BOOK REVIEW: Where on Earth: A Guide to Specialty Nurseries and Gardens in California

by Nancy Conner,
Demi Bowles Lathrop,
and Barbara Stevens

Heyday Press 2017


Where on Earth belongs on every garden designer’s bookshelf, with its recently revised and updated 5th edition. It’s an invaluable tool to help designers find interesting and unusual plants. There are excellent maps and special sections for every region of the state. In addition, short essays help gardeners to understand how and why some plants are well suited for California and others are not. Each geographic section also lists horticultural attractions in the region.

To celebrate this new edition, an APLD designer from each of our California districts has written about a nursery from the book. Their personal impressions follow.

—Diane Goldsmith

Far-Flung California Nurseries

Digging Dog Nursery

by Diane Goldsmith


A trip to Digging Dog Nursery in Mendocino County is a very special journey. Leaving the urban bustle behind, you wind through sprawling farm country to reach Highway 1 and the coast. Heading north, you pass spectral rows of ancient cypress and wind your way past deep coves with tree canopies shaped by the wind. Crossing the Gualala River as you leave Sonoma County and enter Mendocino County, you pass Gualala Nursery and Trading Company, with its resident life-size dinosaurs. Further north in Manchester you’ll see huge oddball topiaries created from mature cypress trees. Is that a giant caterpillar in that front yard?


When you finally arrive at Digging Dog Nursery, located a few miles inland in Albion, you’ll feel you’ve made a mythic journey . . . and arrived at an equally mythic destination.

Credit: Diane Goldsmith

Credit: Diane Goldsmith

Extensive floral borders frame the nursery, giving you the opportunity to see owners Gary Ratway and Deborah Whigham’s plants in mature sizes in sumptuous beds laid out like a formal European garden.

Operating the nursery since 1984, they encourage designers to see the many unusual plants and new cultivars propagated on the grounds. A landscape architect, Gary has designed many private and public gardens and enjoys creating stylized meadows. He combines grasses of different statures, colors and textures with perennials for color and textural contrasts. Curving, undulating hedges direct the gaze through the meadow. Carpinus betulus (European Hornbeam) create large-scale green columns. This year, Gary is planting Sanguisorba officinalis (Great Burnet)—a perennial with late-winter wine-red bottlebrush flowers—to mix with grasses. According to the catalog, “these vigorous perennials offer contrasting clarity to the softer, less defined forms in the naturalized garden.”

Sanguisorba officinalis   Credit: Digging Dog Nursery

Sanguisorba officinalis  Credit: Digging Dog Nursery

The nursery’s thriving mail-order business is driven by their famous catalog, authored by Deborah and soon coming out in its 26th edition. About Baptisia x bicolor ‘Starlite’ she writes, “Twinkling like stars, a sky full of lupine-like periwinkle-blue flowers are set aglow by creamy white bases, known as keels.” This poetry for plant lovers helps us to imagine the beauty of a plant or flower we’ve never seen.

I visited the nursery in August and was amazed by the number of plants in bloom. The late-season garden is one of Deborah’s favorites. “Many people lose interest when August comes, she says, “but I love it.” She thinks the dog days of August build anticipation, because many perennials have set buds but haven’t yet bloomed yet. 

In winter, Deborah leaves the seedheads on the plants to provide forage for birds—and because they remind us to prepare for the decay and repose of plants during the coldest months. “In gardening, we need to lose the American obsession with perfection,” she says. “We like everything to be perfect, but there is such beauty in obsolescence.” 

As horticulturists, Gary and Deborah are aware of their responsibility to the environment. They are building a series of ponds for bio-remediation to treat run-off water that contains nitrate residues from the fertilizers they use. When the water has passed through the ponds and finally enters the nearby creek, it will be pure for the salmon that spawn there.

Deborah invites gardeners to sign up for her periodic emails, which often have a theme that she illustrates with plant suggestions. Visitors from around the nation and the world come to Digging Dog for interpretive guided garden walks and plant sales. Well worth the trek, this far-flung nursery is a truly special place to learn, see and enjoy all the best things about gardening.

Digging Dog Nursery
31101 Middle Ridge Road Albion, CA 95410


Far-Flung California Nurseries

Matilija Nursery

By Jackie Scheidlinger


One of the primary Los Angeles–area sources for native California and southwestern plants is Matilija Nursery in Moorpark, just west of the San Fernando Valley. Bob Sussman left a career in finance and banking about 25 years ago to start this specialty nursery, which grew out of a personal interest in the native plants he encountered while hiking in the local foothills.

Today Bob continues to be impressed with the beauty and long flowering periods of many natives, and the fact that they flourish with very little care.  Some of his most popular plants are verbena and milkweed as well as Matilija’s own hybrids of desert mallows and evergreen Pacific Coast irises. His hybrid irises are an improvement over the species irises, blooming a little longer, producing large flowers up to four inches long, and displaying a range of rich colors.

The nursery is also known for its extensive collection of reblooming tall bearded irises. “Bearded irises work well in a drought-tolerant plant scheme because they flower multiple times per year, like sunny conditions, and need relatively little water,” said Bob.

chatterxliason matilija hybrid.2.jpg

Credit: Robert Sussman

Matilija sells both retail and wholesale, and attracts customers from across the Greater LA area, Ventura County, and as far as Bakersfield. Bob also does contract growing for open space restoration and mediation projects, as well as universities, city and county parks departments and Caltrans. He’s seeing a steady increase in the general public warming to the idea of a landscape that supports a natural ecosystem—providing food and shelter for native birds, reptiles and insects.

Matilija Nursery
8225 Waters Road
Moorpark, CA 93021
(805) 523-8604

Far-Flung California Nurseries

Gardens by the Sea Nursery

By Debra O’Leary


Gardens by the Sea Nursery is just a few steps from the ocean in the town of Leucadia, about 30 miles north of San Diego. While the nearby beach may be tempting, plant lovers are easily lured into the nursery by its eye-popping selection of succulents and drought-tolerant plants, as well as its unique garden decor and dazzling container plantings.

Credit: Debra O’Leary

Credit: Debra O’Leary

Owner Mike Hirsch found his calling when he worked his first summer job at a nursery at the young age of 13. He went on to earn a degree in ornamental horticulture at Fullerton College and now proudly attracts visitors to Gardens by the Sea.

Mike believes the next big trend in California is pairing succulents with companion plants. He is particularly fond of hardy succulents, recommending Aloe camaronii, Starfish Aloe, for small planting areas that will come to life in winter with its brilliant spikes of orange blooms. He also loves Aloe rudikoppe, Little Red Riding Hood Aloe, a compact low grower to eight inches high and two feet wide, with lush green foliage and red-orange flowers nearly year round on the Southern California coast.

Visitors to Gardens by the Sea can make a side trip to the San Diego Botanical Garden, just three miles down the road in Encinitas, where many of the plants sold at Mike’s nursery are on view in mature, exquisitely designed beds.

Gardens by the Sea Nursery
1500 N. Coast Hwy
Leucadia, CA 92024
(760) 840-0270

Far-Flung California Nurseries

Morningsun Herb Farm

by Bernadette Balics


Morningsun Herb Farm lies in the scenic agricultural valley west of Vacaville, midway between San Francisco and Sacramento. The three-acre nursery specializes in culinary and medicinal herbs, drought-tolerant perennials and a wide range of vegetables and fruit trees.

Owned by husband-and-wife team Rose Loveall-Sale and Dan Sale, the nursery has been in operation for 23 years on the fortuitously flat and sunny farmland owned by Rose’s extended family. With degrees in Forestry and Environmental Horticulture, running a nursery was a natural career for Rose, and her mechanical engineer husband is now a full-time business partner.

Walking through the artfully laid out demonstration gardens and sprawling lavender fields is the ultimate sensory experience. Rose likes to show off her favorites, such as Lavandula angustifolia ‘Violet Intrigue,’ a newer English variety with rich violet flowers, her large selection of Agastache with hues from tangerine to plum, and her unique cultivars of scented geraniums. Morningsun also offers a multitude of vegetable starts, including more than 80 varieties of tomatoes and 40 peppers in the spring, and a wide selection of greens and brassicas in the fall.

The lavender fields at Morningsun Herb Farm. Credit: Dan Sale

The lavender fields at Morningsun Herb Farm. Credit: Dan Sale

The nursery grows plants from cuttings and seed on site using organic practices. “Our location is in a narrow valley surrounded by many microclimates,” says Rose, “so we can understand our customers’ many growing conditions, from cooler foothill climates to hot-summer locations.”

Rose chose to specialize in herbs because of their many attributes, from their distinctive flavors, fragrances and colors to their attraction for pollinators and their utility in medicines, teas and natural dyes. Many require little water or maintenance and can be grown from four-inch and quart pots to their full potential in a short period.

Many customers have become like family, sending photos of flower-filled gardens and elegant meals, and sometimes even coming to the farm with some herb-infused snacks for the Morningsun crew.

Morningsun Herb Farm
6137 Pleasants Valley Road
Vacaville, CA 95688
(707) 451-9406