Howdy, stranger…

On one of my garden center rounds earlier this spring I picked up a few 4″ pots of plants that were totally new to me.  My usual M.O. would be to at least Google a plant to make sure I have somewhere to plant it with the appropriate sun and soil requirements but on that day I just threw caution to the wind–after all the little 4″ guys are not too costly so I could afford to make a mistake or two.  Upon arriving home I did a bit of research and found a spot for each in the garden.  Over the next few weeks I’ll share with you how these finds have done.

I was immediately drawn to the delicately veined and heart shaped blue green leaves of Origanum rotundifolium ‘Kent Beauty’.


This ornamental oregano is a perennial cousin to the culinary oregano grown in herb gardens.  The pink and chartreuse bracts look a little like hops and tend to nod downward. While I planted mine in the ground I think a better use might be hanging over the sides of containers which are higher off the ground–giving a better view of the bracts.  Full sun and well drained soil are best.  As I am cautious with full sun for anything new in my hot summer garden, mine is sited where it gets a bit of afternoon shade.  Apparently this causes the bracts to color up less so if it makes it through the winter I might relocate it  to a bit more sun next year.

So far I am giving this one an ‘A’.  It has bloomed continuously for about 8 weeks and makes a delicate little filler which doesn’t look as though it will morph into a garden monster while my back is turned!

Mendocino madness #5 at last…

I amazed even myself by keeping fairly close to the schedule necessary to meet my goal of seeing all five gardens open to visitors for the 2016 Garden Conservancy Mendocino Open Day program.  If you are arriving late and would like to read more about the work of the Garden Conservancy and their Open Days Programs across the United States go back to my June 19th post titled “A little Mendocino madness…”

My last stop took me even further inland to the community of Hopland to see Frey Gardens.  Hopland is a hamlet just off Highway 101 about an hour north of Santa Rosa.  The climate is more like the hot, interior valley in which I live and so I was excited to see a few more beds and borders drenched in inland sun from which to get inspiration and encouragement.

Both Kate and Ben Frey were greeting guests as I entered their gardens. In the hour I spent in the gardens there was not a time I did not see them engaged with groups of visitors, naming plants and explaining drip irrigation (Kate) or talking about the property’s many unique structures (Ben).  Kate Frey is a garden consultant, designer and freelance writer who specializes in sustainable gardens that encourage biodiversity.  She had provided a table filled with educational materials to pick up and had her book  The Bee-Friendly Garden available for purchase.  It was then I recognized that her name was familiar to me from articles she has written for Fine Gardening magazine.  Kate has garden creds too numerous to mention but I do want to share that her gardens won medals in 2003 (silver-gilt), 2005 and 2007 (gold) at the Chelsea Flower Show in London, England. Ben Frey is a rescuer of wood.  He is the 10th of 12 children and both of his parents were physicians. Ben has been building things with recycled materials since he was eight years old and has spent the last 30 years rebuilding barns, wineries and old houses–using the reclaimed wood to make fanciful furniture, gates and other structures.  A trip to Switzerland kindled a fascination with the Swiss chalet style of building and the rustic home you see in the photos was built by Ben using reclaimed materials. Ben built all the structures needed for Kate’s Chelsea Flower Show prize-winning gardens.  They are truly a team in both work and life.  Check out their website for more about both Kate and Ben.


Frey Gardens is a once acre sustainable, habitat garden.  The garden is only six years old and is composed of a mix of native plants and others that attract and support a variety of insects and birds and is planted in a naturalistic style.  A vegetable garden occupies one corner and it is all connected with wide winding mulched paths.  My impression was that of a much larger property and gardens which were decades old.  There is a sense of enclosure, shutting out the real world beyond the gates and a coziness that invites you to sit a spell in the shade.  People LIVE in this garden and they LOVE it. Take a walk around with me.





Imaginative uses of all kinds of materials are visible throughout Frey Gardens. This shipping crate stores tools and equipment and the adjacent roof provides a shaded area in which to work.  The small greenhouse showcases Ben’s love of reclaimed wood.

Who wouldn’t kill for this great sink just outside the vegetable garden? The rustic trellis is smothered with blooming Campsis radicans, or Trumpet Vine.


You caught just a glimpse of the house in the first photo but you need to see more.  The raised foundation is deeply planted with a riot of shrubs and perennials.  Vines scramble up the rustic wood siding without regard to conventional wisdom.  The front porch railing, roof and second story fascia is covered by grape vines whose fruit is just starting to show.  The grapes live compatibly with a huge wisteria vine–either one of these within six feet of my siding or fascia would cause my sweet husband to drop over dead so I will be pleased to report to him that it is all thriving and the house doesn’t seem any worse for wear. Check out the great ornamentation Ben has incorporated into the fascia on the dormer windows!


The exuberance of this home and gardens and the couple who tend them both was so appealing and so encouraging that I would visit this one again and again if the opportunities arise–there would be something new at every point as perennials wax and wane throughout the season.  Feeling pretty satisfied with my Mendocino whirlwind road trip I bid the Freys goodbye, headed toward my stay for the night in Santa Rosa.  Kate reminded me to stop at California Flora in Fulton if I had the chance–all this and nursery recommendations, too!

My takeaway from Frey Gardens? Do your research–learn about the plants which are attractive to the birds, bees and bugs you want to encourage in your garden.  Manage your garden as a haven for them by offering food, water and places for shelter and nesting and minimizing or eliminating elements toxic to them.

So happy to have had y’all along for the ride but it’s now time for me to get back to work in my own little half-acre.  I’ve seen many ideas I would like to incorporate into my own garden and, as always after seeing fellow gardener’s efforts, I’ll return to it with renewed enthusiasm.

More Mendocino madness…#4

With my apple juice and jams safely packed in the cooler I headed down Highway 128 just a few short miles to the next garden, Wildwood,  on my 2016 Garden Conservancy Open Day itinerary. Even though this  family home has a Highway 128 address I had to wind quite far back into the woods along a gravel road dotted with small cottages and a barn to reach it.  A slight breeze ruffled the branches of the huge trees and the air was alive with bird sounds but there was not even a hint of road noise from the highway.

From the parking area the home was unassuming and almost anonymous in style.  As I followed the host’s direction down a short pathway the view opened to the back of home which felt European to me with a smooth stucco exterior and robin’s egg blue shutters.  Although it was past its prime bloom, a fabulous climbing rose rambled up to the second story and along the upper floor’s balcony.  Taking in the long views from the home I was entranced with a tiny log cabin at the edge of a large pond, referred to by the owners as the Pond House.  The main garden area to be visited was a very large walled potager which was almost invisible in its setting of redwoods and other tall evergreens but promised all manner of gardener’s delights.




Of course, there was a garden dog to greet me at the gate which was almost hidden from view by a pair beautiful fresh green yews.


In the French kitchen garden, or potager, gardeners have intermingled vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs since medieval times.  Plants are chosen for both their edible and ornamental natures and are put together in such a way that it looks beautiful while providing food for the household. The traditional potager contains symmetrical geometrical garden beds which surround a center element.  Wildwood’s potager was anchored by a large peach tree pruned in a manner the homeowner observed on a trip to Japan and which allows for easy harvest of the fruit. The beds were defined by loosely clipped boxwood hedges and connected by compacted earth paths.


The surrounding 4 quadrant beds were filled with vegetables and flowers.  There were at least a dozen fruit trees within the walls of the garden and additional vegetable beds surrounding the 4 quadrants, hugging the walls in areas with the most sun filled exposures. The size of the garden visitors in the picture below will give you an idea of the massive size of this enclosed garden area!



Here are two more vignettes from this all encompassing garden space, including a a shot of an very unusual variety of penstemon I covet for its unusual foliage.  The homeowner could not recall the name but did tell me the mail order nursery he ordered it from so it WILL be mine soon!

I was in awe of this massive ‘nurse log’ visible in a shady back corner of the garden. A nurse log is a fallen tree which, as it decays, provides a rich, moist setting for seeds to germinate and grow.  This nurse log was about 6 feet tall as it lay on its side and the garden’s back fence had been built to allow it to remain in place where it fell.


My takeaway from Wildwood? You can have it all–flowers, fruit, veggies and herbs.  The traditional tenets of designing a potager can be adapted to even a very small garden space providing you with tangible rewards for your efforts.


Mendocino madness #3…

The geography subtley shifted as I descended from the rocky Mendocino coastline through the deep and dark Navarro Redwood Forest and into the Anderson Valley to visit my third garden of the day.  The Anderson Valley boasts rolling green hills dotted with vineyards, orchards and small farms.  I passed many large and architecturally interesting wine tasting room as I rolled down Highway 128.  Although I am not a wine lover I am constantly amazed at the varied and unique compounds built by the wineries in the Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Valleys.  Every type of architecture is represented from metal roofed, wood sided barn like building to the most ornate re-creations of French and Italian stone castles.  Many maintain beautiful garden spaces worthy of visiting on their own merits but alas, that day, I had no extra time!

The Apple Farm is a thirty acre family farm which has been worked in harmony with the land by three generations.  The Farm, originally a rundown farm labor camp, was discovered and purchased by restauranteurs Sally and Don Schmitt in 1984 to be their homestead,  growing both food and flowers and raising their family with a connection to the land.  Their daughter, Karen, and her husband Tim Bates now manage The Apple Farm and it has developed into a multi-faceted venture.  You are greeted by the Farm Stand as you enter the property.  Fresh apples, quince and pears of many varieties are for sale along with their Farm’s own apple juice, apple cider syrup, homemade jams and jellies and much more.


The potting shed/greenhouse was created at the back of the shell of an existing building and it is there I was greeted by Karen and invited to enjoy a refreshing apple juice spritzer as we chatted about life on the farm.  The potting shed is County Living magazine material–both utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing.  I was fascinated by the common jasmine vines twined around all of the ceiling rafters.  Karen said it had escaped INTO the shed at one point and was so beautiful when it bloomed that she has simply let it have its way.  Because the potting shed has a door closed at night, a quasi greenhouse environment  has been created for the vine and it blooms about a month earlier than it would if it were outside.  Unfortunately, I missed the blooming time and she had just cut it back to encourage the new growth–it was still lovely.



The Apple Farm is a lovely setting in which to host family gatherings, weddings or just about any other event you can suggest.  Karen and her family will help gather up the professional help you might need and feed you to boot if you choose.  I got the impression that if you propose it and it is at all feasible she will work to make you dream come true!  There are many lovely settings for dining or just relaxing.  One of my favorite was this small grove of mulberry trees which have been pruned and managed to provide a leafy canopy for intimate dining.


The Farm also offers the opportunity to stay in one of their apple orchard guest cottages or in their original guest room which is now called the Room With a View.  I learned about their Stay and Cook opportunities where you stay the night and assist in the preparation of the family meal using many of the fruits and vegetables they grow.  There is no formal curriculum, just the chance to get a taste of working on a farm and taking part in preparing a shared meal.  You can go to their website to find out more about the history of the farm, the family, and the adventures you might plan to absorb a little of life on a working farm.

The Apple Farm’s garden lies just behind the potting shed.  It is exactly the right garden for this setting–relaxed and a little bit boisterous, overflowing with veggie beds and perennials and roughly enclosed by a variety of tall shrubs and fruit trees in a loose hedge like fashion. The whimsical metal rod structure of the trellised vines on one side is repeated in the freeform structures used as vegetable supports.

Food,  flowers, fruit and fun are all mixed up and invite you to come in a sit a spell to take it all in.


I took the opportunity to wander down the gravel driveway toward the closest of the orchards and was rewarded with more beautiful vignettes.



I found the Himalayan blackberry hedgerows from which Karen makes jam each year and enjoyed a long view of  one of the orchards framed by a backdrop of redwoods.

I know that what looked like a serene respite to me is, in truth, a flurry of activity.  Maintaining a working family farm takes all hands on deck and if you are not doing a task you are probably planning for what needs to be done next.  I’ll leave you with a photo that to me spoke volumes about this family farm.  These apples and all the other farm products (and animals) are lovingly tended to and nurtured by hand using sustainable farming methods.  No matter what else you do–someone’s got to climb that ladder and pick the fruit!



My takeaway from The Apple Farm? Let your garden be a reflection of the ambiance of both your setting and your lifestyle. Strive for harmony between your garden design and the surrounding structures and ornamentation.


Mendocino madness…#2

I traveled from just above the hamlet of Mendocino down Highway 1 and turned inland near the community of Albion to reach my second garden stop on the The Garden Conservancy’s 2016 Mendocino Open Garden Day—Digging Dog Nursery and its surrounding gardens.  Digging Dog is a small family run nursery, both retail and mail order, and among many of my gardening friends it falls in the ‘big dog’ category along with Plant Delights in NC and Heronswood in Kingston, WA. The folks at Digging Dog are propagators of high quality plants including tried and true garden favorites as well as new varieties which have proven themselves as versatile performers in terms of easy care, year round interest and long blooming periods.  I especially loved that most of the plants are sold in small pot sizes which encourages me to try many different plants and gives me the opportunity to tuck well developed but small root masses in my closely packed perennial beds!

I was fortunate to meet Deborah Whigham who, along with her husband Gary Ratway, founded this wonderful garden resource and are blessed to be in this garden every day.  Deborah and Gary both hold degrees in Ornamental Horticulture and Gary also has a Landscape Architecture degree.  They went in search of land on which to start their nursery in 1984 and Deborah confides that she believes they found the perfect spot—their 14 acre homestead boasts 7 acres of redwood forest and about 3 1/2 acres of gardens.  The nursery occupies about 2 acres and is composed of multiple greenhouse areas, both covered and uncovered depending on the needs of the plants. The temperate climate of the Albion Ridge is conducive to growing a wide variety of plants from all over the world. Deborah regards herself as only a co-creator of this space, in partnership with the universal forces of nature.  She has seen her gardens bear witness to the passage of time as they are ever-changing. Deborah feels she has acted as parent and nurturer to the gardens as they developed and now is the child of older, wiser and more mature gardens from whom she learns something everyday.

The gardens are home to elderly digging dogs Neptune and Maya—see 16 year old Maya below with Deborah, the adorable nursery manager Boobah (very small chihuahua on a large pillow!) and several nursery cats.  They all seem to know just how to greet visitors to take the stress of the day down a notch and might even come to join you if you sit a spell during your visit.

A small demonstration area near the front of the nursery has a selection of lovely perennials to pour over.  Nursery staff were both welcoming and a wealth of knowledge.  The demo area is surrounded by the many greenhouse plots.  It is as if the towering redwoods are holding these plants in their protection!

The gardens both border and surround the nursery areas.  Mature borders and beds showcase the variety of plants for sale, offer inspiration for plant combinations and an insight into the conditions in which specific plants are happiest.




As I meandered through many shrub walled garden rooms with the light ever-changing,  I  wonder at how each spot can seem expansive yet intimate at the same time.  I loved the use of the ‘long view’ coupled with the borrowed vistas of the surrounding terrain–I was literally drawn through the garden by the garden’s energy and the mystery of what was to be found around the next bend.

I could have spent all day in these beautiful gardens, not knowing whether I enjoyed the serenity or the energy more. Seeing so many plants which struggle in my hot valley garden perform so vigorously and lushly encouraged me to keep on trying.  The owner Deborah told me that although this past rainy season was kind to them, they are always mindful of water use and are fortunate to have the resource of 5 ponds and a 10,000 gallon storage tank on their land.


Reluctantly I retrieved my wagon of precious finds (including several new hardy geraniums) and headed to pay my bill.  On my way back to the front of the nursery I smiled to see this evidence that there is always something to be done in the garden.

My takeaway from the gardens surrounding Digging Dog Nursery?  Spend more time doing what you love.  Spending less time worrying about whatever it is being done the ‘right’ way.  Have fun with your life and your garden.



A little Mendocino madness…

The old Volvo wagon is gassed and and my sun hat packed, the snacks are safely in their cooler and I am off  to Northern California on a garden visiting adventure.  My sweet husband, preferring to spend his weekend at our mountain cabin, kissed me goodbye and uttered those words so indicative of his concern for his lovely wife wandering the wilds of Mendocino County: “Don’t call me if you run out of gas…”

The Garden Conservancy is a nationwide, nonprofit garden education program which partners with garden owners, community and professional organizations, and local volunteers to help save, preserve, rehabilitate and rescue gardens and the rich cultural heritage they embody.  The Conservancy was founded by New York gardener Frank Cabot over 25 years ago after his visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA inspired him to look for a way to help historically and horticulturally important private gardens in need of preservation.

Since 1995 the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program has been inviting gardeners to share their gardens and gardening know how with the public. Each year a directory is published listing the open gardens by state and by date, complete with brief garden bios, highlights and maps.  The 2016 directory lists gardens in seventeen states and the open days range from early April to late October.  Although many of the gardens are in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and other eastern states California is well represented with gardens in 5 counties on 7 dates.  Often the owners are on site but the garden visits are self guided and there is a small fee for each garden.  For more information about The Garden Conservancy and its Open Days Program visit their website at or or call 888 842-2442.

So I have mapped my route and my challenge is to visit the 5 open gardens (one being the gardens surrounding the fabulous Digging Dog Nursery) during their open hours of 10 am to 4 pm.  For my non California friends–Mendocino County is a lushly green, rural county give or take a 100 miles north of San Fransisco.  It enjoys a long stretch of uniquely wild and rocky coastline with fabulous views of the turbulent Pacific Ocean.  Probably less mentioned in the tourist guides is the county’s fame as the most southern part of the so-called Emerald Triangle, the largest cannabis producing region in the US.  Hey, this is a gardening blog, right?

The Mendocino coast greets me!

After a day’s drive to arrive in the town of Mendocino and a refreshing night’s rest lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the rocky shore I am on my way. Let me say that now that I have decided that every one of these inspiring gardens is deserving of its own post so this will be the first of the 5 with the remaining four installments over the next few days.  The greatest challenge of this adventure for me has been picking the photos to show you as I have so many of each garden and I just don’t want to leave any out! As these are private gardens plant material was not marked.  I chose to take many wide and long shots to show you the overall ambiance of each space rather than focus on individual specimens as I have when visiting botanical gardens. Most photos contains multiple plant varieties and even if I knew all the varieties/cultivars it is just not feasible to list them all.  Just sit back and enjoy the views…


This tranquil property is surrounded by the Russian Gulch State Park and is only a stone’s throw from Point Cabrillo Light Station, nestled between scenic Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean.  A long rural drive opens to a gorgeous heather garden which is the oldest of the garden’s elements. Beyond the sea of heather you get a peak at the charming redwood home set back from the ocean bluff enough to be protected from the strong ocean breezes.  The house provides shelter for much of the garden and its Northern European details inspired many of the garden elements.  The area between the house and the ocean bluff has been left much in its natural state which preserves the open view. My garden host, Eloy, maintains this garden which was designed by Gary Ratway of Digging Dog Nursery.

Sea of heather guides you to the Pacific Ocean
The low slung redwood home lets the view do the talking

The sunken garden was excavated to put it below the effects of the harsh winds from the ocean.  The excavated soil was used to construct rammed earth walls which not only create the garden room partitions but also act as retaining walls for the varying elevations.  A wide variety of lush plant material fill the various garden rooms (including many of my beloved hardy geraniums!)

There are vistas of the Pacific Ocean from both sides, in addition to from the front of the home. Even this beautiful property has not been exempt from trees suffering from California’s 4 year drought.


The large orchard garden is leeward of the home and boasts large meandering beds of both sun and shade plantings and a large lawn space perfect for relaxing or playing with the grandkids.


A highlight for me in this garden was seeing this great specimen of Eryngium, commonly called Sea Holly–success with this has eluded me in more than one garden.  Also a first was this brightly hued Brugmansia, or Angel’s Trumpet:

My takeaway from the Moss Garden?  The power of garden rooms, gravel pathways, repeated elements to move the eye and wide, swathes of  compatible plants. Hey, and the ocean didn’t hurt the view either!


Not your grandma’s geranium…er, pelargonium

I admit to spending a good bit of time talking about hardy geraniums over the last couple of months in my quest to make you aware what really is a geranium, as opposed to what we here in the US call geraniums which botanically are called pelargonium.  That effort is born not in my desire to bash the pelargonium world but to make more gardeners aware of the magical world of the ‘other geranium.’ Feeling that the pelargonium may need a little love from me, let me tell you a bit about them.

Pelargoniums are woody perennials, most native to South Africa, which can endure light cold but not hard frost.  The three most commonly grown species in the US are the P. x domesticum (Martha Washington), P. x hortorum (common) and P. peltatum (ivy leafed).  All of these are garden center staples. Both the ivy leafed and common pelargoniums have fleshy, succulent like leaves and are easily propagated from cuttings.  In the past few decades many species of scented geraniums have also become increasingly popular. The common names of these will usually refer to the fragrance of their leaves and most in this category are good for bed edging, in herb gardens and in some culinary/medicinal uses.

Beyond these easily recognizable groups there are many more pelargoniums to be coveted.  One of my favorites is pelargonium sidoides.  Several years ago on the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour in Orange County, my gardening girl Judi and I started our day at a garden farther north than we had generally ventured in past years.  To put this into perspective, this tour can often have 40+ gardens open and you could travel 90 miles from the most northern point to the most southern.  Given that we prefer to see as many gardens as possible rather than spend our day driving we would laboriously plot our route to get as many gardens per mile and thus never really get to the ‘outer limits.’

The description of this garden enticed us with the promise of a collection of pelargoniums which had been amassed by the homeowner over 30 years and the opportunity to purchase plants grown from his cuttings. And we were off!! We arrived at a pretty nondescript home surrounded by others just as much so until we got out of the car and a little closer–the front yard was overflowing with pelargoniums of all shapes and sizes, both planted in the ground and in pots placed strategically to let their flowers peek up behind another plant’s foliage.  The small back yard was dominated by a large greenhouse crammed with more specimens and a couple of smaller plastic sheathed growing areas.  The owner circulated among his guests answering questions and pointing out various plants.  Truly these plants were his passion and we caught a bit of the fire from him.  One of the 4″ pots I purchased from him was a fairy garden worthy stunner called pelargonium sidoides:

The dainty burgundy flowers born on slender, branching, trailing stems wave with the breeze.  They are held high over a dense mound of small, silvery gray, heart shaped leaves.  Although I have just two plants (the second being a cutting from the original purchase) I think this sweet thing would make a good small scale ground cover in areas receiving no hard frost.  Once established it can take full sun with moderate water. It blooms continuously from early spring (when the above photos were taken) to the coming of cold days in November or December.  Mine are planted perhaps a bit too close to the front sidewalk and tend to wander onto it as you can see below in the photo taken yesterday–doesn’t bother me until visitors have to actually step over it and then I’ll pinch it back a bit. I have come to understand that this pelargonium is not as uncommon as I initially assumed and I have seen it a few times since in local garden centers.  To my knowledge it does not have a common name but I am going to call it Burgundy Fairy Flower!