A Visit to the Gardens of Digging Dog Nursery
by Mary Jasch
A visit to the Gardens at Digging Dog Nursery in Albion California is like stepping into Paradise for a while. Boisterous blossoms amid statuesque trees and creative manipulations of woody plants and earth absorb the mind and spirit immediately.
Each flower is gorgeous and worth the trip. Roses so lush you can moisturize your face, their petals drip to the ground as if posing for a Dutch masterpiece. I am distracted only by the hum of bees and the scent of jasmine, rose and mock orange in the sun.
Slipping through the arch in the 14-foot clipped beech hedge, shade plants bloom such as red Rodgersia. Others in bud or leaf are perfectly on display, ready in green dress. Golden mock orange fully loaded with fragrance inspires Lance Casper: “I could go home and take a bath in it,” he says.
Across the mowed grass path in the sun, roses look like yummy cupcakes with butter icing; they shake out yellow and turn white. Jewel-like pink astrantia is suddenly my favorite flower!
Around the bend, the hedge becomes hornbeam. More roses front the hedge, so does a Cornus capitataTiny white bells cover tidy mounds of Parahebe linifolia, a miniature shrub from New Zealand that blooms all year. “It makes a perfect hedging for a superboisterous border,” says Deborah Whigham, owner with her husband Gary Ratway.
Silver-leaf pear are in training over a 4-foot yew hedge to form a long, silver arbor and thick South African Restio fills a central steel blue urn. Around a hedged third side, shrubs and grasses lead to pale pink and white arching roses in training where we pop out into the nursery with smaller, tantalizing versions of the exquisite draping plants.
The concept for the Digging Dog gardens is “structured informaility,” says Whigham, “to have clearly defined architectural elements and long, wild, boisterous plantings backed by hedges. We like order but crave chaos, otherwise we wouldn’t have amusement parks.” This garden’s tightly edged borders are soft and billowing. “The tension of contrast keeps you captivated in successful plantings. And similar elements carry the eye through plantings,” says Deb, who uses Thalictrum ‘Elins’ and boxwood balls to accomplish this.
Beyond the clipped hedges and flambouyant borders, Ratway dug five ponds for bio-retention basins and built land forms (small scale pyramids) with the dug earth, then planted them solidly with luminescent silver teucrium. A sight to behold! Nearby, tall pillars of hornbeam appear almost human and Whigham says, “Especially if you’re alone down here you almost expect them to start moving.”
Gary Ratway started his first nursery back in the ‘80s on the land that would become Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden (he was its first director). When the Garden became public, he moved the nursery to Albion but his design business took off. Ratway is a landscape architect. Whigham was a weaver but grew tired of sitting and discovered that plants are rather like weaving, but much more fun. She took over the nursery while Gary brought home choice plants from Europe. They started out as wholesale but switched to retail mail order. “To survive up here, we had to do the national scene.” (In 2010, the population of Albion was 196 and 14,000 in the nearby city of Fort Bragg.)
Having a national market, Digging Dog grows plants that will thrive anywhere: North Dakota, Palm Springs and happily to Maine. They are one of the top nurseries for drought tolerant shade plants and South African Zone 6 plants.
Why the name “Digging Dog?”
Modeled after her personal story and children’s book., says Whigham: “We took a three week trip and spent a lot of time on an Indian reservation. I wanted to adopt all the dogs I saw there. On the way home, it was snowing so hard we couldn’t see the road. We stopped to put on tire chains. All of a sudden out of all the snowflakes I saw this little face that blended in with the snow. He jumped in the car. He was like magic, just a little mutt of fluffy champagne.”
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published June 20, 2014