the hole.

Tipping it over to unpot was impossible due to its weight and all those spines, plus I didn’t want to risk breaking the leaves. Instead I leaned the pot against a mound of dug-out dirt in order to access the bottom of the pot. Using tin snips, I cut the nursery pot off the plant, starting at the bottom drainage hole and working my way up. It cut more easily than I expected, and the pot was opened up in just a few minutes…

…revealing a mass of roots that had circled around the pot because there was nowhere else to go. I did what I do with all plants that are rootbound: I took a sharp tool (a shovel, utility knife, or pruning saw will work) and made deep, vertical cuts in four places on the lower half of the root ball. I also teased loose the roots circling around the top of the pot. It may seem like you’re hurting a plant to cut into its roots like that, but it actually encourages the roots to stop circling and grow outward into the soil.

Getting the agave into the hole proved tricky too. Because of its spines and weight, I couldn’t just pick it up and plop it in. I sat on the ground, leaned under the leaves (wearing my safety goggles!), and rocked the plant from side to side to edge it close to the hole. Then I leaned back and pushed with my legs to try to control its slide into the hole. Somehow it worked, and I didn’t even get stabbed! I backfilled soil, patted it firm, and stood back to admire Moby2. I’ll mulch this bed with gravel for good drainage — maybe after the live oak leaf drop, which seems to be starting early this year.

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

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

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.

Time to repot agave bulbils — i.e., Moby spawn

Two months ago Moby, my big whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia), bloomed and sent up a tree-sized flower stalk, on which hundreds of bulbils (baby agave clones) eventually formed. You can read all about that here and here.

I kept them misted through the last weeks of summer, but lately it’s turned cool and rainy — something agaves don’t like very much. Now that they’ve had time to root, I’ve given many of them away to friends near and far. One of those, Jenny at Rock Rose, told me she unpotted hers and found long roots circling the 4-inch pot, so I knew it was time to replant those I intend to keep. I selected 6 nice ones and gently shook the damp soil from their fragile roots. I bought 6 Italian terracotta pots from Shoal Creek Nursery (Italian terracotta doesn’t crack when it freezes like Mexican terracotta)…

…bagged cactus potting soil, and perlite to improve drainage and avoid root rot. (Pumice would be preferable to perlite, which floats, but I didn’t have any on hand. Next time I’ll order in advance.) The sales guy at Shoal Creek advised washing the perlite in a colander to flush out excess fluoride and to keep it from blowing around, which was easy thanks to this handy plastic colander and scoop from Tubtrugs, which I won as a door prize at this summer’s Garden Bloggers Fling.

Next I mixed one part cactus mix with one part perlite and filled the terracotta pots, first placing a small square of fiberglass mesh screening material over the drainage hole in the bottom. This is optional but helps keep out ants and hold the soil in place while still allowing water to drain freely.

With each pot filled partway, I placed a baby agave in the pot so the roots were spread out and down and then added more soil, gently pressing it around the plant.

Here they are, all potted up.

Gravel or rock mulch keeps the perlite from floating to the top of the soil when you water, plus it insulates the soil and gives a finished look to container plants. I bought vase-filler river stones and gravel at Target and spread a layer of black river stones atop each pot.

That’s better! For now they’re basking in the gentle autumn sun on the deck rail. Grow, Moby spawn, grow!

I still have some Moby babies left in my mobile potting station (a Gorilla Cart that I’ve covered with metal screening to keep out squirrels). Most of these are going to friends who’ve called dibs on a pup or two. But I hope to have a few leftover next spring to give away to a lucky reader or two! But wait — what’s that on the left?

Babies from a ‘Bloodspot’ mangave that bloomed months ago and finally produced bulbils of its own! Yes, I’m officially addicted to potting up bulbils. Grow, mangaves, grow!

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

What’s hot in garden design — or about to be? I interviewed designers and retailers across the U.S. to find out! Natural dye gardens, hyperlocalism, dwarf shrubs, haute houseplants, sustainability tech, color blocking, and more — check out my 2017 Trends article for Garden Design and see if anything surprises you.

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.