The Constant Gardener
The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek continues to thrive after 46 years in operation—a testament to its pioneering founder, who passed away in November.
Renowned local gardening expert Ruth Bancroft at age 96 in her namesake garden.
Photo by Saxon Holt
With flowering yucca stalks jutting into the air and massive agave plants spreading fierce, spiky leaves over rocky paths, much of the landscape at The Ruth Bancroft Garden looks otherworldly. A unique play of light and shadows adds another level of mystery to the exotic oasis tucked away in the midst of a busy Walnut Creek neighborhood. The 3.5–acre dry garden—made up of succulents and other water-conserving plants—reflects the extraordinary vision of its founder, Ruth Bancroft, who died on November 26 at the age of 109.
She first established the garden in 1972, a year after her husband, Philip—a farmer whose family owned a 400-acre fruit and nut farm in Walnut Creek for decades—gave her the land, which had been cleared of walnut trees, so she could plant her collection of succulents. In the ensuing years, the garden gained an international reputation among horticulture enthusiasts. It also inspired the start of The Garden Conservancy in 1989 and its first preservation project three years later. The garden opened to the public in 1992 and continues to bloom as a nonprofit; recent improvements include a new parking lot, and the garden plans to build a visitor and education center.
The garden’s longtime curator, Brian Kemble, reflects on his nearly four-decade history with Ruth Bancroft and her influence on California gardening.
Q: How did you first get involved with The Ruth Bancroft Garden?
A: I didn’t study botany or horticulture in college; I was a philosophy major. It was after college that I started noticing all these [succulents]; they were like plants from outer space. The first time I saw The Ruth Bancroft Garden, I thought, This is amazing. I was quite excited by it and gave [Bancroft] my name. A few months later, she called and asked if I wanted to take care of the plants in the greenhouse. That was in 1980, and I’ve been here ever since.
Q: Do you have favorite memories of Bancroft?
A: What I loved about Ruth was her enthusiasm for the plants. One time, I went to a nursery in Fresno and I brought back a cactus from Argentina called Gymnocalycium vatteri. I showed it to Ruth and said, “Look, this plant is so chubby; it’s like the Pillsbury Doughboy.” [We both] started looking for Gymnocalycium, and soon we had this collection. Now, those cacti are bigger, and we are making a special bed for them. We are still keeping the dream alive; we just can’t share it with Ruth anymore.
There was another time when I found her on her knees, planting in one of the beds in the garden. She was right next to a large agave with those dagger tips. She had gotten poked by the agave and had blood streaming down her arm. I said, “Ruth, you are bleeding! You had better take care of that.” She said, “Oh, if I stopped every time I got a scratch, I’d never get anything done.” What that shows to me is first, how dedicated she was to what she was doing, and second, how hard it was to deter her.
Q: What qualities characterized Bancroft as a gardener and as a person?
A: She was very exacting in what she wanted. A lot of people who met her in her later years saw the sweet little old lady, but when she was out here in the garden, she was very opinionated, particular, and demanding. She loved the collecting part of gardening. Even before she began the garden, she was collecting plants and growing them in pots.
When Ruth first started the garden, she knew it needed structure, so she hired Lester Hawkins of the Western Hills Garden to help design it. But she didn’t want the garden to be tightly prescribed. It’s laid out with curving paths and beds; she didn’t want hard edges.
Q: Did the success of the garden surprise Bancroft?
A: Yes. She thought it was going to appeal to garden-minded people; she never thought that the general public was going to take to it the way that they did. We never envisioned the garden would be as well-known as it is. There were a series of TV interviews—on Martha Stewart Living, HGTV, and The Coastal Gardener—that filmed sequences in the garden and brought it to a wider audience.
Q: How did California’s long drought impact interest in the garden and dry gardening in general?
A: When Ruth started this garden, there weren’t any public gardens that featured succulents in the interior part of the Bay Area. She was a pioneer in that. She had this great curiosity. That willingness to experiment was a hallmark of Ruth’s. When water restrictions came along, we were like a beacon—look what you can do with less water.
Q: Do you recall Bancroft’s last visit to the garden?
A: She had a stroke in the spring [of 2017] and hadn’t been able to get out since then. Even before that, she had to come out in a wheelchair. Sometimes, she would be astounded by the changes that had come about. She’d see the changes and say, “I can’t believe how much that’s grown.” Things were always growing when she wasn’t looking. .
All About Ruth
Ruth Petersson was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1908. She was raised in Berkeley after her Swedish immigrant parents moved to California when she was a baby. She discovered a love of horticulture as a little girl, planting flowers in the family garden.
She later studied architecture at UC Berkeley, where her father was a professor of Latin, before switching to teaching. (She thought there would be more job opportunities.)
She met her future husband, Philip Bancroft Jr., while she was working as a teacher in Merced. They married in 1939 and moved to Walnut Creek, where they had two daughters and one son.
Philip’s grandfather was noted historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is named in his honor.
Ruth began her succulent garden in September 1972, but a big freeze killed off the bulk of her plants a few months later. She started over the following year. Among the many species of plants at the garden is the one-of-a-kind hybrid known as Aloe “Creamsicle.” The plant was featured in The Bold Dry Garden, a 2016 book about The Ruth Bancroft Garden.
The garden welcomes nearly 14,000 visitors a year from all over the world. Actress Angela Lansbury, an honorary chair of The Garden Conservancy, toured the garden in 1989.
The first succulent Ruth ever purchased, an Aeonium “Glenn Davidson,” is still alive—safe in the greenhouse. The garden is working with a nursery in Santa Barbara to build up an inventory of the species so that The Ruth Bancroft Garden can eventually offer it at its nursery.