When I first met Ruth Bancroft in 1992, she was already 86.
Rounding the corner on an early morning photo shoot in her garden I saw her bending over a gravel path 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”.
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 original inspiration for the Garden Conservancy, and it was the first garden selected for preservation in 1989. It is a landmark garden for California, proving that a garden in our summer-dry climate can be rich and diverse without being thirsty, and is now especially renowned for its mature collection of succulents.
She started collecting succulents in 1950 and over the years tended to collect small specimens and finally 1972, well into her 60s, took over a 3.5 acre abandoned orchard on the family ranch to make a dry garden and give the succulents room to grow. She hired Lester Hawkins of Western Hills Garden to help lay out a garden for the extensive and still growing collection.
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 so 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, 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. 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 succulent gardening, and the garden will now 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
A gallery of more photos in the Photobotanic Archive