A GARDENING LIFE: Ruth Bancroft

byRICHARD G. TURNER, JR.photography byMARION BRENNER

TO LOOK AT RUTH PETERSSON BANCROFT’S outstanding two-acre succulent garden today, you’d never guess that it began with a few potted plants acquired from a friend in the mid-1950s. Although Bancroft knew little about succulents at the time, she had been interested in plants since childhood. Her family’s neighborhood in north Berkeley was—and still is—full of colorful gardens and avid gardeners, and as a toddler, she insisted on having a yellow flower in her fist before venturing out on a stroll.

The stock market crash of 1929 brought an end to Ruth Petersson’s studies in architecture at U.C. Berkeley. Instead, she took up teaching, and taught in California’s Central Valley before marrying Philip Bancroft. In 1938, the couple moved to Philip’s family ranch in then-rural Walnut Creek. Soon Ruth began planting extensive gardens around their home, filling them with her collections of perennials (especially bearded irises), roses and shrubs of all kinds, daffodils and other spring bulbs, herbs, and pelargoniums. The gardens were her love; when not working in them, she pored over books and catalogs, searching for new plants that she might test in Walnut Creek’s hot, dry, USDA Zone 9 climate.

Reading about those first few succulents opened a new world for Ruth. Intrigued by this curious group of plants, she began acquiring more specimens at local nurseries and from mail-order sources. By the late 1960s, her collection had grown to well over a thousand pots and filled a quarter-acre of glass and lath houses.

Ruth was determined to construct a desert landscape on a grander scale, and in 1971 she began work on a dry garden. Her training in architecture had taught her the need for structure and organization in the landscape, a lesson that was reflected in the gardens around the family home, which had been designed in the early 1950s by landscape architect Ted Osmundsen. Walks, patios, fences, arbors, and a pool all provided a modernist setting for her richly diverse yet relatively conventional plantings. The new garden, however, was to be entirely different, much more informal and based on more naturalistic models.

Ruth asked Lester Hawkins to work with her in creating the groundwork for the dry garden. A co-founder of Western Hills Nursery, a mecca for plant lovers, Hawkins agreed to lay out paths of crushed stone that would meander between mounded beds, creating ever-changing vistas through the garden. With the exception of a few trees placed by Hawkins, Ruth installed all of the succulents during the spring and summer of 1972. It would be years, however, before the plants matured and the brilliance of her compositions shone.

The spirit behind the dry garden is one of intellectual curiosity, but Ruth is more than just a collector of plants. She pursues plants with gusto, seeking out esoteric and geographic variations within individual species, as well as any that she has not previously grown. Few genera hold no interest for her. What sets her garden apart from other succulent collections is the care with which she composes the plants. Focusing on the dramatic foliage of aloes, agaves, echeverias, barrel cacti, and many others, Ruth creates bold contrasts and subtle color echoes that capture the eye and tickle the imagination; flowers, particularly yellow ones, sparkle against the foliage.

After more than 30 years of careful editing and nurturing, the dry garden has matured into one of the most significant collections of succulents on the West Coast, and one of the most beautiful and distinctive private gardens in North America. Most gardeners in their mid-90s would be ready to pass the trowel to another generation, but not Ruth Bancroft. She continues to work in the garden almost daily, while maintaining hand-written records of all the plants acquired for the garden and a diary of the tasks that she and her small staff have completed each day.

Asked by a nongardener once why she spent so much time and energy working in her garden, Ruth replied, without hesitation, “Because I like the results.” Today, visitors to the Ruth Bancroft Garden agree that the results have been well worth the effort. H

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