Garden Design Ideas from The Bold Dry Garden of Ruth Bancroft

The Bold Dry Garden of Ruth Bancroft

The Bold Dry Garden

Have you seen the fabulous drool-worthy book by the renowned expert on drought-tolerant plants, Ruth Bancroft? The book The Bold Dry Garden is about her lifelong work fearlessly collecting and enjoying plants. The result: the stunning garden of succulents and woody lilies at her home in Walnut Creek, California. 

Her garden is an awesome collection of plants from all over the world that are happy in the hot, dry climate of inland California. Frank Cabot, a retired financier who called himself a "horticultural enthusiast" visited the amazing plants displayed in the garden and ended up founding the Garden Conservancy in 1989 to ensure that Bancroft's garden would live on after her. The Garden Conservancy has so far preserved and restored over 80 outstanding gardens for public inspiration and education. 

The non-profit foundation that runs the Ruth Bancroft Garden published the book which explores the story of the garden along with photos and reviews of the dryland plant families Ruth tested there. Here are a few photos for you to enjoy. 

The Story of Ruth Bancroft

Born in Massachusetts, Ruth Bancroft grew up in Berkeley, California. A plant lover from the time she was a child, Ruth was interested in landscape architect but ended up studying architecture at UC Berkeley. When the 1929 stock market crash derailed her career plans, she earned a home economics degree and later taught high school. Ten years after the crash, she married Philip Bancroft Jr., whose family owned a 400-acre walnut and pear farm in Walnut Creek, California. 

Bancroft had an intense curiosity about plants and nature. She first planted flower gardens around the home she shared with her husband and three children on the Bancroft property, keeping detailed records of what grew and what didn't. Ruth was a passionate collector, always immersed in learning about the plants she amassed, starting with their Latin names.

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Fascinated by strong, dramatic plant shapes, Ruth bought her first succulent in 1950. This was the beginning of the dryland garden. Her first greenhouse eventually expanded to greenhouses, shade houses, and outdoor beds. Working with Lester Hawkins, of the Western Hills Nursery in Occidental, she designed the garden's complex layout to display the plants she loved - succulents, cacti, woody lilies, and other drought-resistant plants. Sally Ingraham, a founding member of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, said of Mrs. Bancroft, “She was dedicated to that garden, and with her talent and ability it became something that was worth saving and quite unique. People come from all over the United States and the world to see it because it's so beautiful and so well-designed."

Ruth Bancroft passed away in 2017 at the age of 109. She was active in maintaining her garden until she was 97 years old, then stayed engaged with the garden until her death. Her story is fascinating, a reminder about the value of taking risks with your garden.

What You Can Learn from Ruth Bancroft

Ruth began imagining and planting her Walnut Creek landscape when she was in her 60's. Surrounded by suburban single-family homes and green lawns, she explored and planted a variety of wildflowers, irises, roses and then plants that are the tough survivors of dry landscapes. Together with Brian Kemble, her cohort from the beginning, she cultivated a collection of dry garden plants, arranging them by their architectural forms, colors, and textures to a stunning effect. 

To get you thinking about your own approach to your garden, here are two things Bancroft did that can easily be adapted for your own yard.

She explored and got caught up in, the beauty of unusual plants by examining the details.

If you think that spiky, thorny, sharp-leaved plants from all over the world are actually cactus, surprise! Did you know that botanists recognize thorns, spikes and prickles on plants? Each type of structure, and its arrangement on a plant helps to define the plant and its plant family. Bancroft researched, discovered, collected and planted differing plants near each other for comparison and contrast. She then kept extensive records, even drawing her own illustrations.

When you actively look at plants that appear to be similar, take time to notice the tiny variations in detail. The plant world around you is wondrous! Try drawing a plant, even if you don't think you can draw. That eye-hand connection helps you learn and remember the plant, even if you'd rather hide your drawing at the end. The point is to zoom in and study each plant's unique qualities and what makes it special. 

Bancroft used trial and error to learn what suited each plant the best.

Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Mail Order Nursery in Juniper Level, North Carolina, has written in his catalog that he believed a plant was suited for his climate until he'd killed it at least three times. Experimenting with a plant doesn't mean you stick it in the ground once and give up if it doesn't make it. It means taking the time to observe, observe and observe to see how the plant likes to grow. Maybe you move it to a shadier or sunnier spot, give it more or less water, more or less fertilizer or organic matter in the soil. Pay attention to what the plant's telling you.

Using this approach, Bancroft started small, testing plants by growing them from seed or cuttings. As a result, she found that some succulents prefer partial, or even high shade, as opposed to the intense direct sunlight you might assume that all dryland plants like. As a part of her testing, she also experimented with different ground conditions. Eventually, she chose rock from nearby quarries as the best mulch for her dry garden. Some beds got more rock, bigger chunks of rock, while other beds got smaller ones, depending on the preferences discovered through her experimentation.

What can you take away from The Bold Dry Garden? The value of noticing - in detail - what nature offers in the plant world is a small investment for increasing your success in your garden. You can even experiment with creating perfect conditions for plant happiness with one kind of plant, in a small space, even a patio or porch. And, slowing down, making a connection with nature, can be a wonderful option for relaxation, healing, and unwinding from stress. Start collecting today!!

Ann Yakimovicz