Walnut Creek’s Ruth Bancroft Garden celebrating 50th anniversary
By Lou Fancher
Phenomenally, the Ruth Bancroft Garden & Nursery has retained its mysterious aura as its world-renowned 3.5 acres enter a second half-century in operation. Established 50 years ago as a private garden for the immense collection of succulents, cacti and drought-tolerant plants of the late Ruth Bancroft, who died at age 109 in 2017, the garden in 1992 became a nonprofit open to the public. It was the first U.S. garden preserved by The Garden Conservancy, a national organization inspired by Bancroft that preserves private gardens for public use.
Even so, in 2022 hundreds of people drive or walk along Bancroft Boulevard in Walnut Creek daily, unknowingly passing the urban garden with no idea of its contents or rarity. People who do find the time and opportunity to visit, discover towering yuccas that compete with oak trees for height, agave clusters as large as small automobiles and a prolific assortment of plants bursting with exotic textures, colors, fruits and flowers.
The plants’ amazingly intricate, symmetrical structures lend an other-worldly atmosphere — as do quiet surroundings that replace car engines and street noises with the crunch of fine gravel as people walk along the smoothly curving paths. A Golden Jubilee Gala will celebrate the garden’s 50th anniversary May 13 with an outdoor party that includes silent and Fund A Need auctions, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and desserts by Classic Catering, dancing and live music with Four and More and, of course, a gorgeous botanical setting.
Bancroft Garden board President Gretchen Bartzen said an announcement of the 2022 “Gardeneer Award” will honor the significant initiative, talent and work of a selected volunteer at the garden over the last 10 years. Among the items to be auctioned are dry garden landscape designer consultations, private summer garden dinners and a private home presentation by the garden’s curators that highlights their recent botanical trips abroad. An option to attend virtually is available.
Curator Brian Kemble has been with the garden since 1980 and is a highly regarded writer and lecturer on botanical topics, especially succulent plants. He attributes the garden’s lingering invisibility to history.
“In the old days, there were no plantings and signs. It was the early 1990s and there was only a 6-foot high wooden fence. There was no entrance except at the far end, at Ruth’s driveway. And there were no yuccas that would have been seen over the wall; there were only trees.”
Even with signage, Kemble says they know from feedback that many people at first overlook the garden’s entrance. At what he says was “originally the back door” and where the largest trees and plants are found, the current entrance required considerable plantings: adding monkey flowers, heuchera and other small plants to fill spaces between the large yuccas, agaves, a 200-year-old oak tree and other mature plants. Working closely with Bancroft to “paint with plants,” Kemble says curiosity was a connection they shared from Day One.
“When I saw a plant I didn’t know, I wanted to know all about it, to look up where it’s relatives came from. We’d get excited. Ruth over the years did less botanical traveling but would read and make lists of what she wanted. She felt her commitment to the garden was such (that) she couldn’t go to Chile or South Africa. I became her ambassador. I was her eyes and ears internationally.”
Bancroft made annual excursions to Southern California until her husband got tired of transporting hundreds of plants, Kemble recalls.
“I became her courier for that also, bringing plants back I knew she’d like. Working with her as long as I did, I had a good idea of plant groups she was drawn to, like the agave family and aloes. I brought those, and I bred them, so the ones I hybridized we would plant also. She liked the terrestrial bromeliads, plants in the pineapple family.”
Kemble’s particular passion is hybridizing, which allows him to imagine a plant’s character in a new form.
“It’s many years before a hybrid seed grows, and you find out it does what you anticipate to a “T” or it doesn’t and it’s the worst of what two parent plants can produce. The surprises are perpetually satisfying when watching a sprout go through stages to become a plant.”
Similarly, Kemble has witnessed the remarkable growth of the garden’s facilities, plants, programs and, during the pandemic, its memberships.
“Two big impactful events in the garden’s history were in 1972 and in 1990, when we had enormous freezes. Vast numbers of plants were killed, so that’s a shock we have known.
“But this pandemic was a slow moving force. First a few weeks, then many months when we had to close. We lost revenue, personnel and more. At the same time, everybody was in the boat together: restricted, spending time at home, thinking about what to do. They started projects like gardens. Our plant sales have skyrocketed, and more people visit and join the garden as members.”
Visitors arrive better educated than ever before about water conservation and the environmental and negative health impact of climate change. Even with increased awareness, they bring a bevy of questions about which plants to use and how to plant them.
“At Home Depot, you might see a wonderful plant, but they won’t be able to tell you anything about it,” Kemble says. “They’re not trained in botany or horticulture and have no idea how big an aloe gets, but our staff does.”
Because gardens are not static and the columnar cacti that stand today at 10 feet in another century might have been 30 feet tall, the staff is always anticipating a cascade of far-off positive and negative impacts.
“Somebody once said to Ruth, ‘At your age, you’ll never get to see these things full size.’ She didn’t care. She said that if she didn’t plant it, no one would get to see it at all,” Kemble said.
The same practicality applies to decision-making as the garden enters its second-half century without Ruth. Kemble is developing a master guidebook with input from an advisory committee that includes people who knew Bancroft for years.
“They’re a sounding board, but we’re aware that won’t be the case forever. We want to have clear guidelines so the garden can continue to be Ruth’s long after we are all gone.”
Included in the book are protocols for practices such as using the same color gravel for all beds and paths, the types of plants allowed, determining placements or removals and recording bed histories.
Although it’s a huge project, Kemble says the guidebook is all the more important now that the pandemic has extended the garden’s influence and reach.
“We’re pleased to be a pioneer garden out here. Our workshops and classes, now that we offer them virtually, reach other continents. Our voice is being heard farther afield than we ever imagined.
“We participated in a virtual event with the Seoul (Korea) Botanic Garden this summer, and out of that came perspectives about gardens as healing refuges, places to escape COVID restrictions, to stay inspired when you’re worried about people around you. That speaks to us as an educator and inspiration to the community at large.”