Updated: Jan 31
Exploring the riches of the East Bay
The Ruth Bancroft Garden and Nursery is a hidden treasure in the East Bay. Located in Walnut Creek, CA the garden feels hundreds of miles from me. Although as the crow flies it is only 15 miles east of my house. Somehow the change in elevation and climate make it seem otherworldly some days. But I plan to change my perception of its remoteness and visit there more often. I first explored the garden in the late 1990’s while I was studying Landscape Architecture. This was a few years after the garden's official opening to the public.
Ruth Bancroft was an amazing gardener and designer. Upon getting into my car after the last visit I read up on her biography and her connection to UC Berkeley. The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is an important institute of California history. Here she was only 15 miles away creating one of the most important gardens in California. Turns out that Ruth Bancroft was the granddaughter-in-law to Hurbert Bancroft. She started her xeric garden on land that was purchased by old Mr. Bancroft.
Ruth Bancroft bought her first succulent in 1950’s when she was over 40 years of age. (That gives me some renewed faith that I can still make a difference in the world.) Although she studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft switched to teaching to ensure her employability. She was already an avid gardener when she brought home that first succulent. Her plots were filled with roses, bearded irises, and popular perennials. Bancroft fell prey to the beguiling little succulent. She soon assembled a sizable collection of them. They remained potted, as specimens of interest, in the lathe-house and greenhouses on the property. The succulents’ low water use and architectural nature entranced Bancroft. Their sap-engorged leaves can store enough water to sustain themselves during dry seasons. This makes them perfect for California Central Valley’s wet and dry oscillations.
In 1971 with the family’s last Walnut orchard uprooted Bancroft took three acres of the land to home her evergrowing succulent collection. She based her garden designs on her training as an architect. Bancroft considered the delicate nature of some of her specimens. She also had an exquisite sense of form, texture, and color.
You can read more about Ruth Bancroft and how her garden became a renowned institution or preservation on its website. In the meantime, enjoy these sculptural plants lit like fantastic beasts, gorgons, and dragons. Then set a date in your calendar to visit the garden. You won't be disappointed.