WALNUT CREEK – Phenomenally, the Ruth Bancroft Garden & Nursery has retained its mysterious aura as its world-renowned 3.5 acres enters a second half-century of activity. Established 50 years ago as a private garden for the huge collection of succulents, cacti and drought-tolerant plants of the late Ruth Bancroft, who died aged 109 in 2017, the garden in 1992 became a non-profit organization for profit open to the public. It was the first American garden preserved by The Garden Conservancy, a Bancroft-inspired national organization that preserves private gardens for public use.
Even so, in 2022, hundreds of people drive or walk daily along Bancroft Boulevard in Walnut Creek, unknowingly passing the urban garden with no idea of its contents or rarity. Those who find the time and opportunity to visit discover towering yuccas that rival oaks for height, clusters of agave as tall as small automobiles, and a prolific assortment of plants brimming with textures, colors, exotic fruits and flowers.
The incredibly intricate symmetrical structures of the plants lend an otherworldly atmosphere, as does a quiet environment that replaces car engines and street noises with the crunch of fine gravel as people walk along the winding paths. A Golden Jubilee Gala will celebrate the garden’s 50th anniversary on May 13 with an outdoor party that includes silent auctions and Fund A Need, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and desserts by Classic Catering, dancing and live music with Four and More and, of course, a beautiful botanical setting.
Bancroft Garden Board Chair Gretchen Bartzen said the announcement of the 2022 Gardeneer Award would honor significant initiative, talent and hard work by a selected volunteer at the garden over the past 10 years. . Among the items up for auction are consultations from dry garden landscapers, private summer garden dinner parties and a home presentation by garden curators that showcases their recent botanical trips abroad. An option to attend virtually is available.
Curator Brian Kemble has worked at the garden since 1980 and is a popular writer and lecturer on botanical subjects, especially succulents. He attributes the garden’s continued invisibility to history.
“In the past, there were no plantations or signs. It was in the early 1990s and there was only a 6 foot high wooden fence. There was no entrance except at the back, in Ruth’s driveway. And there were no yuccas to be seen over the wall; there were only trees.
Even with the signage, Kemble says they know from reviews that many people overlook the entrance to the garden first. At what he says was “originally the back door” and where the tallest trees and plants are, the current entrance has required extensive planting: addition of monkey flowers, heuchera and other small plants to fill the spaces between tall 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 bond they shared from day one.
“When I saw a plant that I didn’t know, I wanted to know everything about it, to find out where its parents came from. We would be excited. Over the years, Ruth took fewer botanical trips but read and made lists of what she wanted. She felt that her commitment to the garden was such (that she) could not go to Chile or South Africa. I became his ambassador. I was his eyes and ears internationally.
Bancroft took annual field trips to Southern California until her husband grew tired of hauling hundreds of plants, Kemble recalled.
“I became her messenger for that too, bringing plants that I knew she would like. Working with her for as long as I did, I had a good idea of the plant groups that appealed to her, like the agave and aloe family. I brought them in and raised them, so the ones I hybridized, we planted them too. She loved terrestrial bromeliads, plants of the pineapple family.
Kemble’s particular passion is hybridization, which allows him to imagine the character of a plant in a new form.
“It takes many years for a hybrid seed to sprout, and you find out it either does what you expect a ‘T’ to do or it doesn’t and that’s the worst of what two mother plants can produce. The surprises are perpetually satisfying when watching a sprout go through the stages of becoming a plant.
Likewise, Kemble has witnessed remarkable growth in the garden’s facilities, plants, programs and, during the pandemic, membership.
“Two big milestones in the history of the garden were in 1972 and 1990 when we had huge freezes. A lot of plants were killed, so it was a shock we had.
“But this pandemic was a slow force. First a few weeks, then several months when we had to close. We lost revenue, staff and more. At the same time, everyone was in the boat together: restrained, spending time at home, thinking about what to do. They started projects like gardens. Our plant sales have skyrocketed, and more and more people are visiting and joining the garden as members.
Visitors arrive better informed than ever about water conservation and the environmental and negative impact of climate change on health. Even with increased awareness, they bring a host of questions about which plants to use and how to plant them.
“At Home Depot, you might see a wonderful plant, but they can’t tell you anything about it,” Kemble says. “They are not trained in botany or horticulture and have no idea how big an aloe is, but our staff do.”
Because the gardens are not static, and the columnar cacti that now stand 10 feet in another century might have been 30 feet tall, staff still anticipate a cascade of far-reaching positive and negative impacts.
“Someone once said to Ruth, ‘At your age, you’ll never see these things in full size.’ She didn’t care. She said if she didn’t plant it, no one would be able 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 guide with input from an advisory committee that includes people who have known Bancroft for years.
“They are a sounding board, but we realize that won’t be the case forever. We want to have clear guidelines so that the garden can continue to belong to Ruth long after we are gone.
The book includes protocols for practices such as using the same color gravel for all beds and paths, types of plants allowed, determining locations or setbacks, and recording bed histories.
Although it’s a huge project, Kemble says the guide is all the more important now that the pandemic has extended the garden’s influence and reach.
“We are delighted to be a pioneer garden here. Our workshops and courses, now that we offer them virtually, are reaching other continents. Our voice is heard further than we ever imagined.
“We participated in a virtual event with the Seoul Botanical Garden (Korea) this summer, and it came up with perspectives on gardens as healing havens, places to escape COVID restrictions, to stay inspired when you worry about the people around you. It speaks to us as an educator and an inspiration to the community as a whole.
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com.