While I have previously visited this garden with my grandmother, I was never aware of its history. The Ruth Bancroft Garden was founded in 1972 and opened to the public in the early 1990’s by Ruth Bancroft, a woman with a fascination of water-conserving plants. Ruth had wanted to be an architect in her younger days, but due to the great depression, coupled with the fact that none of the men were getting jobs in architecture, she turned to garden landscaping as an alternative form of art.
The garden is a model for dry gardening worldwide, as Ruth was ahead of her time in the idea of using drought tolerant plants. The issue of water conservation is especially relevant to the current drought in California.
“The historic reservoir levels are appallingly low and the snowpack is the lowest on record. That doesn’t bode well for our water supply in the coming year. We might have to get used to this thing as being the new normal,” said garden director Brian Kemble.
Drought tolerant plants
The Ruth Bancroft Garden contains over 2,000 xerophytes, and integrates plants from dry regions around the world. Some more prominent collections are the yuccas, agaves, aloes, and gasterias. Agaves are abundant, and the Ruth Bancroft garden has over twice as many in bloom each year than other botanical gardens. While most botanical gardens plant collections in groups, this garden doesn’t, which I think adds visual interest. While taking either a self-guided tour or a guided tour, you never know what interesting plant you will see next.
While most drought-tolerant plants are easy to care for, some require a little more attention. The garden has recently begun to offer Australian plants, a favorite of Ruth’s, which are beautifully blooming. However, because they are acidic plants and the garden runs on alkaline water, garden workers have to add sulfur to the water for the plants to succeed.
The garden holds events year round, such as the Sculpture in the Garden, Plant Sales, and Bluegrass Sunset Social, to expose people to the garden, and promote interest in dry gardening. The Bluegrass Sunset Social, held every August 15, features the Alhambra Valley Band. Make sure to check out current events on the website if you are planning to visit the garden.
During my visit to the garden, plans were under development for a visitor center. Money for the visitor center will be raised by events. “We are going to trial this year doing small outdoor weddings, and that would be something the public would be interested in because we get inquiries all the time,” said executive director Gretchen Bartzen. Visit the website for future updates.
I was amazed by the both the quantity and quality of plants in the Ruth Bancroft Garden, and I think the beauty of these specimen goes to show that drought tolerant plants can be great for landscaping as well. “I think people are going to have to start turning their attention toward landscaping ideas that are less water-guzzling,” said Kemble.
Some parents may be hesitant to bring their kids to the garden; for fear that they will be bored. While they may not be interested in the information presented in the tours, kids will find amusement in the sculptures and the unusual plants. I would advise parents to take kids on a self-guided tour, so they can go at their own pace. This garden is a must-see for Bay Area visitors, or anybody with a passion for gardening or environmental preservation.
Article written by and photos courtesy of Isabel Owens, a Campolindo High School journalism student.