The late Ruth Bancroft honored at celebration in Walnut Creek
By Lou Fancher
It’s nearly impossible to overstate the legacy of Ruth Bancroft.
Not only did the renowned California gardener pioneer the science and appreciation for establishing succulents and cacti in a Mediterranean environment, her innovative practices and meticulous record-keeping dramatically influenced drought-tolerant landscape design worldwide.
Born in Massachusetts in 1908, Ruth Petersson grew up in Berkeley. Married to Philip Bancroft Jr. in 1939, the couple moved to the family’s 400-acre farm in an area that became Walnut Creek. In 1972, Bancroft began to apply her architectural skills and autodidactic preoccupation with tiny, 4-inch, potted succulents to the farm’s 3.5-acre former walnut orchard that became the Ruth Bancroft Garden. Along the way, her work inspired the creation of the Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of America’s notable gardens and landscapes. Today, the dry garden that opened to the public in the early 1990s offers workshops, seminars, educational programs, tours, college internships, plant sales, private rentals and more.
Bancroft died at her Walnut Creek home on Nov. 26, 2017. She was 109.
At a Celebration of Life Feb. 17, the renowned expert’s indelible mark on multiple generations was undeniable. With more than 800 people attending, stories about Bancroft’s unlimited curiosity and creativity abounded.
Garden Host Stephen Lysaght found himself living on a two-third-acre plot of land in Orinda in the early 1990s and visited the garden for inspiration.
“Ruth was incredibly patient. She worked with very small plants. She was a cataloger. Watching the plants’ development, she was a scientist with an enormous passion for weeding.”
Executive Director Carol Laughlin, as she studied the garden’s history, was repeatedly struck by Bancroft’s tenacity.
“Nobody knew how these plants would live in this environment. A big freeze early on nearly wiped the garden out. It was devastating. But it didn’t phase Ruth. She just picked up and replanted, lessons learned.”
Bancroft’s forward-thinking themes continued, made possible in part by the records she maintained that tracked each plant’s origin and growth. If a plant failed to thrive, Bancroft was likely to move it to a new location, a practice adopted by Concord resident Bonnie Fontana.
“I come here multiple times a year,” said Fontana. “It’s breathtaking. My front yard now is all drought-tolerant. Instead of eliminating a plant that isn’t doing well, I move it until it finds its place, like Ruth did.” She recalls a visit during which she observed an assistant positioning a podium in the garden. “Ruth didn’t move around well by then, but she stood at it, documenting her irises.”
Garden Curator and writer Brian Kemble in a public presentation said the garden was Bancroft’s canvas. “She painted with plants.”
In an interview, Kemble remembered her as a “kindred soul,” a person drawn to the same “too spine-y or seen-as threatening” plants he favors. Working side-by-side with Bancroft, he said, “We’d see a succulent, we’d want it. Certainly, she was initially attracted to the rosette form. She became intrigued and acquired interest in the cactus family over time.”
A similar process happened to Cathy McNutt. The Martinez resident first visited the garden about three years ago and instantly transfixed, became “hooked.” A tiny succulent cemented the deal. “It’s called Baby Toes. Suddenly, it had a flower: white pedals with yellow center like a daisy.” Enamored with their easy care, she says, “I found the more I ignore them, the better the plants do. I have them in pots, barrels, inside and outdoors.”
Asked about the garden’s future after Bancroft’s passing, McNutt said she was concerned it would change. She no longer worries. “I like it and a lot of other people do too,” she said.
While local dignitaries paid tribute to Bancroft in the Celebration program, Laughlin watched visitors wander freely along the garden’s curvaceous paths and sample Bancroft recipe cookies made by volunteers —Toffee Cookies made with real bacon fat, Butter Chews and more. She took obvious pleasure in overheard exclamations over what to some were exotic plants. “My job is a daily joy; I get to be outside in this wonderful garden,” she said.
Highlighted plans for the garden’s future include a new nursery and greenhouse that will open in May and provide increased community education programs. A drought-tolerant-focused flower shop will offer full service for weddings and special events and provide ongoing revenue for the garden. An $4.6 million Education and Visitors Center expected to open in mid-2019 will result in additional new programs, especially for children. A complete inventory of the garden and Bancroft’s extensive notes are being converted to digital format; the complete data base will be available to the public as plants are catalogued.
For future generations, it’s especially comforting to know the Bancroft Garden is protected by an easement that retains the land as a historic, horticultural and education resource and prohibits development for any purpose inconsistent with the garden’s preservation.