Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens: Colorful perennial and heather gardens

I was not expecting this. None of us were. As we made our way up Highway 1 along the coast of Northern California in early August, naturally I’d planned a few garden stops, including a visit to Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg, expecting little more than an hour or two of pleasant diversion from the road.

Had I paid better attention to the garden’s tagline on its website — “47 acres of botanical bliss fronting the Pacific Ocean” — I would have been better prepared to be blown away by the gorgeous displays.

Botanical bliss indeed

On this summer afternoon, with the usual fog rolling in off the Pacific Ocean just half a mile distant, the light was perfect for photographing the rich hues of the perennial garden, which greets you as you enter.

My family membership to the Wildflower Center in Austin got us a big discount on our admission tickets, which was nice. When I asked the staff member what she recommended we see, she urged us to close our eyes and pass quickly through the perennial garden and head straight for the ocean trail. “Most people never get that far,” she said. “Why close our eyes?” I asked. “Because otherwise you’ll get dazzled,” she said.

Well, I’ve never been able to shut my eyes to botanical beauty, and I wasn’t about to pass up perfect light for photography, so we wandered through the perennial garden two or three times, all of us dazzled. I especially love this combo of smoke tree, ‘Mardi Gras’ helenium, and tall verbena.

An ornamental grass and black-eyed Susans

I tried to find the name of this sculpture online but came up empty. What is she doing — dribbling two invisible basketballs?

Alstroemeria and poppies

Hypericum androsaemum ‘Albury Purple’

The 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 spectacular.

As the garden’s website explains, “Our mild coastal climate allows herbaceous plants from all over the world to thrive….Frequent fog acts as a cooling and humidifying blanket, reducing the intensity of the full sun, while trees shield the perennials from strong ocean winds and form an attractive backdrop.”

European weeping purple beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea Pendula’) and, I think, a purple geranium

Mounded beds mitigate wet soil from a high water table, ensuring that even dry-loving plants like thyme and sedum thrive.

‘Elfin’ thyme, ‘Red Carpet’ sedum, and Scleranthus biflorus Scotch moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’). (Thanks for the correct ID, Evan and Loree.)

Sedum, Scotch moss, and other low groundcovers make a colorful tapestry.

Weeping beech leaf and Scotch moss

Rich color contrasts

The bigger picture

Wonderful foliage

Stone herons fish at a small pond with pitcher plants.

Herons and fairy wand flower (Dierama pulcherrimum)

Cordyline ‘Jurred’ and Salvia transsilvanica, with a smoke tree echoing the cordyline’s rich color.

A wider view shows tall verbena and a coppery red yarrow.

Salvia transsilvanica and New Zealand burr (Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea’)

Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’

Anyone know this one? Update: It’s Angelica stricta ‘Purpurea’. (Thanks to everyone who commented on it!)

Yarrow echoes a golden conifer in the distance.

Pink yarrow too

Lovely color echoes and contrasts

Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Irene Paterson’

Red tussock grass (Chionochloa rubra)

Persicaria and amsonia Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’ (thanks for the ID, Evan and Lynn!)

I love this long view of twisted tree trunks and mounds of low foliage.

With fuchsia

Pink anemone

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

A stunning Dacrydium cupressinum (Rimu) from New Zealand

Here is where the garden’s acclaimed Heath and Heather Collection begins. “Heaths and heathers are beautiful, undemanding plants that require full sun, and cool soil with perfect drainage. Our mild maritime climate and sandy, acidic soils create an ideal environment for them,” the website explains.

“Heaths (Erica) have needle-like foliage blooming early winter through the summer. Heathers (Calluna) have tighter, overlapping scale-like foliage blooming late summer through the fall.”

‘Pat’s Gold’ heather (Calluna vulgaris) is on the right.

Set amid the mounding plants, Phoenix Tree, a welded-steel tree-like sculpture by Diego Harris, was for sale for $6,000. I saw another of his works on this trip, Time Killer at Sonoma Cornerstone.

‘Sister Anne’ heather (Calluna vulgaris) in the foreground

Moving on…

Green santolina (Santolina virens)

Gray New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum brevipes)

Giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea) and an unknown but beautiful dark-leaved tree — anyone know it?. Update: It’s peppermint willow (Agonis flexuosa ‘Jervis Bay Afterdark’) from Australia. (Thanks for the ID, Evan and Kris!)

Up next: Part 2 of my visit to Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, including the stunning Dahlia Garden. For a look back at dramatic coastal views along Highway 1 in Northern California, 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.

44 Responses

  1. Evan says:

    The perfect post to read while I drink my coffee. What a delight! The overcast conditions (and viewing the photos on a smaller screen, perhaps) help to reduce the visual frenzy of all those blooms. It all just looks so lush, nothing at all like my garden. The view of the foliage mounds under the twisty trunks is definitely my favorite. Looking forward to the next installment!

    I think the plant you identified as Scleranthus biflorus is actually Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’, Scotch moss. The 5-petaled white flowers and looser habit give it away. Scleranthus has even smaller flowers and a much tighter growth habit. It’s too early for Amsonia to be that yellow. I’m pretty sure that plant was actually Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’. And the purple tree at the end may be Agonis flexuosa ‘Jervis Bay Afterdark’, more commonly seen as ‘Afterdark’ or ‘After Dark’, but I’m not positive on that one.

    • I think Evan is right about the Austalian astroturf vs. Scotch moss. Remember that little patch you saw in my front garden and asked if it was moss? That was indeed Scleranthus.

      • Pam/Digging says:

        I DO remember, but it wasn’t until I got home that I realized I’d photographed that plant at Mendocino Botanical Garden too. See my reply, below, to Evan: the little circles of green were labeled as Aussie Astroturf at the garden. Do you think that was incorrect, or is it only my photo #15 that you think is misidentified? I’d like to get it right! —Pam

    • Lynn says:

      I think Evan is right about the Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, also sold as ‘Mellow Yellow’. Great golden foliage plant for mild climates – takes a winter hit in Z5-6.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks for the IDs, Evan! Do you think all the images I tagged as Scleranthus biflorus are actually Scotch moss, or just the first one? I photographed a plant label for Scleranthus biflorus with the circles of green, and then I assumed it was the same plant in photo #15. But you know what they saying about assuming anything! ;) Anyway, I appreciate the help. —Pam

  2. Gail says:

    Pam, this is one incredible garden. I have to visit. I could spend an entire weekend exploring what they offer and still not be able to choose a favorite view. Sigh, what a delight to see this beautiful place through your lens.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Gail. The place wowed all of us. Soon after we visited I met a woman traveling with her teen daughter (as we were), and when I learned she’d be in the Mendocino area I told her how great the garden was. She said, “Nah, my daughter gets bored in gardens.” Well, thank heavens my kid never balks at seeing a new one! I can’t even imagine missing so much beauty when it’s RIGHT THERE for the taking. :) —Pam

  3. Jenny says:

    Wow! Simply gorgeous and uplifting on this windy, wet day. Such gorgeous color and even the areas with only grasses are beautiful. Bet you took a gazillion photos!

  4. Oh how I wish I could follow the same route you did up the coast, and spend lots of time here! It’s gorgeous.

  5. Steve Blackwell says:

    Your photos are incredible. That is one stunning garden. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  6. Lynn says:

    Gorgeous garden, Pam – thanks for sharing. Ah, the colors! I think the red/purple clustered flower is Angelica gigas which blooms in late summer/early fall. Can’t tell for sure without seeing the foliage. They have it at Digging Dog –

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thank you, Lynn! The consensus is that you’re right on the Angelica, but that it’s actually A. sticta ‘Purpurea’. I appreciate your help in getting it ID’d. —Pam

  7. Nick says:

    I think maybe the purple umbellifer is Angelica Stricta Purpurea. The flower heads are too flat for Angelica Gigas Ebony. Perhaps.

  8. I am really enjoying going on this trip with you and your family! I went to the Garden Conservancy Open Day in Mendocino last year and was fortunate to spend time at Digging Dog and see several other gorgeous private gardens along the coast. I am kicking myself that I did not add another day to my road trip to spend at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden. Your photos are beautiful and bring the garden, like a cool breeze, right into my hot Central Valley, CA backyard. Thank you!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Mendocino is so tiny I’m kind of boggled that they have an Open Days event. But there IS some serious money there, so I’m sure that helps in terms of there being gorgeous gardens. ;) Thanks for the lovely comment, and I hope you’re able to get to the garden someday soon. —Pam

      • Kathleen Melikian says:

        You are right, Pam, the village is very tiny. The Open Day is billed as Mendocino County and the gardens were spread out from about a mile north of the village all the way south to Kate Frey’s fabulous property in Hopland. It was a very rigorous day to do them all!! Looking forward to Austin in 2018-what a great event you Texas gardeners gave birth to.

  9. Pat Webster says:

    Clearly you didn’t close your eyes to the perennial section, and thank goodness for that. But did you get to the ocean trail? I hope so… I’d love to see even more of this botanical garden.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      But of course, Pat! Unfortunately I only have one or two pics from that portion of the garden. It was wilder and therefore less structured or easily photographed. Look for that in tomorrow’s post, along with the succulent/Mediterranean garden and dahlias in full bloom. —Pam

  10. Kris P says:

    It’s an incredible garden and I’m chagrined that I haven’t made the 500+ mile drive to see it! The plant combinations are scrumptious and I’m seeing that Cordyline in an entirely new light. I agree with Evan that the tree is Agonis flexuosa ‘Afterdark’ and with Kathleen on the Angelica ID.

  11. ks says:

    I love this garden and try to visit as often as I can -last time was in spring, next is in October. Love your photos ! You must have had one of those great marine layer days.Looking forward to the Dahlias-they will likely be done for when I go out in late Oct. Lynn is correct re:Angelica, but this is A. stricta purpurea which is biennial and reseeds freely there.

  12. Sonia says:

    I knew that was you, I should have just blurted out your name. I saw you walking down the sidewalk in Mendocino with your family and I thought it was you but I wasn’t sure so I checked your blog and there wasn’t a post from there so I thought I was wrong. Should have just yelled out “Hey, are you that famous garden blogger”?

    Great pics!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      No, really!? That’s pretty funny, Sonia, but just proves what a small world it is — at least the gardening world — thanks to the internet. :) So, were you visiting too, or do you live there? And have you made it to Mendocino Botanical Gardens? —Pam

      • Sonia says:

        I live here in Austin and my husband and I were taking our little Airstream down the coast to escape the heat for the summer. We were only in Mendocino for lunch and a quick walk around so I missed the gardens but seeing these pictures is making me kick myself now.

  13. 47 Acres!!! You could have stayed there several days to see it all. Absolutely a wonderment. The round green growing thing looks like what we call Irish Moss here. I can’t grow it due to the heat and dry during summer. It always looks good during spring.I guess I don’t water enough for it. So many plants here are new to me. Great to see through your lens.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Despite the size, we were able to see most of the garden, Lisa. Much of those 47 acres is designated as natural areas. We did miss the rhododendron collection (out of season) and vegetable garden and orchard. Next time! —Pam

  14. hb says:

    I have visited in late October–not nearly as spectacular then, but it’s been a few years and Digging Dog was not involved back then.

    A coastal climate does amazing things for certain plants–with constantly mild temperatures they are twice the size and beauty. Oh, to live and garden on the California coast!

    I’m glad you didn’t shut your eyes and head for the coastal trail!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Actually Gary Ratway designed the Perennial Garden way back in 1980, just before he and Deborah founded Digging Dog. He was the MCBG’s first director too.

      That fog-moistened landscape sure does grow some beautiful gardens, doesn’t it? —Pam

  15. Alison says:

    Wow! What a fabulous garden! I’m so glad you stopped and found the time to take lots of pictures to share. So many great combos.

  16. That’s truly extraordinary Pam. In fact, the word extraordinary doesn’t even cover it. I wonder if all the rain they’ve had this year helped the show to be even better. It probably did. Oh, those combinations. You were fortunate to visit it on that day with the perfect light. Thanks for taking us along.~~Dee

  17. Diana Studer says:

    That vivid blue in your first pictures is Lobelia, from South Africa.

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