Every August we head for mists and fogs, usually those that creep on cat’s paws and shroud the coastline of Oregon. But this year, squeezed by budget and time constraints, we took the advice of Far Out Flora and Gardenbook and opted to give the much-closer Northern California coast of Mendocino a try as a stand-in for the Oregonian fog and mists we’re always parched for by August. Kathy of the blog Gardenbook escorted a group of gardeners to Digging Dog Nursery and Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in July of 2010, a trip I was very sorry to miss. I had visited Digging Dog many years ago, long before their display gardens had grown in and become a garden travel destination near the little town of Albion, so a trip back was long overdue.
So last Thursday, all scrubbed and packed, we headed to the Mendocino coast north of San Francisco, about a 10-hour road trip from Los Angeles.
And other than one overnight en route in San Francisco, this summer we were camping, something I haven’t done in over a decade. We packed a bare minimum of camping gear, in case we decided it was simply too awful to endure, reasoning that after making an honest effort there’s no shame in retreating to a motel. But I’d forgotten that camping in a state park is not unlike a rustic motel — showers, bathrooms, firewood for sale. In other words, not much of a challenge even for a camping sissy such as myself. Maybe a thicker pad under the sleeping bags next time.
An interesting twist was no cell phone connection for three days. Abrupt and total electronic detoxification. That might have been the best part.
Mendocino reminds me quite a bit of Cornwall, England, and Big Sur, California, too, without the vertiginous hairpin road trip part of the journey.
Mendocino Headlands State Park, day use only but kayak heaven.
Home of the banana slug.
Camping is great and all, but the highlight for me was visiting Digging Dog again. Entering the gate, after the digging dogs are petted, you are handed a clipboard with a catalogue and blank plant labels and pencil and set loose to wander the grounds and purchase plants at will. I hardly recognized the grounds, since they’ve matured into a garden that reminds me in style of what Nori and Sandra Pope had accomplished at Hadspen House in England. Deep borders backed now by mature hedges against which are filled infinite forms and rich, saturated colors that last and last in the cool mists of Mendocino, giving even late summer a spring-like freshness. The detailed, intricate plantings designed by Deborah Whigham and her husband Gary Ratway carry the gardens strongly through every season, with late summer well represented. The owners are both obviously besotted with the textural wonders and colors perennials offer, buttressed and juxtaposed with shrubs, grasses, and bulbs in bloom, which in August included spectacular clumps of Gladiolus papilio and lots of eucomis.
I took very few pictures since I was on the prowl for plants and had left both man and dog waiting in the car. When I couldn’t find Scabiosa ochroleuca, I asked Deborah for help, and we fell into a conversation veering in subject from Piet Oudolf to changing tastes in plants, all the time wandering in and out of the growing houses, wherein she’d lead me to a particular favorite, and I’d promptly add that one to my basket. Exotic umbellifers like Ligusticum scoticum, the Scottish Lovage, with thick, succulent-like leaves, and Selinum wallichianum. Even familiar plants, such as Verbena bonariensis, have a special Digging Dog magic. Mine are all awkward angles and elbows, pitching and heaving over as though storm-tossed. These have slimmer, tapered flowers, and maintain a disciplined, upright habit of growth.
Deliriously happy plants like these eryngiums.
Wonderful, seldom-seen shrubs like Bupleurum fruticosum.
I asked Deborah if there was anything she wanted to grow and couldn’t. Cold was not an issue, just winter wet. All she could think of was agastaches, though ‘Black Adder’ looked pretty happy to me. The kniphofias are a Digging Dog specialty.
Indeed, the roadsides of Mendocino are full of wild kniphofias, Queen Anne’s Lace, and the perennial sweet pea, Lathyrus latifolius, which I discovered as we drove on to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, where Digitalis lanata made me dizzy with desire. Grown here in full sun, but most references list it for shade.
And the infamous umbellifer, Angelica stricta ‘Purpurea’ growing lustily like bronze fennel.
Lobelia tupa was grown extensively at both Digging Dog and the MCBG.
MCBG’s dahlia festival was ongoing, and I was hoping the botanic garden’s sophistication would extend to the dahlia selections, which disappointingly wasn’t the case. But this part of the botanic garden was a mob scene, with every plant seemingly attracting pollinators of a human kind, bent over the blooms with a camera proboscis. The dahlias were grown like a science experiment in tomato cages in borders surrounding a central lawn, and they were of the graceless, gigantic kind found in old-fashioned catalogues that show a child next to the plant and over-sized bloom for size comparison. The only use I could imagine for such plants would be segregated out into a cut flower garden, but I heard a man sigh, “If only my garden looked like this!”
This one named ‘Teddy’ was more graceful in bearing and looked like it had the makings of a good garden plant.
The timing of blooms on the Mendocino coast was mystifying. Early-blooming plants like cistus and romneya were in still in flower, but so were the crinums/”naked ladies” and fall-blooming cyclamen.
Autumnal colors. Smoke tree, heleniums and rudbeckia.
This Kniphofia thompsonii var. snowdenii is starting to rebloom in my garden, spikes about 2 feet tall. It has, however, never looked like this, brandishing orange spears over 5 feet in height, similar in effect to eremurus. One of the great virtues of garden visiting is encountering a familiar plant but much better grown — and then deciding if its paler performance in your garden is worth keeping.
And so home again, loaded with new plants to try. See bottom of the list of Recent Plant Purchases.
One last note to document a weird coincidence. Just before leaving I received an email asking if I knew of a source for Echeveria agavoides ‘Ebony,’ and I had to regretfully answer that I currently knew of no source.
I was able to write back upon return that I now know of a source, and it is the nursery Cottage Gardens of Petaluma, about 40 minutes north of San Francisco. There sat the rarity in one of their raised-bed display gardens, and I was told that a few offsets will be up for sale in about three weeks. And the gentleman I spoke with, possibly the owner Bruce Shanks, confirmed that he presently knew of no other source other than the few he propagates from his mother plant.