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Bold and dry garden advice

by Timber Press on October 5, 2016

in Design, Gardening


Garden photographs by Marion Brenner.

Make your home garden bolder and more water conscious with these lessons from The Ruth Bancroft Garden.

Commit to conservation

We need our home gardens more than ever. New research suggests that the cultivated parts of suburbia actually support a surprisingly large amount of biological diversity that is otherwise losing its habitat. But it is critical that we cultivate a space in sync with our regional environment. It is time to act as stewards rather than conquerors, and to understand that our yards and gardens are part of the natural environment, not distinct from it.

Don’t prune every dead leaf

Similar to agaves, aloes hold year-round structure in the garden. As with her collection of Yucca, Ruth practiced wildscaping with many types of Aloe, leaving their dead, persistent leaves attached to their trunks to become another layer of sculptural appeal. Aloe is an excellent, forgiving choice for a home garden.

Let diverse plants mingle

Home gardeners need not be as extreme in their plant placement. While Mediterranean-climate plants have adapted to withstand drought in summer, very few will mind supplemental summer irrigation—provided (and this is absolutely key) that the soil drains well. Plants that prefer to be dry in winter also require well-draining soil to prevent rot. Ruth’s garden is filled with plants from different regions in the same beds. They are watered weekly in the summer, twice a week if there is a heat wave.

Embrace native plants

Incorporating natives into your home garden does not mean it will turn into an unkempt habitat garden. Try using Ceanothus as a hedge, either clipped or a little wilder. Along a fence or wall, espalier Garrya elliptica or Fremontodendron. Grow a meadow of Carex pansa with dudleyas interspersed for structure. Mix white-flowered romneyas in liberally with Australian shrubs and trees, and add Salvia clevelandii for the best-scented foliage around.

Landscape for beauty and function

In a home garden, opuntias provide great security systems. Use several at the base of a fence or under a window to deter unwanted visitors. Larger species can screen an unsightly fence while creating a backdrop for smaller dry plants to grow in front. Modest-size types, like Opuntia santa-rita, eventually reach 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide, forming a handsome mound of great purple and green pads with bright yellow flowers. Mix an opuntia in with desert penstemon for a blooming desert border.
Get more waterwise suggestions while learning about the intrepid woman behind the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Johanna Silver’s lushly illustrated book, The Bold Dry Garden

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.


Click the image below for a look inside this book.


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

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