Spearheading the Succulents: Ruth Bancroft

I’ve  been to The Ruth Bancroft Garden a few times over the past months and it is a stunning treasure of a garden--really a site/sight to behold. The staff and volunteers there have been busy punching it up-dividing pups-making the garden and nursery stellar in prep for their Annual Fall Plant Sale and Festival.  It starts today...with plants from Ruth Bancroft's home garden, plants grown from their collection, and some special Brian Kemble hybrids.

Trend-maker and garden-setter (wait, that doesn't sound right) was spot on with her xeric love-affair in hot, dry Walnut Creek,  long before the succulent craze hit the gardening scene.  In 1950, Ruth acquired her first succulent, Aeonium 'Glenn Davidson', which still grows in the public garden.  Up until the 1960s, the land was a prolific walnut and pear orchard.  When the last of the pear trees went in 1971, Mr. Bancroft gave it to Ruth to extend her already extensive gardens.  

Ms. Bancroft and the gardeners have effectively identified garden-worthy succulents suitable for the landscape.  The additions of non-succulent, xeric plants (Acacia, Bupleurum, Brachychiton populneus, Irises, mature Palms, Chorisia speciosa...)  are a welcome foil, placing the forceful shapes of the succulents in bold relief.  Apart from the agaves, perhaps the most stunning specimen are the barrel cacti (although the Opuntias also make me swoon).   

Tough work-horse plants have been massed in the harsher and more exposed regions in the garden, whereas the most delicate specimen are protected in the "Garden Folly", so the garden is a good guide for selecting plants for one's own garden.  It's hard to find good examples of mature nerdy plants--rarely do I see Alyogone hakeifolia while I'm out for a jog.    Even though I read that it grows to a wide 10' shrub, it's hard to conceptualize when looking at it in a 4" pot.  And it's great to see certain succulents thriving in a fair bit of shade.  There are certain beds which she indended more specifically as collection display beds, loosely grouped with old world succulents (e.g., Euphorbias), and new world succulents (e.g., Echeverias) and suitable companion plants.  Then there are the big bones of the garden that organize the space.  Here, instead of large hedges and walls there are agaves, opuntias, palms, and many dramatic New Zealand, Australia, and South American natives that are well-suited for the site, comprising the garden structure and dynamic borders.  One of the things that keeps me excited about the garden is that although there is an extensive collection of unique plants,  it's not merely a collector's garden; there are all kinds of interesting & unexpected site-lines that make it a beautiful, as well as interesting, space.  

The garden (There was blaring sun so the shadows are weird):

Mammillaris gemniflora...worth the trip all by itself!


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