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The early life of Ruth Bancroft: The woman who inspired the Garden Conservancy

by Timber Press on October 4, 2016

in Design, Gardening, Natural History, Regional

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Garden photographs by Marion Brenner and family images courtesy of the Ruth Bancroft Estate and the Ruth Bancroft Garden.

Like so many of us, Ruth Bancroft started life as an inquisitive child with a love of nature. Through her work at the iconic Ruth Bancroft Garden, she shaped the world of landscaping with a waterwise collage of colors and textures that proves a well-curated dry garden never goes out of style.

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To call Ruth Bancroft a gardener is the understatement of a lifetime. Although she gardened diligently for decades, it was simply a means to an end on a lifelong quest for knowledge. Ruth is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with intellectual curiosity that is satisfied only when she accumulates something in its entirety. For Ruth, to collect is to know—to study, record, and preserve. Along the way, she was able to learn, travel, and design without leaving her own yard. And she built one of the most impressive collections of dry-adapted plants on the planet, all for the sake of knowing and marveling at the natural world. Ruth always loved plants. Born in 1908 to Swedish immigrants, Ruth Petersson moved from Boston to Northern California as an infant when her father was offered a job as a professor of Latin at the University of California, Berkeley, where Ruth eventually enrolled in 1926, planning to study architecture. She really wanted landscape architecture, but the program was new, and her parents steered her onto the more traditional architecture path. In a program of 50 students, Ruth was one of two women. Three years later, the stock market crashed and Ruth was forced to abandon her career ambitions:

“None of the men could get architecture jobs. And of course there were very few girls studying it then. So I decided to go into teaching, which was safe.”

Ruth graduated with a teaching certificate in 1932 and taught home economics at a school in Merced. In the mid-1930s, Ruth went on a blind date with her future husband, Philip Bancroft Jr., a friend of her sister’s boyfriend. Although he was not an obsessive collector like Ruth, the two connected deeply around a shared love of art, books, classical music, and opera. Ruth was captivated with strong forms in nature. The geometry of the shells was a precursor to her love for cactus and succulents, as the vast majority of both collections feature round forms with striking detail. She had quietly and single-handedly collected and preserved enough to create her own mini museum. And her meticulous approach to collecting plants would be her greatest triumph.

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It was an accident that Ruth became a pioneer of dry gardening in the American West. Her lifelong love of plants—all of them, from wildflowers to roses—eventually led to an especially deep dive into cactus, succulents, and other dry-adapted plants from arid climates around the world. More than any other genre of plant she collected, the dry palette bit her the hardest. Her love affair started with a small rosette-shaped, fleshy-leaved aeonium. The architectural, ornately symmetrical forms of the genus stole her heart. And while she did not design her garden out of any desire to prove a point about water-wise gardening, their adaptations to dry conditions make these plants even more enchanting.

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Ruth and Phil hired Ted Osmundson, a landscape architect who had collaborated with Thomas Church. Ted was accustomed to working in the more immediate Bay Area, specifically Oakland. He saw the shade of the magnificent oak trees on the Bancroft property and recommended planting camellias, rhododendrons, and azaleas. Ruth had been gardening for a few years in Walnut Creek, and she knew the climate was significantly different from Oakland. It was much hotter in the summer and much colder in the winter, the soils were heavy clay, and the water was very alkaline. Ruth noted that Ted’s choices were not suitable for her space. He ignored her suggestions—either because of arrogance or refusal to listen to a woman—and within a year all his plantings were dead. Ruth took over the planting beds and experimented with mixed perennials. She soon had collections of hybrid tea and shrub roses, daffodils, and scented pelargoniums. As with everything else, Ruth paid attention to what worked and what did not, and she kept detailed records. She did not just want to make things pretty; she wanted to learn.

As Ruth’s gardens and family grew, a dramatic plant type caught her eye—succulents.

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Ruth was fearless in her approach to gardening. Although she nearly lost her entire collection to a freak cold spell the first winter it was in the ground, she started over immediately—but never played it safe with her choices. She had a strong case of zone denial; an unwillingness to be limited by a few degrees of cold. She tried anything she fancied, and went to great lengths to protect plants during winter.

In addition to horticultural experimentation, the Ruth Bancroft Garden also represents the first of its kind in garden preservation for the United States. While Ruth was content growing the garden just for herself, Frank Cabot, one of the world’s leading garden preservationists, had the foresight to recognize the space as uniquely American and worth protecting. In 1989, he established the Garden Conservancy, which is devoted to preserving unique and noteworthy private gardens and helping them convert to public ones. As of 2015 the organization has helped save or restore more than 80 gardens, and Ruth’s was its very first.

To learn more about the history of the The Ruth Bancroft Garden and Ruth’s unique gardening perspective, read The Bold Dry Garden and visit the garden website.

Already inspired? Check out these blog posts celebrating low-water plants:
Tiny Striking Succulents from Around the World
Garden Inspiration: Succulents
How and when to water air plants

silver_j Johanna Silver is a San Francisco–based writer, editor, and garden designer. She is the associate garden editor at Sunset, where she also manages the editorial test garden. Johanna is a regular contributor to Sunset magazines, books, and videos. Her writing earned her a James Beard Award in 2009 for her contributions to the One-Block Diet blog and an ASME award for General Excellence in 2014. Her website is johannasilver.com.

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Click the image below for a look inside this book.

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“This sumptuous book will inspire you to create your own water-saving paradise.” —Flora Grubb, owner of Flora Grubb Gardens

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