The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden

The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604696707
Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/05/2016
Pages: 236
Sales rank: 510,726
Product dimensions: 10.00(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Johanna Silver is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, and garden designer. She is the 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

Read an Excerpt

Preface: My Journey to Ruth’s Garden
Before I started working on this book, I had never been to the Ruth Bancroft Garden. This was embarrassing for a garden editor at Sunset magazine to admit. Sure, I had heard of Ruth’s garden. I knew it was a dry garden. I had seen photographs of the arching bed of tightly planted small succulents shielded by a shade structure and portraits of Ruth standing next to a patch of giant Agave franzosinii, but I had never visited. My first trip to this iconic garden was to be interviewed as a potential writer for this book.

My first impression of the garden was that it was small (it is 3 acres under cultivation). I wondered if there was enough for an entire book, if I would get bored, and if there was enough to photograph. Despite my hesitation, I was grateful for the opportunity, eager to immerse myself in the topic of dry gardening in the face of California’s worst-ever drought, and excited about the chance to work with photographer Marion Brenner.

The year that followed was a crash course in Ruth’s life, Ruth’s plants, and Ruth’s garden. It has been the ultimate humbling experience. The first thing I learned was that fancying us both “plant people” would not be enough to make me understand Ruth’s drive. Ruth is a collector. I had no previous exposure to this subgroup, so I had to learn that more than just a love of plants motivates this population. Collectors have an insatiable need to possess knowledge, both intellectually and materially. Ruth’s garden came from her desire to grow each and every plant that interested her (a list that never shrank) in order to learn each one fully. I quickly realized that while I might pass as succulent-literate to a beginner, Ruth’s plant collection earns her extreme expert status, as her garden is a double black diamond of dry-adapted plants. Her “small” garden was too big and too full for me ever to fully grasp.

Many months into the project, it struck me that Marion—no stranger to shooting gardens large or small, foreign or domestic, natural or formal—had not once tired of Ruth’s garden. She gleefully packed up her camera, tripod, and scrims and toted them out to Walnut Creek every weekend. Her enthusiasm deepened my interest. Marion, often bored by plant close-ups, could not get enough of them in Ruth’s garden. Individual species were endlessly fascinating: the spiny, ornate cactus are curiously enticing, and their flowers are disproportionately delicate and dainty—an awesome foil to those spines. Marion and I obsessed over subtlety we had never known, like the metallic sheen on new opuntia growth that we spent almost a full afternoon capturing. But Marion never tired of the vistas in the garden; I often had to holler at her to keep moving. Finally I acquiesced. Marion was right to linger, as the garden was always changing. The plants ebbed and flowed in their seasons of bloom and sleep. I expected year-round structure from cactus and succulents, but not the constant year-round change in growth and dormancy we encountered. We would arrive at the garden and try to walk around before setting up the camera, just to make sure we would not get so captivated by something near the entrance that we would never make it to the further reaches. Different things caught our eyes each time, from the tiniest ring of flowers that had developed along the crown of a cactus sitting at ground level to a freshly formed agave flower stalk that looked like a rocket about to propel into space. Ruth’s garden boasts aloe plants in bloom from winter through summer, thanks to her longtime greenhouse manager, Brian Kemble, who has mastered a collection that is always giving. In spring, agaves swam amid a sea of orange- and yellow-flowered bulbine, but by early summer, ruby grass (Melinis nerviglumis) replaced the space between, adding movement and texture, with seed heads catching backlight.

The light was another dynamic factor. The garden grows in a flat stretch of low-lying suburbia, unimpeded by tall buildings, and is awash in constantly changing light that plays perfectly with all the plants, from the statuesque to the ephemeral. The glow softens in the afternoons and evenings, backlighting structural plants, peeking through strappy leaves, and making spines look like radiant auras. One evening, when I was sure I had seen it all, the large, drooping melaleuca branches caught the sun in a way I had never noticed. Its beauty paralyzed me. We had trouble walking away as we lost the light, and Marion opened the camera’s exposure for longer and longer to see if we could capture one last shot.

Today I am no closer to being a plant collector than I was when I signed up to write this book. But a few things have changed. I will never again pretend to be literate with succulents (hearing someone loudly make that claim is your first indication to keep looking for a real expert). I am more lost than ever in a world of almost endless species, hybrids, and variations. But I am also fascinated by the details of plants, both as individual specimens and members of a diverse planting. I cannot resist peering into the leaves of an eye-level palm so I can witness the gentle geometry of its leaves making room for one another to unfold unimpeded by the one before. If a haworthia is in a small pot, I will likely pick it up to see if I can catch its leaves’ surreal translucent glow. And with a love of Dyckia fully realized, I do not plant a succulent mix without its dreamy sharp, radial structure as part of the composition. I am now more likely to research where a plant comes from and track down photos of its natural habitat in order to get a sense of what helps it thrive in the garden.

A love of plants is not what makes me feel connected to Ruth; rather, it is the practice of indulging my curiosity, as that is how she has spent her life. Intellectual as Ruth’s love of plants might be, she retains a childlike curiosity. She is open to any plant type she finds appealing, from roses to cactus, and happy to talk with anyone, knowledgeable or not, about what they find appealing. You do not have to be an expert like Ruth to enjoy her garden. As long as you bring your curiosity, you are welcome inside her garden and into her world.

I started this book just after Ruth’s 106th birthday and wrapped it up right before she turned 107. I met with her on several occasions in her home and once in the garden. While her memory is understandably unreliable, she is very engaged with the world. She spends her days reading, listening to classical music and opera, and catching up on British dramas. When I first met her, I mentioned her recent birthday, and she swore there was no way she could have been 106. One sunny day we helped her into the garden because Brian was eager to show her recent updates. He gently oriented her to the history of a bed, updated her on the reasons behind particular choices, and asked for her approval. While they were staring at giant desert fan palms, he said, “You were planting the garden when you were in your sixties, and people said, ‘It takes so long for these things to get big, you’ll never live to see it.’ But you did, and there they are. And they became magnificent.” He reminded Ruth of her response: “You told them, ‘Well, who cares if I’m around or not? Someone will be around. And if I don’t plant it then nobody will get to see it.’”

During my time with Ruth, her eyes lit up twice: once on the subject of weeding (“I always felt like I was doing just a little bit of good in the world”), and once at the mention of Brian, who started working for her in 1980. Brian found a home for his horticultural obsessions in Ruth’s garden, and a lifelong friend in Ruth. I interviewed many people and practically memorized Ruth’s oral history, but I relied most on Brian for hard-hitting plant information and for understanding Ruth’s intentions. He is a most trustworthy guide into her world.

I am honored to share Ruth’s garden with you. And I hope you will find, like I did, that the longer you stare, the more there is to see. This is an opportune moment to reclaim our gardens as regionally appropriate spaces, and Ruth’s is a treasure chest of inspiration, lessons learned, and beauty.

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The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
TheThoughtSpot More than 1 year ago
Thanks to NetGalley and Timber Press for the arc of The Bold Dry Garden by Johanna Silver! This book is a story of one woman's beautiful gardens and her impressive talent with plants. Ruth Bancroft's story is told from when she was a young girl up to the age of over 100. The book breaks down the plants into different species and types and contains gorgeous photographs of Ruth's gardens and different plant examples.