Califonia Bountiful

Pat's Garden Travels: Splendid succulents of the Ruth Bancroft Garden

January/February 2019 California Bountiful magazine

California offers a wealth of public gardens to discover. Join California Bountiful gardening expert Pat Rubin as she explores the state, bringing you the best of her travels to inspire yours.

This issue, Pat recommends a visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. With its array of succulents, it's one of the state's public gardens that stuns even in the deep of winter, when aloes are in bloom. Come back in spring or summer for the show-stopping cactus bloom.

Ruth Bancroft Garden & Nursery

1552 Bancroft Road
Walnut Creek

Photo courtesy of Saxon Holt

An explosion of low-growing agaves armed with threatening black spines guides visitors down the narrow asphalt road into the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. Their fat, succulent arms—in shades of green, gray and blue—form ever-expanding rosettes that seem to curl up from the ground. 

Pull into the gravel parking lot, and you've arrived at the towering, circular green pergola the Bancroft family lovingly nicknamed "Ruth's Folly." Ruth Bancroft, who died in 2017 at the age of 109, began planting the 3-acre Mediterranean- and desert-inspired succulent, cactus and California native plant garden in 1972 after she bought her first succulent. Throughout the years, she created a collection of plants from all over the world that revel in the heat and relentless sun that marks California summers. She assembled a garden where common and uncommon plants mingle in close quarters, one plant insinuating itself among the others like dear friends and good neighbors. She had no idea the garden she planted—mostly from cuttings and small, 1-gallon containers—would grow up to become one of the most beautiful gardens in Northern California and a glowing testament to planting a climate-appropriate landscape.

Consider this: The garden is watered once every three weeks for 30 minutes from a well dug in the late 1800s. Despite its strict water diet, the garden never fails to inspire. There's always something in bloom, as well as beautiful and unusual foliage to admire.

The Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve remarkable gardens all over the country and open them to the public, has worked closely with Ruth Bancroft and the garden's staff and directors since 1989, guiding the garden's transition from private Eden to a wonderful public resource. In fact, it was the group's first preservation project. A conservation easement ensures the garden, which was once part of a 400-acre walnut and fruit orchard, will never be turned into a shopping center, homes or any other development.

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