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.

33 Responses

  1. Nell says:

    I’ve wanted to go on a virtual tour of the DD garden for so long, and here it is, in stunning detail! Thanks, Pam; bookmarking for repeated savoring.

  2. Kris P says:

    Having perused Digging Dog’s on-line catalog, I’d wondered what the nursery looked like. Thanks for sharing your tour!

  3. Lori says:

    Between here and IG, you are seriously giving me a blueprint of the roadtrip I clearly need to take!

  4. What a fabulous tour of this wonderful nursery, Pam. So much to see, I will have to go through your pics again. Love the color of that eryngium. I planted three ‘Miss Willmott’s ghost” last year, but only one survived the winter and it didn’t flower. Great post. P. x

  5. I’ve ordered some great plants from them and have always wanted to see the nursery. So thanks for this fabulous post. Their place is as impressive as I’d imagined.

  6. Wow, Pam – what great photos. This looks like a wonderful garden. I have several boxes of plants arriving from them next month…might need to add some of those Stachys and Sanguisorba.

  7. Judy says:

    I have ordered from the nursery for years and always wanted to see their gardens. My first thought upon seeing some of your pictures was how fitting the garden is for the local landscape. I love Gary’s use of tall grasses and meadow plantings.

    Hopefully, you got to take in the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens while you were near Digging Dog.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. After seeing this place are you ready to move and start a new garden?? I am. :)

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Ha! I just hope all those Northern Californians and Pacific Northwesterners realize how good they have it as gardeners. It IS a little hard to wander through their lush, plant-rich gardens in midsummer and know that we can never have gardens like that. BUT, and this is a big but, we can and should embrace the unique climate we each have and run with it. You do you, Indiana do Indiana, Texas do Texas.

      And the West Coasters can do everything. Hah! :) —Pam

  9. Peter/Outlaw says:

    So much to love about this garden! I’d seen their online catalog before. Thanks for the virtual tour.

  10. Evan says:

    Captivating photos, Pam! The views of the garden just kept getting better and better until I was completely sucked in. The silver pears, the sanguisorba with the grasses, the walls! My favorite areas were the more mixed, shady borders. I’ll have to include this garden in my list of places to visit when I’m able to make such a trip. That cool, coastal weather is my favorite. Someday I hope to live in a place like that.

    That coppery, peeling trunk looks more like an Acer griseum than a manzanita, particularly with the lush plants surrounding it that would require more summer water than an Arctostaphylos would tolerate.

  11. Heather says:

    What an impeccably designed AND maintained garden! Magical place I bet! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Alison says:

    This was a very enjoyable post. I’ve been very curious about their garden and nursery. I’ve been putting an order together for a while, I really should get it done.

  13. What a wonderful post. I still haven’t been to Digging Dog but now I definitely want to. The display gardens look HUGE!

  14. Donna Jones says:

    So funny… I just started following you because we just visited Texas… now you’re in my own backyard covering my favorite sites! Such fun! Glad you are enjoying California gardens!

  15. Angela says:

    Magical! Can’t wait to see it in person… NEXT WEEK! :-))

  16. […] perennial garden was designed by Gary Ratway, whose own remarkable garden I’d just visited at his and his wife Deborah’s Digging Dog Nursery, so I should have realized it would be […]

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