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May 16, 2014 6:16 pm

Chelsea Flower Show: the dry garden of 105-year-old Ruth Bancroft

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Large drought tolerant border including Agave, Yucca, palm trees and succulents - Walnut Creek, California, USA©Andrea Jones

Agave franzosinii with Agave salmiana var crassispina in Ruth Bancroft’s dry garden, Walnut Creek, California

The Ruth Bancroft Garden, which lies about 25 miles east of San Francisco in the city of Walnut Creek, looks as if it were designed to withstand the harsh droughts familiar to Californians today. In fact, it was designed to look beautiful, using drought-tolerant plants that were unusual in the 1970s when Bancroft, now 105, began creating it.

The garden is open to the public: from the entrance the visitor can see the 30ft inflorescences of the Agave franzosinii. Roughly 8ft tall, these plants, having already delivered their swansong, are surrounded by offsets that promise a new generation of long, succulent rosettes of leaves. They constitute some of the stunning architectural elements of Bancroft’s dry garden.

Bancroft never studied horticulture but her love affair with plants started as a child. She brought plants home from her wanderings in the hills of Berkeley, where she lived with her parents, and tried to grow them. Some survived. She spent hours with neighbours who created hybrids. Sometimes they gave her plants to tend.

Her connection with plants deepened in 1939, when she married Phil Bancroft, who helped run his family’s orchard. The young couple moved into the smaller of two houses on the 400-acre walnut and pear orchard in Walnut Creek. Right away, Bancroft planted flowers. In 1954, as her family grew, she and her husband moved into the bigger house on the property. Working sunrise to sundown, she created a herb, iris, rose and border garden around the house: a mishmash of styles from the 1920s. In the 1960s, she started gathering pots of succulents. Her collection expanded and soon she carved a small patch near her garage: a majestic Cereus hildmannianus remains. She took a keen interest in understanding what plants would survive in her environment, experimenting with soil, exposure, shade.

Meanwhile, developers were moving into Walnut Creek. The city redesignated the land from agricultural to residential and the Bancrofts were forced to sell. By 1971, all but 11 acres of the grounds had been sold, with 3.5 acres still planted with walnut trees, earmarked for Ruth’s dry garden.

She commissioned the late Lester Hawkins, owner of a local nursery, to design it, with paths and mounds and a lily pond. (When asked recently why she didn’t design it herself, she said that, even though she’d been one of only two girls to enter the University of California Berkeley to study architecture in 1926, she’d lacked the confidence.) She planted in the spaces created by Hawkins’s general outline. Meticulously researching every plant for eventual size, she tucked small succulents in the gaps between plants that would grow tall. She considered colour: not of flowers but of foliage. She introduced cacti – barrel, columnar, prickly pear – to break the monotony of the succulents’ shape and texture. She ordered rocks from nearby Mount Diablo – the bigger rocks went into beds; gravel went into the paths. For good drainage, she mixed Walnut Creek’s heavy clay soil with sand. She installed irrigation pipes for sprinklers. By September of 1972, the first planting was complete.

echeveria var.'lace'(frilly leaf edge/rosette) ruth bancroft collection, walnut creek,california,april©Christi Carter/Getty

Echeveria in Ruth Bancroft’s collection

That December, freezing weather gripped the garden. Temperatures dipped below 0C for several nights. Although the average low is about 2C, it is not unusual for parts of California to experience frost in winter. The newly dug pond froze and much of what she had planted, aloes for instance, died. Disappointed, Bancroft nevertheless started over, figuring that killer frosts struck only once in a couple of decades. Come spring, she had begun planting again, painstakingly protecting sensitive plants with covers from the autumn on.

Frost was only one of the challenges Bancroft faced: the long hot summers was another. Although the average high in Walnut Creek is 31C, it is not unusual for the mercury to inch into the 40s. To protect the young seedlings, Phil Bancroft built a canopy, under which his wife planted Agave attenuata, a light aqua, and Agave americana. She complemented these with Echeveria gibbiflora, a vibrant patch of green rosettes with pink edging and flowers, and drifts of sedum. With gasteria, she mixed the spiral structure with the rosette. Pushing the boundaries of what would flourish in this climate and heavy soil, Bancroft planted a Pinus torreyana, a rare and endangered species that grows in the coastal soil of San Diego in southern California; the Australian bottle tree, Brachychiton rupestris; and the trumpet vine tree, Tabebuia impetiginosa. All were supposed to be too tropical to survive, yet they lived through several days of subzero temperatures in 1990 and continue to thrive. The aloes proved to be less hardy. “I estimated later that we lost two tons of aloes in the garden,” says Brian Kemble, curator of the garden. “In some cases, the plants were not covered, but in some cases they froze right in their covers.”

In 1988 the late horticulturist Frank Cabot visited the garden and the mix of tropical and desert plants inspired him to start a garden conservation organisation as a way to help garden makers like Bancroft preserve their creations. The first Ruth Bancroft Garden Committee meeting was held the following March under the auspices of his newly formed Garden Conservancy and started the process of moving Bancroft’s private garden to non-profit status. This spring, the conservancy celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Visitors can watch hummingbirds, even in winter, fluttering around the flowering aloes. Aeonium, sedum and graptopetalum arrangements decorate tables scattered among California fan palms, yuccas and prickly pears. When asked if she considered herself a visionary who foresaw California’s continual struggle with droughts, Bancroft says simply: “No, it was something that interested me.”

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