Ruth Bancroft’s succulent and cactus garden in Walnut Creek, CA has been growing since 1972. This was before prolonged drought conditions introduced gardeners to such interesting plants as Aeoniums, Agaves, Aloes, Euphorbias, Sedums and Yuccas.
Curiosity inspired Ruth to go beyond the natives of California to seek out plants from Africa, Arabia, Australia, Mexico and Madagascar. For over 40 years this garden, filled with succulents, cactus, shrubs and trees, inspires visitors to expand their idea of a beautiful garden.
As a child Ruth loved the natural environment surrounding her. She liked to watch tadpoles grow into frogs and she was always seeking out flowers. In 1938 she married Phillip Bancroft and moved to his family’s 400 acre walnut and pear farm. There she began to grow roses, iris, and other blooming flowers all around her new home. As time passed Ruth realized the climate of her home was very challenging. The rainfall was limited and the temperatures ranged from 14° to 104°. In the early 1950’s a chance meeting with a gardener provided Ruth the opportunity to buy some succulents. She found the succulents and cactus fascinating and so began a transformation in her garden focus. By 1971 the farm with the walnut orchard was sold and Ruth, at age 60, had three acres available for creating a new garden.
She envisioned a garden of low water use plants, calling it her “dry garden.” By that time she had two small greenhouses filled with over 1000 plants. She wanted a garden rich in textures, shapes, and colors grown to thrive in the local climate. With a few ideas in mind, she hired nurseryman Lester Hawkins to help her lay out pathways and planting beds. Her plan was to foster relaxation as visitors meander through the garden. Groupings of small plants were easier for her to manage, and easy to change if the arrangement didn’t work out. In an interview she said “I chose trees and plants because I liked them and then I found a place for them. I realize that isn’t the way a garden should be designed.” Within a year she had the garden planted.
Ruth carefully researched her plant choices, considering the size, shapes, and textures of the mature plants in her arrangements. She added more columnar cactus to create variation in height. Her trees grew and provided filtered shade. Still the climate challenged her and she lost many plants to cold weather. Undeterred, she designed covers to protect the most fragile plants. As is the way of all gardening, Ruth continued to experiment with her fair share of success and failure. She kept at it and the garden kept getting better and better.
She enjoyed sharing her garden with visitors. In 1988 Francis and Anne Cabot toured Ruth’s garden “with its extensive collection of rare and mature succulents and cacti, many in full flower and all thriving. During the visit, Mrs. Bancroft mentioned to them that there were no plans for the garden beyond her lifetime.” (Conservancy website) Afterward Anne asked her husband Francis an avid gardener and wealthy financier, “Why don’t you start a garden conservancy?” The idea for the Garden Conservancy formed by Francis Cabot in 1989 dedicated to “saving and sharing America’s outstanding gardens” sprouted from that initial visit to Ruth’s garden.
Ruth’s garden opened to the public in 1992 with the Conservancy added gardening staff and management assistance. Ruth has a lifetime ownership of the property allowing her to continue to enjoy the fragrance of a blooming jasmine vine she planted about 50 years ago by her front door. (NYT9/3/08) At 91, Ruth was still working every day in her garden, weeding, planting, and wheeling her wheelbarrow through the pathways to her next project. The direction and priorities for the garden were absorbing her attention at 102. She celebrated her 107th birthday by touring the garden.
Today there is no shortage of news about the physical and mental benefits of gardening. Gardening is credited with reducing blood pressure, improving flexibility, grip strength, and exercise. Gardens reduce stress, promotes healing and provides calming. The research supporting these claims is done with control groups and comparative studies but now and then anecdotally a gardener shines as evidence of all these things. Ruth Bancroft is just such a person. Timber Press is releasing “The Bold Dry Garden” in Sept. 2016 on Ruth’s 108th birthday.
Ruth Bancroft’s legacy is a beautiful garden which inspired the Garden Conservancy of North America, fostering garden preservation of benefit to so many all the while continuing her lifelong love affair with nature. She is evidence of a gardener’s life well lived. Certainly an inspiration for all gardeners to keep on gardening.