Garden rooms and an ocean view in Mendocino

Every summer I look forward to the Garden Conservancy's Open Days. This year I finally made it to an Open Days event in Mendocino on the North Coast. I met up with fellow bloggers Kathy of GardenBook and Denise of A Growing Obsession so I not only saw two fantastic gardens, I did it in the company of like-minded friends. In addition, I finally got to visit fabled Digging Dog Nursery, located deep in the woods just south of Mendocino—more on that in separate post.

The first garden we toured was a 3-acre spread overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Since it's right next to Russian Gulch State Park, it seems even larger. As you will see in the photos below, it is a spectacular blend of colors, shapes and textures. In fact, there are several distinct gardens coexisting side by side, each one self-contained and able to stand on its own, yet connecting seamlessly to the others.

The first area you see as you approach the house is an expansive heather garden planted with a variety of Erica. The softly undulating forms of the heathers look wind-worn, as if shaped by the harsh winds off the Pacific Ocean. There was great contrast even now; I can only imagine how beautiful the heather garden must be in the fall and winter.

I believe the house you see is on the property, but it's not the main residence. Maybe it's a guest house?

The perfectly trimmed bushes on the perimeter, Pacific wax myrtle (Morella californica) and bush germander (Teucrium fruticans), echo the mounded forms of the heathers.

A large matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) explodes from the rounded topiary shapes like a green fountain:

A round patio off to the side of the heather garden features Mediterranean perennials with grayish green leaves and a rustic stone bench:

Since the main house is partially hidden behind all the vegetation, the entry gate becomes an even more important element:

Rammed-earth walls and columns in the front and on the south side of the house define the space and create a sense of timelessness. The columns made me think of an old ruin, as if they were remnants of a structure that stood here many decades ago. As it turns out, the rammed-earth elements were created from the soil that was excavated to create the sunken garden you'll see in little while. 

The path next to the south side of the house...

...takes you to a wide open meadow overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Closer to the house, mounding grasses with tan-colored seed heads move in the slightest breeze.

Here is the view of the Pacific Ocean:

Even the wood stack, weathered gray, is photogenic: 

Now we're in the sunken garden. It's laid out on an axis with the master bedroom and features rigid lines, creating a sense of formality in distinct contrast with the naturalistic flow of the heather garden. Another row of rammed-earth columns delimits the sunken garden on the north side. Finally Kathy realized that this garden had to be have been designed by Gary Ratway, the co-owner of Digging Dog Nursery. And she was right. In fact, if this garden looks familiar, you might have seen it in the Spring 2018 issue of Garden Design Magazine (pp. 138-140). Written by Pam Penick, the same article also shows Digging Dog's display gardens and Gary Ratway's personal garden.

Gary Ratway likes to create enclosed garden rooms with distinct visual boundaries that hide what's beyond. This not only makes the space seem larger than it really is, it also allows visitors to explore the garden one layer at a time instead of seeing everything at once.

Eryngium 'Sapphire Blue'

Another mainstay of a signature Gary Ratway design are steps carpeted with small flowering plants. This not only adds an unexpected element of beauty, it also slows visitors down because they focus on what's at their feet instead of walking on without looking down.

More than anything else, this is what I will remember most about this unique garden.

Elevation changes and transitions suggest you're about to go from one distinct space to another:

Another set of carpeted steps:

Now we've left the sunken garden and are walking on a dirt path around the enclosed orchard garden. On the opposite side, a wall of trees and a primitive fence suggest there's untamed wilderness beyond:

Like the sunken garden, the orchard garden has two distinct entrances, ensuring that visitors see the garden from a very specific vantage point as they enter.

The orchard garden does contain a number of fruit trees, but to me they were incidental. I was completely focused on the layers upon layers of plants, both non-flowering and flowering.

Two long borders, one of the south side and one on the north side, are filled to the brim with plants of every shape and texture imaginable. The effect is both visual and tactile: I wanted to walk through the plants and touch them as much as I wanted to photograph them.

This is the most intensely orange Kniphofia cultivar I've ever seen. I have no clue what it is, but I wouldn't mind trying it myself.

Weather-worn Adirondack chairs under fruit trees: What a great way to unwind and enjoy this peaceful space!

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  1. Between your photos here and Kathy's last post, I know I really need to get up to Mendocino one day. I love the way the topiary shrubs contain and show off the Matilija Poppy.

  2. A definite wow, masterfully done. Love the way the spaces are divided, being a fan of garden rooms myself.

  3. It's almost impossible to believe that's here in California, instead of England. Amazing.

    1. The climate on that part of the coast is about as close to England as we get here in California :-).

  4. That flower-inundated series of steps is a dream, my goodness. I love the use of vertical stone columns through the landscape as well, definitely gonna 'borrow' that idea :)

    1. The planted steps are awesome. HERE is a garden outside of Davis that was designed by Gary Ratway. They planted the steps with poppies.

  5. That is a seriously spectacular garden. Typo: Denise of A Growing Obsession. Who is that "Gail" person?

    1. Dear lord, help me. Gail and Denise must have gotten merged in my mind.

  6. Excellent post and photos Gerhard, though I'm pretty sure you knew it was Denise joining us and not Gail, lol. You sure got some great info on this garden and I am surprised I didn't recognize it from GD spring issue. When I have spare moment in the next few days I'm going to revisit it. I'm giving this years Garden Conservancy openings a thumbs up-fewest duds on record for me.

    1. Gail must have been there in spirit! It's not as bad as calling my daughters by the dog's name, which I do regularly. Old age!

      I agree, few duds in this year's Garden Conservancy lineup. And even those are interesting to see.

  7. I love the sunken garden! Wish I’d been there with you guys...

  8. From the comments it seems you do the name swap thing too! I'm so curious about this rammed earth business after seeing these gardens…Fabulous post and photos!

  9. The sunken garden and the planted steps are fantastic, great job showing it all to us. Cheers!

  10. What a wonderful garden! I don't recognize it. Definitely going green here .. with envy! ;)


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