Ruth Bancroft began imagining and planting her Walnut Creek landscape in the 1970s when she was already in her sixties. Surrounded by suburban single-family homes and green lawns, the life-long plant lover explored and planted a variety of wildflowers, irises, roses, and yes, cacti and succulents. Together with Brian Kemble—her garden cohort almost from the beginning—Ruth cultivated a growing collection of dry garden plants arranging their architectural forms and many colors and textures to exquisite effect. Ruth’s garden flourished, garnering the attention of gardeners near and far.
Renowned plantsman Frank Cabot visited Ruth in 1988 and came away inspired to create a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving significant American gardens. The Ruth Bancroft Garden opened to the public in the early 1990s, the first property to enter the stewardship of the Garden Conservancy.
The Bold Dry Garden, Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden, a new title from Timber Press written by Johanna Silver with photos by Marion Brenner, is a gorgeous homage to a life’s work and an intimate view of the woman behind its creation. Today Ruth is 108. In the book’s preface, the author recounts a conversation she overheard between Brian and Ruth in reference to the garden’s trio of giant desert fan palms (Washingtonia filifera). “You were planting the garden when you were in your sixties, and people said, ‘It takes so long for these things to get big, you’ll never live to see it.’ But you did, and there they are. And they became magnificent.” (Brian) reminded Ruth of her response: “You told them, ‘Well, who cares if I’m around or not? Someone will be around. And if I don’t plant it then nobody will get to see it.’”
Among the many lessons we can take away from this remarkable woman, perhaps the most important is this: plant something.
Lessons from Ruth:
As in her childhood, Ruth was thrifty in her plant acquisition. She never spent money on larger plants or boxed trees. “I’d never get a five-gallon can,” she recalled with pride, “occasionally a gallon, but usually the smaller containers.” Granted, the small containers were more commonly available in those days (and Ruth could fit much more into her car on her yearly pilgrimages to Southern California), but she also found that they grew faster when planted in the ground and caught up with anything from a larger pot.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Although (Ruth) did not begin the garden with any environmental or educational aspirations, her creation is now among the best examples of dry-adapted residential landscapes, and by 1998 she had realized that it might serve as an important community resource. “Having children visit the garden is most valuable,” she said. Some may have never been to a larger garden, and it could affect their futures.”
The Importance of Rock
Rocks, from boulders to small gravel, belong in a dry garden. From a soil-health standpoint, they are crucial for mitigating heavy clay soil and increasing drainage. Many dry plants love growing among rocks, as they originate from sheer cliffs, loose screes, or inorganic gravelly soil. But rocks also have an aesthetic appeal. Dry plants can be planted closely together for a lush look, but so many have strong structural appeal that it makes sense to give them space in which they can be appreciated.
Repetition of the Rosette
Ruth’s collection, while vast and deep, has a rare type of unity, and it all comes down to the repetition of the rosette. This radial arrangement of leaves around a stem is repeated in her garden in every size, from small to giant. The globes and spirals of leaves dot every unique composition, giving the eye a place to rest in each bed.
Ruth’s garden is perhaps most famous for its diversity of aloe plants. Their flashy-leaved structural rosettes captivated Ruth, but the plants are also noteworthy for their reliable yearly blooms in bright reds, oranges, and yellows. While they are known as winter bloomers, Brian’s deep dive into collecting and breeding means that from winter through summer there is always an aloe in bloom in the garden.
The Softer Side
Ruth’s garden is sharp, and filled with needles, spines, and rough edges. However, there are also bulbs, wildflowers, and grasses that reveal a softer side of the collection. Unlike so many of Ruth’s plants, which offer year-round structure, several of these softer plants are seasonal, adding texture or color for a few days or weeks before dying or going dormant again until the following year.
The Ruth Bancroft Garden is a horticultural treasure known for its singular beauty, bold planting style, and mature specimens of cacti, palms, and succulents. The garden is located at 1551 Bancroft Road in Walnut Creek; visiting hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 4pm. www.ruthbancroftgarden.org