Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
October, 2012
Regional Report

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Golden barrel cactus at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek.

Ruth Bancroft Garden

Last week, after the heat wave abated, I drove over to Walnut Creek to witness first hand the glorious Ruth Bancroft Garden. For years I had heard that this was the garden to visit if one desired to see how desert gardening could actually be aesthetically pleasing.

Upon first entering the garden from the street I was not particularly impressed. Visitors enter through the "back door" into a blacktop parking lot, complete with double wide trailer that serves as the visitor center. I checked in, paid my entry fee, was given a map and sent to wander on my own.

The nursery was just outside the visitor center and I could see that it was viable. Many varieties of succulents and drought tolerant plants had been propagated and were in various stages of development, many ready for planting. There were also some charming garden sculptures for sale just outside the nursery.

A few more steps had me wandering along crushed granite paths that were bordered on either side with an amazing collection of every type of drought tolerant plant imaginable! It was not only visually appealing but all the plants were ideally suited to their environment. "Charming" was the word that came immediately to mind.

Ruth Bancroft will be celebrating her 104th birthday soon. She began her collection of succulents and cactus plants in the early 1950's. It was not until 1972 that the actual plans for the garden were laid out and construction begun. A 3 - 1/2 acre plot that was formerly a walnut grove was converted into, what was then, a unique concept in landscaping. Back in the 70s people were still using water like it was an unlimited commodity. Gigantic expanses of lawn were considered the norm. Imagine what the general public thought of a garden comprised of only desert plants! Ruth had a vision and, with the help of Lester Hawkins of Western Hills Nursery, began laying out her garden beds.

Most of the garden was planted from one gallon cans or smaller. There are no header boards, brick borders, or rock edgings to prohibit the cascading nature of the plants. Ruth laid out her succulent beds in the style of the traditional English border planting, using texture and color to provide visual interest.

As the plants matured they were allowed to wear natural beards of faded foliage. The beds are a mixed bouquet of plants from dry climates all over the world. Large yucca from North America live side by side with aeonium from the Canary Islands. The only pruning that is done is for the health of the plants, and plants are encouraged to sprawl and trail rather than being trained. Irrigation is from a well dug in the 1880s, but because of the type of plants used, water usage is minimal.

Some of the plants look dangerous, the jumping cholla (Opuntia prolifera) for example. Some that look innocuous, such as the bunny's ears (Opuntia microdasyus) are actually extremely painful when encountered bare-handed. Many plants, such as the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactanae grusonii) and the gray blue mounds of gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), are colorful despite their lack of foliage. An infant bristlecone pine (Pinus arisata), eucalyptus and acacia in variety, and delicate palo verdes (Parkinsonia aculeata) are among many trees that thrive in the arid landscape.

Please consider a visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden, if only to see for yourself how one woman's vision has matured into a glorious tribute to the diversity of nature. For more information on the garden, including its history, visit its website at

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Today's site banner is by nmumpton and is called "Gymnocalycium andreae"