The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden by Johanna SilverThe Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden by Johanna Silver

The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden

byJohanna SilverPhotographed byMarion Brenner

Hardcover | October 5, 2016

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“For those of you—and your numbers are growing—gardening in drought-stricken parts of the country, The Bold Dry Garden will quench your thirst for inspiration.” —New York Times Book Review

Ruth Bancroft is a dry gardening pioneer. Her lifelong love of plants led to the creation of one of the most acclaimed public gardens, The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California. The Bold Dry Garden offers unparalleled access to the garden and the extraordinary woman responsible for it. In its stunningly photographed pages, you’ll discover the history of the garden and the design principles and plant palette that make it unique. Packed with growing and maintenance tips, profiles of signature plants for a dry garden, and innovative design techniques, The Bold Dry Garden has everything you need to create a garden that is lush, waterwise, and welcoming. 
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 a...
Title:The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft GardenFormat:HardcoverDimensions:236 pages, 10 × 10.5 × 10.5 inPublished:October 5, 2016Publisher:Timber PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1604696702

ISBN - 13:9781604696707


Read from the Book

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.

Editorial Reviews

“This sumptuous book will inspire you to create your own water-saving paradise.” —Flora Grubb, owner of Flora Grubb Gardens   “This book wonderfully reveals Ruth’s enduring lessons in the power of creativity and imagination—and big, bold compositions—to transform even the most unpromising landscape into a work of art.” —Jenny Young du Pont, president and CEO of The Garden Conservancy   “Ruth Bancroft’s garden is a rare combination of an artist’s vision and a meticulous collector’s passion—an invaluable resource that showcases the rich textures, structures, and colors of dry plants.” —Andrea Cochran FASLA, principal of Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture   “The Bold Dry Garden beautifully showcases the glorious garden Ruth Bancroft so courageously created.” —Bernard Trainor, bernard trainor + associates “For those of you—and your numbers are growing—gardening in drought-stricken parts of the country, Johanna Silver's The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden will quench your thirst for inspiration. This dazzling three-and-a-half-acre succulent garden in Walnut Creek, Calif., was the Garden Conservancy's first preservation project. Marion Brenner's elegant photographs ably capture the architectural drama of its bold forms and eccentric groupings, as well as the strange and intriguing textures of individual agaves, cycads, euphorbias and sedums. Plump or spiny, tiny or looming, succulents have enormous variety and endless appeal. It seems almost criminal to avoid them in favor of lawns.” —The New York Times Book Review “The American garden, located in Walnut Creek, CA, that inspired the Garden Conservancy is handsomely portrayed precisely when people should follow Bancroft’s lead of using xerophytic plants, challenging convention, and paying attention to climate cues.” —Library Journal starred review “Combining biography of the dry-garden pioneer with a landscaper's guide, Silver and photographer Brenner tour the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, Calif., and discuss the life and work of its creator and namesake. Replete with brilliant color photography, this hopeful book will win over anyone who doubts that a desolate landscape can support thriving life.” —Publishers Weekly  “A must for any garden-lover’s bookshelf, this book pairs Johanna Silver’s eloquent storytelling and Marion Brenner’s exquisite photography to show how the Ruth Bancroft Garden evolved into the 3.5-acre waterwise garden that it is today.” —Garden Design Magazine “An inspiring history of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, in Walnut Creek, California, that’s packed with rich photography. You’ll learn about design and plant palettes, as well as practical information on how to maximize a water-wise landscape from the pioneer of dry gardening.” —Martha Stewart Living  “This book serves readers in several ways. If you live in a nearly frost-free, dry climate like that east of San Francisco, you can take it right out to the garden or a local nursery. If you are an avid indoor gardener with grow-lights or south-facing windows, you will be thrilled by the extensive picture-filled encyclopedia of cacti and other succulents. If you love gorgeous books with voluptuous pictures (by Marion Brenner, California's premier landscape photographer), this is a book for your collection. I'm happy to say that another reason to get this book is for the richly illustrated biography of this remarkable plantswoman.” —Better Homes and Country Gardens “Part coffee table book and part homage, The Bold Dry Garden is a beautiful book.” —NYBG’s Plant Talk “Today, as the West wakes up with what fills like a collective hangover from the era of overly irrigated landscapes, the Ruth Bancroft Garden is the perfect antidote—dry yet lush, bold yet welcoming, and full of natural curiosities.” —Sunset “The book provides a history of the garden and its founder as well as practical information about design principles and plant palettes, all beautifully photographed by [the photographer] Brenner.” —Hortus “Everything about The Bold Dry Garden, from the beautiful cover to the wealth of authoritative information it contains, will appeal to fans of succulents and other arid-region plants. But even if you have never planted a single cactus, you will be inspired by the story of Ruth Bancroft and her exemplary dry garden.” —The American Gardener “This book is a loving tribute in text and magnificent photographs to the plant collecting passion of one woman—Ruth Bancroft. . . . Bancroft's adventurous plant choices, attention to climate cues, and lack of fear of failure all provide an exquisite lesson to contemporary gardeners.” —Choice  “Lavishly illustrated with full colour photographs—including charming shots from the early years and eye-catching vistas or close-up details of plants taken more recently—all demonstrating Ruth's ability to blend art, horticulture and botany. . . .anyone interested in putting together a garden of succulent plants cannot fail to be inspired to try and replicate some of those vistas using hardier subjects. Otherwise, simply turn the pages and immerse yourself in the story of one of the world’s great gardens.” —The Garden