Accents !

– Posted in: Garden Musings, Garden Photography

Ratway_exclamations)GGWFor a garden photographer there is nothing quite like a landscape architect who knows how to use plants.  Gary Ratway not only knows plants as well as any horticulturist I have met, he designs landscapes to show them off.

His own garden in Mendocino, California is a showcase for garden design as landscape architecture, a landscape that has been designed to accommodate his many garden rooms where he  plays with plants.  Many plant lovers know his nursery, Digging Dog, which Gary began with his wife Deborah Wigham because he could not find sources for the exquisite plants he uses. Hornbeam columns Digging Dog NurseryHis newest experiments are hornbeam columns.  They are staggered around the gardens to give accents and focal points as well as rhythm and repetition to the design.  Over the past few years Gary has mastered the growing and pruning of these trees so that they can be placed  for vertical accents singly or in stately rows.

Gary Ratway’s garden, mixed border in autumn with hornbeam columns

All throughout the garden Gary has used trees as hedges, which run as long as 200 feet and 10 feet high.  Visitors to the nursery will know the European beech (Fagus sylvatica) hedges running the length of the growing grounds and European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) hedge you pass through.  These hedges, along with Field maples (Acer campestre) and yews define the garden rooms of the private gardens.


Entrance to Digging Dog Nursery, display shelves backed by Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus hedge

So if you can make a solid hedge of these clipped trees, why not individual specimens ?

 hornbeam column

Architecturally I really like the trees lined up in rows.  Gary also uses rammed earth columns thoughout the garden (see previous post on these as focal points) and the hornbeams make wonderful counterpoints in a garden that dominated by tall redwood trees.

 rows of carpinus tree columns

There are dozens of these specimens in the garden and Gary is beginning to select certain ones for characteristics such as how long they hold their leaves and for fall color.  Some turn a dull brown, many are shades of butter yellow, and even shades of orange.

Carpinus betulus leaves Hornbeam).

Fall color in hornbeam leaves Carpinus betulus; Gary Ratway garden

Gary also uses lots of balls of boxwoods in the gardens he designs and has just finished using a semi-trailer load in several of his projects.  Many landscape architects use boxwoods as a go-to evergreen shrubs and Gary avoided them for many years because they are so ubiquitous.  But they are quite durable, and when kept pruned make an architectural statement all to themselves.

globes of boxwood shrubs and columns of hornbeam trees

Globes of boxwood shrubs and columns of hornbeam trees

When paired as they are in Gary’s entrance garden I see them as exclamation points.

I only had to move my camera a wee bit to get these two plants to line up as a real exclamation point.  Then a little magic with Photoshop to extract them …

plants as exclamation point

and make them line up.  The camera always lies.




Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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11 comments… add one

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Janet November 8, 2013, 10:13 pm

FOUR exclamation points!!!! That’s a lot of excitement about accents!!!! (Which are really wonderful, by the way.)

Thanks Janet !!!! I considerde making many more of these, even a double row but quickly realized I was going off the deep end of photoshop… – Saxon

Robín November 9, 2013, 4:19 am

If you see them as exclamation points that´s because you really need to write, Saxon !

I do separate them and just see a geometrical sphere and a geometrical cylinder and also their beautiful colours. Shape and color, a great union. As i still am a neophyte with living plants, i wonder though, whether a hard-pruning for a shape purpose does not produce suffering to the plant. I am just wondering.

Robin – Bad pruning is more likely to cause suffering to our eyes than to a plant. In truth bad pruning may open up a plant to die back and disease, but most appreciate good pruning and need it for longterm health. Certain plants can take more pruning than others and can be shaped to ornamental effect, think bonsai and topiary, and the art of gardening is knowing which plants can be shaped. – Saxon

Robín November 9, 2013, 4:45 am

Hard-pruning in La Granja de San Ildefonso near Segovia, not far from Madrid; Spain:

michaele anderson November 9, 2013, 8:10 am

I am one of those people who greedily reads the posts on this blog but never takes the time to comment. However, I always appreciate the interesting content and great photos from all of you. So, just taking a moment to say thanks!

Jayme B November 9, 2013, 9:05 am

Best use of Boxwoods ever! Thanks Saxon!

Thanks Jayme. The humble boxwood – an exclamation point. Who’ld a thunk it ? – Saxon

michaele anderson November 9, 2013, 10:12 am

Forgive me if this is a repeat. I can never tell if my comment goes through (it’s me being a dummy…not your site). Anyway, what I typed a bit ago before it seemed like it disappeared was:
I am one of those people who greedily reads the posts on this blog but never takes the time to comment. However, I always appreciate the interesting content and great photos from all of you. So, just taking a moment to say thanks!

Michaele – Thank you ! for taking the time to persevere. First time commentors must be approved by us before they are posted and we recognize a “real” person. Like most blog sites we get all kinds of crazy spam trying to get their inks published. Please let this be an invitation to continue to comment. Most visitors don’t and we like feedback – Saxon

lou November 9, 2013, 10:27 am

where can one purchase the “hornbeam trees?”

Lou – Gary gets these questions every time people see them. Unfortunately he has the whips grown in a commercial nursery and then prunes them himself (with his crew). In theory you can do this yourself with a sapling. – Saxon

Saxon Holt November 9, 2013, 11:21 am

Robin – Thanks for commenting. I have approved your comment but removed the link to the flickr photos that, though interesting, had nothing to do with pruning. – Saxon Holt

Donna November 9, 2013, 5:55 pm

In architecture school we were trained never to build or make anything that looks so blatantly like something else. I guess that is why I never do topiary in my design. I can appreciate the playfulness but would have a hard time living with sculpted plant life. I have used fastigiate hornbeam limbed up since it is a tree eminently suited to add structure and form to a landscape. Both American and European varieties are great plants.

Hi Donna – Hmmmm, doesn’t sculpted plant life include hedges ? Isn’t any pruning a form of sculpting ? What about espallier ? I do agree topiary are not to my taste either but mostly due to the more natural garden style I like (not t mention the high skill and intense maintenance it takes to pull it off). – Saxon

ks November 9, 2013, 7:47 pm

Saxon, Gary and Deborahs display garden at DD is my favorite garden in California, and pretty high up on the nationwide list as well. I’ve been watching the evolution of that back portion past the hornbeam walls with interest–I had planed to ask Deborah for permission to go past the caution tape this October to photograph the pillars and the pyramids, but I never made it out there after October trip instead turned out to be a 3 day photography workshop in Yosemite during which I had so many epiphanys (the tripod is on order) that I might have to go out to DD twice next year, summer and fall. Too bad they don’t open at sunrise !

Ohh – I’m jealous of your Yosemite trip. 3 days with the camera? but no tripod ?! I have failed …. Saxon

Oh, and the pyramids are not planted yet (Gary is starting 300 teucrium cuttings) and may be 4-5 years until that area really comes into its own – and will once again prove Gary’s genius

Garden Design Coventry December 5, 2013, 5:35 am

As i still am a neophyte with living plants, bonsai and topiary, and the art of gardening is knowing which plants can be shaped.

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