Motorist speed up and down busy Bancroft Road, unwittingly bypassing one of Walnut Creek, California’s hidden secrets: The Ruth Bancroft Garden.
The idea for the garden might have been germinating in Ruth Bancroft’s mind back in 1971 when I briefly lived just up the road in the city of Concord. But by the time she started planting it the following year, I had moved more than a dozen miles west, over the Berkeley Hills to Oakland. And three years after that I relocated to Marin County, an hour’s drive from Walnut Creek.
It would take me over forty years to find my way to Ruth’s garden, which she still has a hand in tending in the 105th year of her life.
The Bancroft name is well-known to long-time residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bancroft Library on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley is named after Hubert Howe Bancroft, a historian and publisher who founded the 400-acre walnut and pear farm on whose site The Ruth Bancroft Garden is located today.
Ruth moved to the farm after marrying Hubert Howe Bancroft’s grandson, Philip, in 1939. Her initial horticultural project was the creation of an English-style garden of roses, herbs, perennials and other flowers near the family farmhouse.
But she soon developed an interest in succulents, one of many types of drought-tolerant plants now the hallmarks of the Ruth Bancroft Garden.
When the ranch’s land was rezoned for residential development and chunks were sold to home builders, Philip gave Ruth about three-and-a half acres of the property to use for her garden. But he told her that there was no well water to spare for her hobby; she’d have to figure out how to plant it in a way to make use of the seasonal winter rainfall.
Ruth hired Lester Hawkins of the Western Hills Nursery to design the garden’s layout. With an artist’s eye, she meticulously added an assortment of plants native to places around the world where water wasn’t abundant. And although she picked ones that reach their peak bloom in spring to early summer, she also made sure that the garden would be in flower year-round.
In 1989, The Ruth Bancroft Garden became the first project of The Garden Conservancy, a non-profit that supports preservation of important gardens in the United States. The garden opened to the public three years later in 1992.
There are three ways to tour The Ruth Bancroft Garden. If you’re an expert gardener, or just want to wander ar0und on your own, stop at the garden’s office and pick up the self-guided tour book and garden map, plus a list of what’s in bloom and available for purchase in the nursery. To help sort out what you are seeing, opt for a 20-minute general guided tour. But if you’ve got the time and interest, spend an hour or so roaming through the garden with one of the knowledgeable docents, like fellow travel writer Adrian D’Souza, who accompanied me on my walk about the place.
Although I’m a “Black Thumb” gardener, I had no problem identifying the large desert plants known as agaves, famous for their use in producing Mexico’s high-octane beverage, tequila. And I’m told that on occasion, the Ruth Bancroft Garden has hosted a tasting of that South-of-The-Border drink.
But if you’re concerned that sipping tequila might send you reeling tipsily into one of the garden’s prickly pear cacti, you can always attend the Tea Tasting and Tour of Ruth’s Private Garden, the Art & Jazz Sunset Social when nothing more potent than wine will be served, or the Fruit Tasting Tour.
A warm summer or fall evening would also be a great time to rent out the garden for your own special catered event.
And if you want to learn more about drought-tolerant plants that are ideal your home gardens, take one of the many classes offered at the garden, including those taught by Ruth Bancroft herself.
It was a perfect beginning-of-spring day when I visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden this past Saturday. For more information on how you can enjoy Ruth’s floral wonderland, visit the Ruth Bancroft Garden Website.
(Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, toured The Ruth Bancroft Garden as a guest of the garden’s Executive Director, Gretchen Bartzen.)