Sculptural dry gardens at the Ruth Bancroft Garden: San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling

Our 1st stop on the 3rd and final day of the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling was the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. It was about 100 degrees F in Walnut Creek that last week of June, but the heat and intense sunlight seemed appropriate for a garden composed of desert plants.

The garden occupies the site of a former walnut orchard owned by the family of Phillip Bancroft, Jr. When the orchard was cut down in 1971 to make way for housing developments, Phillip offered a 3-acre parcel near their house to his wife, Ruth, whose succulent collection had outgrown her greenhouses. Then in her 60s, she began planting a dry garden — unusual for the time — of cactus, succulents, and other water-thrifty plants from Mediterranean climates all over the world.

Her garden soon attracted the attention of other gardeners, horticulturists, and plant lovers, including Frank and Anne Cabot, who formed the Garden Conservancy in order to preserve Ruth’s garden in perpetuity. In 1992 the Ruth Bancroft Garden opened to the public.

Born in 1908, Ruth is either 104 or 105 years old today. As recently as 2011 she was profiled by the Wall Street Journal, which characterized her as a “genuine dirt gardener” who “likes spiky and vicious things.” Oh, so do I!

During our visit, we Flingers were lucky in that the garden’s annual sculpture show was on display. Sculpture fits so well with sculptural plants like agave and cactus, each playing with strong form and bold texture.

These pieces were for sale, and I admired several and coveted a couple. Most pieces were quite expensive, however — priced at thousands of dollars.

Here’s one that resonated with me: “Ready for the Rain” by Lucy Beazley. I thought of all the Texas gardeners this represents.

And how about “Octopus’s Garden,” a charmingly mosaicked globe.

Scott of Rhone Street Gardens, a talented photographer, getting low for a good shot

It was nice to see agaves paired with softer looking plants as well, like the blue, grass-like shrub in the background. Does anyone know what it might be? Update: It’s Ephedra equisetina. Thanks to Greggo for the ID and Phoebe from the garden staff for confirming.


Palo verde trees were in acid-yellow bloom during our visit. A horse-head figure nearby matches in color.

One long, curving berm is given some protection from the sun by a steel shade structure, which adds a bold line to the garden and interesting shadow play as well. See the photo at the top of this post for another angle.

Agave americana mediopicta ‘Alba’, one of my favorites

A study in blue

A colorful, ampersand-like totem pole pops against fan-leaved palms.

I’m fairly sure this is a Marcia Donahue sculpture. As it happens, I met Marcia and visited her Berkeley garden on the day after the Fling; click the link for my post about it.

Surfing cow? Made of recycled materials, including an old ironing board, this is one of several humorous pieces on display.

This piece by Eileen Fitz-Faulkner is titled “What came first?”

Ever the good sport, Kylee of Our Little Acre took advantage of a cut-out, life-size photo to model a cactus skirt and bra. I sure hope she removed the glochids on those prickly pear pads before suiting up.

Golden barrels in a less delicate setting

Of course, the plants are the best sculptural pieces in the garden, and they’re always on display.

Opuntia tunas — the edible fruit of the prickly pear

Wavy, spiny Opuntia skin

Cacti with oleander in bloom

Some of the cacti were in bloom as well, producing stunning flowers.

A plant sale was being set up, and Loree of Danger Garden was already perusing the offerings. She’d arranged to meet up in the garden with Davis, CA, blogger Gerhard of Bamboo, Succulents & More, who was unable to attend the Fling. Here they are comparing plants.

A wall made of cattle panel and landscape fabric, filled with soil and built around a large tree stump, was planted with small succulents. Interesting, but I’d like it better if there were more succulents in the grid. Perhaps they just weren’t finished with it.

If you’re not familiar with desert gardens, you must, as Tucson designer Scott Calhoun advises, “put your desert eyes on” to see the beauty that’s all around you.

Take your time. Soak it in.

Up next: The hilltop Dudan Garden. For a look back at the Bernard Trainor-designed Testa-Vought Garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

12 Responses

  1. Alison says:

    Great look at this unique garden. I coveted several sculptures too. Good photo of Scott too.

    Thanks, Alison. —Pam

  2. rebecca says:

    I just may have had bizarre dreams after viewing the sculpture in this garden…It surely made it interesting!

    “Spiky and vicious” are visually stimulating, I think.

    And physically, if you’re not careful! ;-) —Pam

  3. Your first shot is fabulous! I never seem to get anything but a lot of close-ups when I visit. I’ll have to try a little harder next time.

    Thanks, Susan. That one is all about the curving lines of the shade structure and how it frames the garden scene. I know what you mean about getting lots of close-ups, especially on a garden tour when so many other people are in view. And yet wide views are what really convey the feel of a garden. I’m always wishing I’d taken more (and better) wide shots after a tour. —Pam

  4. peter schaar says:

    Julie and I saw the Bancroft garden in 2010 when we were celebrating our 50th anniversary. It was instantly one of my favorites, even better than I had been anticipating all those years. BTW, Kylee, that faja de nopales looks great on you. You should make one – without the spines and glochids, of course.

    I can see where this one would be right up your alley, Peter. Happy 53rd anniversary, by the way! —Pam

  5. Greggo says:

    Is the blue plant you asked for ID a type of Ephedera? Great tour by the way. Would of liked to be there for sure.

    Thanks for taking a stab at the plant ID, Greggo. I looked up Ephedera but couldn’t be sure. Update: You are right! —Pam

  6. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    My desert eyes like what I see here. Love all the sculpture. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to afford one of those?

    Yes, it would — or even better, to be talented or crafty enough to make your own art! —Pam

  7. Great captures of all the subtleties or even layering there, not to mention the example of plant-driven design…little hardscape was employed there, yet it all worked so well! The Albuquerque-like weather was something; your pics show something softer and kinder, mine show Abq…

    Yes, that weather was something — surprising. But the garden made all the sweat worthwhile. —Pam

  8. What a unique place! I love the chartreuse of the Palo Verde trees. And your photo (4 down from the top) of the succulents all lined up is fabulous!

    Thanks, PP. I’m glad you enjoyed the tour. —Pam

  9. Bob Pool says:

    That was a great tour Pam. I thought I was in……..Arizona. So unusual to see such a great desert themed garden in such an undesert like place.

    I understand that Ruth Bancroft did a good deal of experimenting to figure out how to grow the desert plants she loved. One hard winter wiped out most of her garden. But she just started again. —Pam

  10. Great tour! I completely relate to the ready for rain sculpture too…

    Right? It’s perfect for a drought-prone garden. —Pam

  11. I was curious to get your take on this garden, Pam, since you come from a more similar climate to this one. Although I loved this garden, I’m sure I missed some subtleties that might be more apparent if I had better-developed “desert eyes”. I’m particularly impressed with your photos, considering the strong sun and time of day. Great post!

    Ha ha, my desert eyes are not fully developed either, Jane. While I love agaves and other spiky plants, Austin gardens are typically much more lush than the Ruth Bancroft Garden. I noticed when I visited Tucson that I had to get used to more negative space and a more rugged aesthetic. But then I had to do that when I moved to Austin 20 years ago. —Pam

  12. That bluish plant is indeed an ephedra. Good eye, Greggo! Ephedra equisetina.

    Lovely photos, Pam! Glad you enjoyed your tour despite the heat.

    Thank YOU for sharing Ruth’s beautiful creation with us, and for confirming the ID of the Ephedra. —Pam