Gardening Magazine

Ruth Bancroft Garden, San Francisco

By Patientgardener @patientgardener


I have been remiss in posting about all the gardens I visited back at the end of June in San Francisco.  I was so overwhelmed and life has been so hectic since but looking through photos I thought I would post about the  garden I liked least – the Ruth Bancroft Garden.

I should start by saying that I was feeling particularly unwell the morning we visited this garden.  We were in the middle of a heatwave and I had really suffered the previous day even having swollen feet.  I was all for giving up on the whole tour but was persuade to perserve.


The garden is located in Walnut Creek outside of San Francisco.  I won’t attempt to tell you where Walnut Creek is in relation to the city as I spent most of the trip being completely disoriented as to where we were!  It was created by Ruth Bancroft who started work on created the garden when she was in her 60s.  She originally moved to Walnut Creek in 1939 early in her marriage.  She started a garden straight away but originally her passions were bearded irises, roses, herbs, alpines – a woman after my own heart and showing the style of gardening in this area at the time.  However, things started to change when she bought her first succulent – an aeonium.  She quickly became fascinated with succulents and started collecting – hmm this is beginning to sound worryingly familiar.

In 1971 the last walnut tree on the family farm was felled and her husband offered her the opportunity to convert three acres into a garden and to find a home for her vast collection of succulents, all housed in pots.  She leapt at the chance and as they say the rest is history.  The garden went on to be the first garden in the Garden Conservatory scheme – which I suppose is somewhat similar to the UK’s National Trust gardens.


As I have said I am increasingly fascinated by succulents but have little knowledge on the subject beyond the basic aeoniums, echeverias, semps and sedums.  The garden felt very alien to me and very harsh and unfriendly.  The heat obviously didn’t help nor the lack of any real shade but I found the general greyish tones and spikeyness of everything quite oppressing.  To add to this there was a sculpture exhibition staged temporarily in the garden which seemed to comprise many spikey and hard objects.


Looking back through my photographs I don’t have that many which is possibly because Dee and I went and hid in the only shade for most of the visit muttering like naughty school girls at how much we disliked the garden.  However, the ones I have demonstrate how wonderful succulents can be when planted well and with something to contrast against the hard and sharp textures.  In the photo above I think the softness and roundness of the sculpture works very well against the agave (I think it’s an agave).

I loved the texture of the dark on this tree, it looked so tactile and crying out to be stroked.  Oh and there were cacti, lots of cacti, and I really don’t like cacti however much I try to even when they have beautiful flowers.

The collection of plants was amazing and from all over the world.  However, talking to one of the gardeners it was clear that many weren’t hardy in the garden or not suitable for the environment, hence the large amount of shading that had been provided.  Now, with the move in much of the states to be more sustainable with planting and to embrace more native plants there was speculation that if the garden was being created now it would be very different.

Looking back on my photographs and those of other gardens many of them are of

succulents so why did I not take to this garden?  I think I prefer the sub-tropical style of planting and not the more desert style.  I like the lushness of big leaves and the exotic nature of aeoniums but I am not so keen on the spikeness of agaves etc.

It also reminded me of many Mediterranean gardens I have visited which I don’t  really like.  I don’t like gray that much and plants which have developed for coping with drought tend to be gray and often have small leaves, which also don’t appeal.

So overall this garden, although containing an amazing collection of plants, with lots of plants and well maintained really didn’t appeal to my tastes.  However, it did make me think about my tastes and made me more aware of the way they are leaning and it is always interesting to look at things that don’t immediately appeal and to challenge your preconceptions.

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