Walker Young, Ruth Bancroft Garden Assistant Curator

The Working Gardener

By: Clare Al-Witri Ryan Tuttle
ClareAl-Witri

Clare Al-Witri is a professional gardener. Clare has gardened on both the East and West Coasts in public gardens including…

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RyanTuttle
www.ryantuttlephotography.com

Ryan Tuttle is an adventure, lifestyle, and music photographer located on the Central Coast of California. She specializes in creating…

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Walker Young, assistant curator of The Ruth Bancroft Garden. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Walker Young, assistant curator of The Ruth Bancroft Garden. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

This conversation took place last summer when the author chatted with a fellow professional gardener as they worked side by side in The Ruth Bancroft Garden.

With just over two acres of cultivated garden open to the public, The Ruth Bancroft Garden is small. The garden began as a private landscape when Ruth Bancroft began collecting and planting succulents on the property in the 1970s. Located on a busy suburban street, it’s an oasis of a garden. Or perhaps it’s an inverted oasis—an artfully arranged collection of drought-tolerant plants in a town of streets lined with irrigated lawns and manicured shrubs.

I meet Walker Young, Assistant Curator at the garden, at the front gates one hot midsummer morning. I usually begin interviews with a set of predetermined questions; however, Walker talks freely as he picks a path through the garden, so I let him lead us on a free-form conversation about his interests, work, ideas, frustrations, and successes in the garden.

The leaves of a Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata) provide a soft, transparent look and contrast against the more regular, bold 
succulent foliage in the landscape. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

The leaves of a Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata) provide a soft, transparent look and contrast against the more regular, bold 
succulent foliage in the landscape. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Walker and I arrive at a bed in the center of the garden under a wooden structure draped with shade cloth. The wood is painted a soft green that I am told was divined by Ruth and a friend by squinting their eyes in the garden to imagine its combined color. Below the wooden structure is a long garden bed planted with an exuberant mix of relatively small-statured succulents. It’s a colorful bed with bright blues and greens. We set to work, crouched, cleaning the succulents’ spent foliage.

Walnut Creek, where The Ruth Bancroft Garden is located, has a more extreme climate than one might imagine for the Bay Area. Summers are hot, and, compared to Berkeley and San Francisco, winters are cold. The bed we are working in is covered with shade cloth because the succulents planted there wouldn’t survive the summer’s heat. Walker explains that many of the plants’ roots would “cook” in the hot weather, and watering in the heat can lead to rot. It is an ongoing challenge; Walker is always trying to hit the balance that will keep the plants healthy.

Walker Young works beneath Ruth Bancroft’s signature green summer shade structure. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Walker Young works beneath Ruth Bancroft’s signature green summer shade structure. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Throughout our conversation, we compile a long, varied list of the jobs Walker does at the garden. His duties include caring for the garden’s private plant collection, propagating plants for use in the public garden, periodically mucking out the pond, driving the tractor, topdressing the garden beds with rock, monitoring aesthetics, hauling trash, and organizing bed renovations. No task in the garden is too small or too big.

Cleaning spent foliage from among succulents. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Cleaning spent foliage from among succulents. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

In the midst of the work needed to maintain and develop the garden, Walker makes time to focus on creative pursuits, like laying and organizing the rock that builds up garden beds. Pointing out two rocks laid seamlessly in a bed of smaller rocks he tells me, “I spend a lot of time looking at which rock faces look like they were parts of a greater whole. These rocks have a similar texture; they look like they’re parts of the same vein. I think that’s the alchemy of it, the part that takes a while.” This makes me think of geological time and drift and the wonder of subtly expressing it in a garden bed.

Soil in the garden is amended with pumice to improve drainage. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Soil in the garden is amended with pumice to improve drainage. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Beds are top dressed with a mix of coarse and fine rock material to hide pumice that makes its way to the soil’s surface. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Beds are top dressed with a mix of coarse and fine rock material to hide pumice that makes its way to the soil’s surface. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Beginning in early 2014, Walker and his fellow gardeners took on a series of bed renovations with the intention of marrying Ruth Bancroft’s bold, colorful, Roberto Burle Marxian aesthetic with a more naturalistic approach and to choose plants that fit the current maintenance regime. Piles of rock were trucked in and mounded to increase drainage capacity and add topographical complexity to the existing beds. Depending on the situation, old plantings were left in place or moved, and new plantings were added to the established mix.

Author Clare Al-Witri adding Echeveria agavoides to the colorful mix of succulents grown under shade cloth in summer. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Author Clare Al-Witri adding Echeveria agavoides to the colorful mix of succulents grown under shade cloth in summer. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Contrasting shapes and forms of cacti and succulents in the garden strengthen a composition of primarily cool green hues. Top left: Engelmann prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii), Top right: Resin spurge (Euphorbia resinifera), and bottom left: Echeveria ‘Lace’. Photos: Ryan Tuttle

Contrasting shapes and forms of cacti and succulents in the garden strengthen a composition of primarily cool green hues. Top left: Engelmann prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii), top right: Resin spurge (Euphorbia resinifera), and bottom left: Echeveria ‘Lace’. Photos: Ryan Tuttle

Walker points out a bed toward the back of the garden whose renovation he considers a success. Its central feature is a diffuse boomerang of Aloe striata and its hybrids and relatives. The plants are massed to create a bold, simple visual impact, but the planting is designed to reflect the look of a healthy stand of Aloe in its native habitat.

Attention to contrast in color and form is demonstrated in this planting composition of fox tail agave (Agave attenuata), left, and Espostoa melanostele, a slow-growing columnar cactus covered with dense white hairs and golden spines. photo: Ryan Tuttle

Attention to contrast in color and form is demonstrated in this planting composition of fox tail agave (Agave attenuata), left, and Espostoa melanostele, a slow-growing columnar cactus covered with dense white hairs and golden spines. photo: Ryan Tuttle

Our conversation shifts to planting design and I am treated to a peek into the workings of plant selection at the garden. Walker tells me half-laughing, “Contrast is one of the biggest things we try to achieve. ‘It doesn’t make any contrast’ is the best argument for killing someone’s creative idea in the garden.” Indeed, this commitment to design integrity and plant health is expressed in a garden that celebrates the beauty of plants.


The Ruth Bancroft Garden is located in Walnut Creek, CA, and open to the public Tuesday through Sunday all year. For more information, visit www.ruthbancroftgarden.org.