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The Ruth Bancroft Garden — Summerized

Here are the rest of my Ruth Bancroft Garden photos, mostly from my second visit to the garden, after the cold frames were taken down. Most of the plants outside of the cold frames are fairly common in Bay Area dry gardens these days, but I didn’t know a lot of the cactus species that had been under the frames. It was definitely worth the second visit to see them out of their plastic winter wrappers.

This photo and the next three are plants that don’t need winter protection in the Walnut Creek, so they were outside of the cold frames my first visit.

Even without the frames, there’s still a funky desert aesthetic created by some of the homemade staking.

The garden has some cool big yuccas.

This tree aloe was in the cold frame on stilts. Someone told me that in a single year they once lost 5 or 6 tons of aloes from a frost, hauling away whole dumpster loads of them.

NY Times and SF Gate did articles with photos of Ruth Bancroft and the garden when she turned 100 last year.

– The San Jose Mercury News has an article about some new work going on at the garden, with photos of the garden throughout the years.

The Ruth Bancroft Garden — Winterized

I’ve been meaning to do a long post about the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, but long posts don’t seem to fit into my schedule right now, so it’ll come in a couple of parts. I visited the garden a couple of times recently, once in late March when the garden was still winterized and again two weeks later when the garden was primped up for its open house. Very cool garden. It has what’s probably the biggest collection of succulents and cactus in Northern California and it was the garden that inspired the creation of the Garden Conservancy.

From the Ruth Bancroft Garden website:

‘By trial and error, Ruth discovered how to use succulents in the landscape and how to protect tender plants from winter rains and the occasional hard freeze. She created dynamic planting combinations by using contrasting textures, forms, and colors.

‘Ruth’s garden began to attract a great deal of attention from other gardeners and horticulturists. In 1988, Frank and Anne Cabot visited Ruth and were troubled to hear that there were no plans to preserve the garden. They were inspired to form the Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving significant American gardens, and The Ruth Bancroft Garden became the first preservation project of the newly formed organization. The Garden opened to the public in the early 1990s.

Today, The Ruth Bancroft Garden, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which owns the garden and raises funds for its preservation. The garden is protected by a conservation easement, which ensures that the property will always be a garden and will be preserved in the spirit of its founder, Ruth Bancroft. The Garden has become an outstanding example of a water-conserving garden, appropriate for our Mediterranean climate. The garden also houses important collections of aloes, agaves, yuccas, and echeverias. Aeonium ‘Glenn Davidson’, the first succulent in Ruth’s collection, is still growing in The Garden.’

It’s a pretty well known garden in the area and I had heard a lot about it. The way the Fleming garden is the Bay Area’s place to see a mature garden of natives, the Ruth Bancroft Garden is the local place to see big, mature succulents. I found it a little less impressive than I expected, but also much more funky and interesting. I was expecting something like the slick use of succulents you see from designers these days, but instead the garden has a much more organic feel, like a real garden, the creation of an obsessive gardener who would wander around with a plant in her hand trying to find a spot where there might be space and where the plant might look nice.

One of the interesting aspects of the garden is that many of its specimens are not hardy in Walnut Creek, so Ruth Bancroft outfitted them with homemade cold frames every winter. Apparently, it took her 5-6 weeks every year to get the garden ready for winter, and 2-3 days just to plan where the different cold frames should go. Pretty crazy. Showing the photos of the plants all wrapped in plastic feels a little like showing the garden with its hair in rollers, but I found it quite fascinating and unique to see the garden so winterized, and, actually, this is how the garden looked when the founder of the Garden Conservancy first visited the garden and felt compelled to found an organization to preserve it. In the oral history of the Bancroft garden (pretty interesting if you have the time), she expresses surprise that Cabot was so impressed with the garden while it was in winter mode, but personally I’m not surprised. The homemade cold frames and the giant specimens and the interesting plant textures and combinations make the garden distinctive and full of personality. You walk in and immediately know there’s no other garden like it.

– Update 12/13 — A few of my photos here were used in a French publication, PlantAExotica, looks like a good read for succulent lovers who speak French.

The Public Option

Yellow Agave

Pineapple?

[poll id="2"]

Pineapple

Pineapple

I’ve been meaning to try running a poll. I might play around with the styling and other options a bit, so bear with me. Let me know if anything gets funky or explodes.

Transplanting a Six Foot Agave

Agave and Ceanothus

Striped Agave and Ceanothus

What do porcupines say after they kiss?

Ouch.

This is largest, spiniest plant I’ve ever transplanted. It had been planted too close to a path and had reached a point where it required a delicate, sideways, dodging step to get around it. It also happened to be in a raised wooden box that was the only geometric element in an otherwise naturalistic garden, not okay. There was talk about consigning it to the green bin of life and less serious talk about homegrown tequila or mezcal, but it had been the most striking element in the garden for years and it was much much cooler than anything else that could have been brought in to replace it. You can’t really come up with a better focal point. So I agreed to try moving it.

It was kind of fun, actually; certainly more interesting than anything else I’ve ever transplanted. I wrapped it in burlap and wore two pairs of gloves, but the thorns pretty much laughed at that (Local seller of succulents, Cactus Jungle Nursery, says to use pieces of carpet when you move a cactus and if anyone asks you to move one of these agaves, “just tell them no”), though I actually got most of my pokes while I was cleaning out the pups growing all around it. The real challenge was the weight of the thing. I don’t know what it weighed, but it was much more than a hundred pounds and boulders seem easy to move in comparison. I couldn’t lift it, and the only way I could move it was to grab the top of it and kind of leverage it around while the client’s landscape architect friend rather tentatively pried at it with a rock bar. He didn’t seem to find the process as charming as I did.

Fortunately, we were only moving it three feet, to the center of the planting bed, about the limit on how far I can move a big agave.  We moved it in early October, which I think is a little late — you want it to heal and put out new roots before the cold and wet of the rainy season — but the plant didn’t seem to mind and it’s still looking healthy now, a year later. And if it grows a few feet wider and blocks the path again? Well…

Striped Agave & California Fescue

California fescue & striped agave

California fescue & striped agave

The blues in the striped agave and Festuca californica are a pretty obvious match. Festucas look really nice this time of year, especially next to Arizona flagstone and terra cotta pots. We put the agave there to stop me from stepping across the narrow planting bed. You can’t really top agaves for crowd control.