Some thought Ruth Bancroft would outlive us all. Indeed, when she recently passed at age of 109, she had outlived many admirers.
Her garden, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California was the inspiration for the Garden Conservancy, and was its first garden selected for preservation in 1989. It is a landmark garden for California, proving that a garden in a summer-dry climate can be rich and diverse without being water thirsty, and is especially renowned for its mature collection of succulents.
When I first met Ruth in 1992, she was already 86. Rounding the corner on an early morning photo shoot I saw her bending over a gravel path in her garden looking for something. I asked her if I could help. She looked up from her work without missing a beat to say “if you can help me weed”.
Ruth loved plants, was curious about all forms, and had to good sense to hire Lester Hawkins of Western Hills Garden in 1972 to help lay out a dry garden for her extensive collection of potted succulents that she started collecting in 1950. Over the years she tended to collect small specimens and give them room to grow.
Longtime Garden Curator and Ruth’s friend, Brian Kemble says:
“Ruth had a great eye for garden design, the art of arranging plants to create unique compositions. But beyond this, she was awed by the plants themselves, thinking of each kind as a near-magical product of the creative expression of Mother Nature. She never tired of discovering new ones, and easily got carried away with collecting all the endless variations to be found in a genus.”
The garden is fantastic on so many levels. It is full of bold dramatic plantings. It is living proof of the beauty of plants adapted to hot dry climates. It is a testimony to patience, which is the word Ruth used to describe what she had learned from years of gardening.
She learned many of the succulents she loved were tender and would freeze in Walnut Creek, where the garden was originally planted in an old orchard in what remained of the family farm. The first year she planted the garden much of it died in a hard freeze.
“Ruth didn’t dwell on failure; rather, she learned and adapted. She was very forward thinking in her approach to gardening and to life”, said former Executive Director of The Ruth Bancroft Garden, Becky Harrington.
Anyone visiting the garden in winter will see the shade structure in the center of the garden covered with frost protecting plastic.
From her experiments and experience succulent lovers have learned cold weather and drainage are the biggest obstacles to gardening with succulents, and the garden will continue to inspire gardeners for many years to come.
It is undergone extensive renovation in the past year and a new visitor center is now under construction. Hurray for Ruth, your joyful love of plants lives on.
One Woman | One Vision | One Extraordinary Garden
Obituary on Garden website; from Garden Conservancy; from East Bay Times
A gallery of more photos in the Photobotanic Archive