The Ruth Bancroft Garden – Memoriam to Ruth

– Posted in: Garden Musings, Garden Photography

Some thought Ruth Bancroft would outlive us all.  Indeed, when she recently passed at age of 109, she had outlived many admirers.

Ruth Bancroft in her succulent garden 1992

Her garden, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California was the inspiration for the Garden Conservancy, and was its first garden selected for preservation in 1989. It is a landmark garden for California, proving that a garden in a summer-dry climate can be rich and diverse without being water thirsty, and is especially renowned for its mature collection of succulents.

Agave americana in Ruth Bancroft Garden

When I first met Ruth in 1992, she was already 86.  Rounding the corner on an early morning photo shoot I saw her bending over a gravel path in her garden 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”.

Ruth Bancroft holding tool in her garden. Age 96

Ruth loved plants, was curious about all forms, and had to good sense to hire Lester Hawkins of Western Hills Garden in 1972 to help lay out a dry garden for her extensive collection of potted succulents that she started collecting in 1950. Over the years she tended to collect small specimens and give them room to grow.

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 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, which is 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, where the garden was originally planted in an old orchard in what remained of the family farm. 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.

Ruth Bancroft Garden, shade structure for frost protection

From her experiments and experience succulent lovers have learned cold weather and drainage are the biggest obstacles to gardening with succulents, and the garden will continue to inspire gardeners for many years to come.

Ruth Bancroft Garden, Aloes and Agave

Ruth Bancroft Garden, morning light

Ruth Bancroft Garden, cactus, succulents, trees, and palms

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

Ruth Bancroft in her garden. Age 96

Obituary on Garden website; from Garden Conservancy;  from East Bay Times

A gallery of more photos in the Photobotanic Archive

Old hand and cactus – Ruth Bancroft, age 96.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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18 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Linda Lehmusvirta November 28, 2017, 8:39 pm

Dear Saxon, what a lovely tribute, insightful story, and as always, breath-taking photographs!

Saxon Holt November 29, 2017, 12:34 am

Thanks Linda – I hope you get a chance to visit her garden one day. Long way from Texas…

Loree / danger garden November 29, 2017, 12:15 pm

Thank you for this Saxon, Ruth was such an inspiration and I am thrilled to read stories from those who’ve spent time with her.

Saxon Holt November 29, 2017, 12:18 pm

Thanks Loree – I actually only met her a couple times but those times will likely grow in fondness and respect in coming years.

Denise November 29, 2017, 12:31 pm

Ruth designed an incredibly photogenic garden, captured so well in your photos — your camera looking through her eyes.

Kim Knighton November 29, 2017, 4:46 pm

Thank you for sharing this Saxon. Farewell, Ruth.

Cid Young November 30, 2017, 1:16 am

Ruth will be missed, but her legacy is her garden.

Saxon Holt November 30, 2017, 2:05 am

Thanks Denise – Great compliment as I only hope to have captured what she saw. What is so stunning is she had to have envisioned the garden 50 year before it got to this point

Saxon Holt November 30, 2017, 2:06 am

And the garden lives on….

Saxon Holt November 30, 2017, 2:07 am

An those many gardeners who’ve benefited from her vision.

Charlotte blome December 2, 2017, 12:40 pm

Thank you for the photographs and the beautiful tribute. I had the good fortune to work in Ruth’s garden for a couple years and I loved every minute of it. I got to know Ruth a bit, too, and she was in life just as she comes across in your photos- vibrant, kind, visionary yet modest, and a stickler for details. as a compulsive weeder, we got along just fine. I am going to miss her but grateful that her garden lives on!

Cathy December 3, 2017, 9:43 pm

Dear Saxon,

I have not lived here in California very long and never knew that such a magnificent garden existed so close to where we live. Her garden is really the most amazing tribute and you have captured both Mrs. Bancroft and her garden beautifully. It’s now at the top of my list for places to visit in the spring. Thanks for the wonderful tribute, Saxon, to someone I regret I’ll never get to meet.

Saxon Holt December 4, 2017, 6:05 pm

Thanks Charlotte – I am a compulsive weeder too, and find myself wandering outside my studio door to weed when I get a phone call…

Saxon Holt December 4, 2017, 6:07 pm

Thank goodness The Garden Conservancy took on this project years ago. It is beautiful in every season

Summer Shadforth@FantasticGardeners December 5, 2017, 9:55 am

Great story, amazing legacy and an incredible inspiration!

BARBARA MILLER December 5, 2017, 3:02 pm

Thank you for this lovely piece; do all of us compulsive spellers a favor and title it with the correct spelling: memoriam

Saxon Holt December 7, 2017, 3:10 am

Thank you ! Done. ( Piece was formerly used “memorium”) Spell check did not catch this (or maybe I did not catch spellcheck ..)

Saxon Holt December 7, 2017, 3:11 am

We are so lucky The Garden Conservancy has helped to preserved it

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