A Desert in the City

Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata) at center and to the left, with magenta flowered mesembryanthemums and yuccas.

Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata) at center and to the left, with magenta flowered mesembryanthemums and yuccas. Three photographs by Lester Hawkins.

A remarkable garden containing many cacti and other succulent plants and requiring little irrigation is described by Editor Emeritus, Owen Pearce.

A dramatically unusual landscape has been created during the past few years in a part of what was long called the Bancroft Farm, mostly in orchards, in Ygnacio Valley, now in the northeastern part of Walnut Creek, California.

Hubert Howe Bancroft, famed California historian and founder of the University of California’s Bancroft Library, was the grandfather of the present owner, Philip Bancroft Jr. Hubert Bancroft purchased the property in 1885 when it was an extensive grain field dotted with valley oaks (Quercus lobata), many of which are still standing in all their statuesque glory. Several of these trees, with their broadly-spreading, rounded forms and weeping lower branches, form magnificent framing and backgrounds for the house and for parts of the garden. The first Mr. Bancroft planted fruit and walnut trees over the land, but in recent years encroaching residential developments and the consequent high assessments and taxes has changed the economy of land holdings in such locations. As a result most of the Bancroft Farm has been sold and the orchards have given way to homes. The Bancrofts have retained about ten acres for their own purposes, and their home and gardens are in this area.

Ruth Bancroft, Philip’s charming wife, is responsible for the development of the exotic garden, really much more than a garden! Her husband is the first to admit that he is too lazy to assume any responsibility for it. Lester Hawkins, partner in the Western Hills Nursery near Occidental, California, was called in at the beginning as landscape designer. The original design of the desert garden is his. He suggested the idea of the mounds and their locations and of the paths, the pool and the shade house as well. He furnished the eucalypts, the acacias and other Australian plants, all of which are important elements of the garden.

Mrs. Philip Bancroft, or Ruth, as she will be known in this story, was interested in plants as a child, an interest which turned to cultivated plants as she matured. Raised in the higher levels of the North Berkeley hills, she was enchanted with the wild flowers which were at that time so plentiful. She was a close neighbor to those two great horti­culturists of the area — Sydney B. Mitchell, president of the California Horticultural Society for its first ten years and founder of this magazine’s ancestral Journal; and Carl Salbach, great dahlia and iris grower. These two had large gardens on adjacent properties, and through her close friendship with them she became an enthusiastic iris grower. She has continued her interest in irises, but she enlarged her interests to other plants as time passed and the present garden is the result.

After marriage the Ygnacio Valley farm became home, and about twenty-five years ago the house was redesigned and a garden was built around it. Theodore Osmundsen was the landscape architect for this garden, which featured a perennial border surrounding a sizeable lawn on the south side of the house. The border is still growing in beautiful, neat order.

It is overwhelming to find that the lawns and borders, the great array of potted plants, mostly succulents, the lathhouse and the five or six acres comprising the desert garden are, all of them, maintained by only two workers: Ruth herself, and her dedicated helper, John da Rosa. Maintenance is here used in a very broad sense, for it includes not only the planting, weeding and watering, the propagation and growing on of plants, but the continuous planning, creating and layout of the plants and plant beds — and the care of the lawn! All the water for the garden comes from the Bancroft’s own private well, but the desert garden is very sparsely watered.

The greatest of the interests in the garden is found in the growing of succulent plants, an all-inclusive term; and of other plants which do not depend on summer rains —­ plants which are found in the arid areas of southwestern United States, Mexico, South America, Australia and South Africa. Ruth became intensely interested in these drought-tolerant plants about eighteen years ago and began collecting them from many sources. An article, written by her, describ­ing her collection and her cultural experi­ences, was published in the California Horticultural Society Journal in 1967, Volume 22, pp. 172-176.

The present extraordinary garden was started five years ago, in the spring preceding the freeze of December, 1972. That freeze was marked by temperatures that went down to 12°F every night for almost a week, and for several days they never went above freezing in the daytime. Many plants were lost and the outlook was bleak and discouraging. However, her fascination with succulents remained paramount, and the thought that had they been established for a longer period they might have survived the freeze, persuaded Ruth to replant those which could be obtained again. Visiting the garden now it is hard to believe that very much could have been lost.

The first view of the desert garden from the entrance driveway, which borders it on the north, is nothing less than dramatic. An area of three or four acres truly simulates a desert landscape feeling. As in a desert, plants or plant groups have open spaces between them so that there is an overall sense of openness. In the desert plants are naturally separated because only the strong-rooted ones reach for and obtain the sparse rain water. This principle of openness is not completely adhered to in this garden, for there are sizeable groups of close plantings; in such cases the groups are so related in size with other plants that the spaciousness is maintained.

One such group consists of a pool, planted with pond lilies surrounded by various succulent plants. Sedum ‘Peach Glory’ gives a lovely spot of color on one side of the pool’s border. The pool and its surrounding border form a color unit that is in harmony with the adjacent plants.

The whole scene seems dominated by agaves — agaves of numerous species, sizes and ages, all in various stages of growth. Some are developing flower stalks for this year’s bloom and some retain last year’s stalks, now brown and dry. A dried stalk foretells the death of that plant this year, and it will have to be removed by tractor and chain. The root and leaves will be sawed into reasonably-sized pieces and hauled off to the dump. This saddens Ruth, for it means that these dying plants will have to be removed shortly, leaving sizeable holes to be filled by other plants.

Every agave plant is worth studying — perhaps for the variations in thorniness of leaf edges and, most rewarding, for the varied leaf colorings. Visitors will see mature plants with the flowering stalks rising unbelievably rapidly, to a height of twenty feet. Indications that a new stalk is forming can be noticed by the more slender smooth margined leaves in the center of the plant. The most noticeable large agave is Agave farox, with leaves up to six or seven feet long and ten inches wide at the base. One specimen sheltered under a saran cloth covering in a court behind the garage, has leaves which, after rising about four or five feet from the ground, droop over sharply so that the points almost touch the ground in a grand weeping effect. Other species of agave to be seen are A. univittata, A. victoriae-reginae, and A. franzosinii.

After the first surprising impressions of the agave “plantation” have subsided, the many other desert-type plants — trees, shrubs and ground covers — command attention, all harmoniously displayed against the brown crushed rock imported from a location on Mt. Diablo nearby; it covers the entire desert area, including the commodious paths which wind their way pleasantly through the plantings. The mounds were formed with imported soil before the crushed rock, which has an average thickness of two to three inches, was laid.

The shadehouse (Ruth’s Folly) and desert area of Montezuma pine (right) saguaros, agaves, yuccas and cacti. Three photographs by Lester Hawkins.

The shadehouse (Ruth’s Folly) and desert area of Montezuma pine (right) saguaros, agaves, yuccas and cacti.

Conspicuously, “Ruth’s Folly” stands out — a gracefully designed gazebo or lathhouse with two long wings and a square-domed center structure. Webster’s Dictionary defines a ‘folly’ as “any foolish and fruitless but expensive undertaking.” Thus, kiddingly, this structure has been named, by her husband and friends, as “Ruth’s Folly.” Actually, foolish and fruitless it is not. Only technically might it be called a lathhouse, for its arched, timbered frame is covered with polyethylene rather than with laths. The purpose is the same — a growing house for potted plants which need some shelter from the sun in summer and from the cold in winter. The structure is set back from the entrance drive a short distance and it is a completely harmonious adjunct to the garden.

From her past experiences Ruth has learned the hard way about the effects of cold and heat on the many succulent plants which are notoriously tender to such conditions. The lathhouse provides protection for growing plants, but the Walnut Creek climate is very tough on these types of plants. To meet this challenge, Ruth has areas in the planted garden which are protected by a polyethylene-covered framework, sometimes for individual plants, and sometimes for an extensive group of plants. The covers are removed once the cold weather has ended, except for those plants which require protection from the hot summer sun.

We should mention some of the other noteworthy plants which join with the agaves, in forming this delightful desert scene. Several specimens of Parkinsonia aculeata are subtly placed to show off as individual plants. A member of the legume family, parkinsonia, commonly known as the Mexican palo verde, is evidently happy in its habitat, for volunteer seedlings are profusely distributed around the parent shrubby plants. The desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), a member of the Bignoniaceae from dry washes in the California and Arizona deserts, with lovely, almost orchid-like flowers, is represented by several specimens, flourishing and flowering well.

Agave ferox in right foreground with flower of Yucca gloriosa behind. Cordyline australis purpurea left foreground with flower stem of Agave potatorum hybrida behind.

Agave ferox in right foreground with flower of Yucca gloriosa behind. Cordyline australis purpurea left foreground with flower stem of Agave potatorum hybrida behind.

While exploring the garden observant eyes will notice many species of Opuntia, including O. bigelovii (teddy bear cactus); flowering stalks of the majestic Yucca treculeana and several plants of the ubiquitous tamarisk from Europe and Asia which have become naturalized in many areas of the west. And to select particular species from numerous genera, we find Aloe ferox; several euphorbias, including Euphorbia caput-medusae, E. coerulescens and E. myrsinites; several eucalypts, including Eucalyptus pendula; and numerous small shrubs, including Anthyllis barba-jovis, Coreopsis maritima, Hakea leucoptera, Cercidium floridum and Grevillea ‘Canberra’; and Yucca elata growing adjacent to the pool.

Irises bordering the driveway. Photograph by author.

Irises bordering the driveway. Photograph by author.

The transition from the desert atmosphere to the house is accomplished by a screen of shrubs and trees, bordering which, on the desert side, is a large planting of many varieties and types of irises. They border a half-hidden driveway on the west side of the house — the house being to the southeast of the desert area. The iris planting illustrates again the great task of caring for this garden. Each year one-third of the irises are taken up, the rhizomes are separated and replanted. This chore requires about six weeks of labor in the fall.

Finally we arrive at the beautiful lawn and perennial border, backed with shrubs and trees, on the south side of the house. The lawn is roughly semicircular, the house forming the base, with the border spreading around the lawn like a huge rainbow. There is a constant change of color in the border as the seasons change. Plants included in season are Alyssum saxatile, Primula malacoides, Helleborus orientalis and daffodils and tulips in quantity.

As a final observation regarding the collection of plants Ruth maintains, she keeps a record of all the plants and the complete list of names fills several notebooks.

And the final, final note is this: Ruth is an avid collector of shells and has a very valuable collection of them!