Lessons From the Ruth Bancroft Garden, Johanna Silver, Photographs by Marion Brenner, Published by Timber Press 2016
Today’s gardeners digging succulents and arid plants will immediately be attracted to the beautiful cover of The Bold Dry Garden. The surprise in opening the book is that before you learn about arid plants you get a story of Ruth, a curious gardener who loves plants and design. Johanna Silver has written this important story of Ruth Bancroft and her Bold Dry Garden documenting her place in American garden history. Ruth’s succulent and cactus garden in Walnut Creek, CA has been growing since 1972. For over 40 years this garden filled with succulents, cactus, shrubs, and trees from arid lands around the world has been inspiring visitors.This was long before drought conditions introduced gardeners to such interesting plants as Aeonium, Agaves, Aloes, Euphorbias, Sedums and Yuccas.
I recently visited Ruth’s garden and was mesmerized by the lush beauty and variety of arid plants. Reading Silver’s descriptions of Ruth’s planting strategies, her ideas of repetition, working with light and shade, and managing the wide ranging climate adaptation of plants only increased my appreciation of what I saw. The book gave me, already a desert gardener, a much great understanding of what is possible. Detailing the exquisite photographs of Marion Brenner, Silver’s words open a gardener’s eyes as she describes a mounding cactus “with two types of white spines-long central ones and shorter radial ones-that make each globe look ghostly and glowing.” The photo captions go beyond the important task of naming species and clarify the beauty of such an arrangement, “Parodia magnifier, organized into neat rows of bristly spines topped with satiny flowers, creates a formal appearance.” I read this book slowly as each image had the power to send me outside to look at my own garden looking for rock edges and niches, reimagining my planting design, and hunting potential spaces for plants that poke, swirl, send up rosettes of color, and rise high with sword shaped leaves.
Ruth Bancroft’s beautiful garden inspired the founding of The Garden Conservancy “to preserve exceptional American gardens for the public’s education and enjoyment.” Timber Press released the book in celebration of Ruth’s 108th birthday. Even if you never plant a single cactus you will be inspired by the story of Ruth’s Bold Dry Garden.
A version of this review appeared in The American Gardener The Magazine of the American Horticultural Society, November/December 2016