Back in 1971 when Ruth Bancroft, then 63, began planting a garden on 3 acres in Contra Costa County, she knew that the yuccas and agaves and other dry-adapted plants she loved might not blossom in her lifetime. But she was less interested in immediate gratification than compelled by what she could learn about the low-water plants she collected, documented and categorized.
The story of Bancroft and her namesake garden in Walnut Creek is beautifully told in “The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons From the Ruth Bancroft Garden” by Johanna Silver (Timber Press, 235 pages, $34.95).
The public attention for what started as her own private sanctuary might seem even more surreal to Bancroft than the 40-year wait for a single yucca blossom. The centenarian is mostly homebound these days and visits her garden just a few times each year, but conversations with Silver, with the garden’s executive director Gretchen Bartzen and with special-projects coordinator Billie Hopper paint a portrait of a woman who is less driven horticulturalist and more curious collector. Bancroft loved to experiment and learn all she could, starting with irises, then seashells, and later roses and recipe cards before she plunged headlong into dry garden planting.
Bancroft began studying architecture in 1926 at UC Berkeley but, says Silver, “When she saw that even men were having trouble getting jobs in the field because of the Great Depression, she switched to home economics.” After marrying Philip Bancroft Jr., for whose grandfather the special-collections library at UC Berkeley is named, Ruth Bancroft moved with her husband to his family’s 400-acre fruit and nut farm. The couple raised three children, and the home-economics degree came in handy since Bancroft cooked lunch every day for Phil and the field hands.
By 1971, just 11 acres of the farm remained, the bulk sold off to residential developers. By then, Bancroft’s children were grown. When the 3-acre walnut orchard on the property succumbed to disease, Phil offered it to his wife to design. Ruth Bancroft suddenly had, in the form of that patch of dirt, a blank slate and total control.
She began to design a garden to hold the 2,000 succulent plants she had accumulated in greenhouses and shade houses around the family home. “She knew she had to be careful with water,” Hopper says. “They were limited to the well water from the property.”