Celebrate The Gray
Celebrate The Gray
Fashion Styling, Brand Consulting and Modeling for and about the 50+ woman

Ruth Bancroft at 108 fulfills 40 year wait for Yucca bloom!

[gallery ids="964,965,966" type="rectangular"]Back in 1971 when Ruth Bancroft, then 63, began planting a garden on 3 acres in Contra Costa County, she knew that the yuccas and agaves and other dry-adapted plants she loved might not blossom in her lifetime. But she was less interested in immediate gratification than compelled by what she could learn about the low-water plants she collected, documented and categorized.The story of Bancroft and her namesake garden in Walnut Creek is beautifully told in “The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons From the Ruth Bancroft Garden” by Johanna Silver (Timber Press, 235 pages, $34.95).The public attention for what started as her own private sanctuary might seem even more surreal to Bancroft than the 40-year wait for a single yucca blossom. The centenarian is mostly homebound these days and visits her garden just a few times each year, but conversations with Silver, with the garden’s executive director Gretchen Bartzen and with special-projects coordinator Billie Hopper paint a portrait of a woman who is less driven horticulturalist and more curious collector. Bancroft loved to experiment and learn all she could, starting with irises, then seashells, and later roses and recipe cards before she plunged headlong into dry garden planting.Bancroft began studying architecture in 1926 at UC Berkeley but, says Silver, “When she saw that even men were having trouble getting jobs in the field because of the Great Depression, she switched to home economics.” After marrying Philip Bancroft Jr., for whose grandfather the special-collections library at UC Berkeley is named, Ruth Bancroft moved with her husband to his family’s 400-acre fruit and nut farm. The couple raised three children, and the home-economics degree came in handy since Bancroft cooked lunch every day for Phil and the field hands.By 1971, just 11 acres of the farm remained, the bulk sold off to residential developers. By then, Bancroft’s children were grown. When the 3-acre walnut orchard on the property succumbed to disease, Phil offered it to his wife to design. Ruth Bancroft suddenly had, in the form of that patch of dirt, a blank slate and total control.She began to design a garden to hold the 2,000 succulent plants she had accumulated in greenhouses and shade houses around the family home. “She knew she had to be careful with water,” Hopper says. “They were limited to the well water from the property.”

So last year, when one of the towering yuccas finally sent forth a cascade of spectacular white flowers for the first time in 40 years, Bancroft, now 108, likely appreciated its beauty and the data point it provided in equal measure.
Luckily, those limitations were perfectly suited to the plants that Bancroft spent the next 40 years nurturing. “Plants from dry regions are endlessly curious, really a study in evolution,” says Silver, who is the garden editor at Sunset magazine. “The adaptations can be bizarre, like the Queensland bottle tree whose trunk swells when it stores water, or cacti covered in silver hairs to deter sunlight. They gave Ruth a chance to keep exploring and learning.”Some lessons were harder than others, like the 1972 freeze that carried off most of her initial planting, just months after tender succulents were placed into the ground. But, says Silver, “Frustration isn’t Ruth’s MO. She felt a lot of gratitude for having that piece of land.” In the years that followed, she experimented until she’d designed frost covers that are still used to protect the flora in her namesake garden. And when a similar cold snap happened in the ’90s, most of the plants survived thanks to those wooden and plastic frames.

As a gardener, Bancroft was a model of patience and determination. Says Silver: “There are photos of those 3 acres laid out with 4-inch pots. She liked to start small and give each plant room to grow.”She frequently spent 10 hours a day weeding, sans hat, gloves or water. “I could always tell when Ruth was in the garden,” Hopper says, “because I could follow the trail of weeds she’d pulled and left on the paths.”Ecological stewardship was never the driving passion for Bancroft. Hopper says that first and foremost, “Ruth was a plant lover, a collector and a designer. You could call her an accidental environmentalist.”But Silver says that Bancroft was a pioneer in her embrace of California native plants. “She was not a snob,” says Silver, contrasting Bancroft’s approach to other high-profile gardens in the state that rely on nonindigenous plantings. “From early on, she showcased regionally adapted and drought-tolerant plants.”The steady flow of visitors to the sunny parcel on Bancroft Road, drawn by the chance to see plantings that can stand up to drought and buy them at the nursery near the entrance, are evidence of how Bancroft’s garden helped shift the vision of what a vibrant California garden could look like.

Silver says she learned one other important lesson about gardening from Bancroft in writing the book: “Ruth inspired me to let myself experiment and not be scared. There doesn’t always have to be a finished, a-ha moment. It just has to feed my soul.”Nancy Davis Kho is a freelance writer. Email food@sfchronicle.comVisitThe Ruth Bancroft Garden and Nursery, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. 1552 Bancroft Road, Walnut Creek; (925) 944-9352. www.ruthbancroftgarden.org