Ruth Bancroft, California garden pioneer, dies at 109
By Jonathan Kauffman
28 November 2017
Photo courtesy of Johanna Silver
Ruth Bancroft, UC Berkeley Architecture attendee and founder of the renowned Walnut Creek gardens that bear her name, died on November 26, 2017 at the age of 109.
Born Ruth Petersson in Massachusetts in 1908, Bancroft moved to Berkeley with her family shortly after her birth. She studied architecture at UC Berkeley until she was forced to withdraw when the stock market crashed in 1929. After Berkeley, Bancroft switched her career to education, teaching home economics in Merced after graduation.
She married Philip Bancroft Jr. in 1939 and moved to a 400-acre farm near the area that would become Walnut Creek. In the 1960s, the city’s development creeped into the farmlands and the Bancrofts sold off most of their property to real estate developers.
In 1971, at the age of 63, Bancroft took charge of a 3-acre plot after the last of the family’s walnut orchards were razed. That plot would become a home for her succulent collection, which had begun in the 1950s. She hired local nursery owner Lester Hawkins to lay out the paths and beds, and then she began planting.
Her plot was focused on plants native to California which were drought-tolerant. The plot of land had only a single well, and so thriftiness, more than ecological sensitivity, initially influenced her choices.
“I thought it seems foolish to plant things that need so much care in the way of constant watering,” she said in a 1999 interview filmed for Martha Stewart Living. “And in our climate, it seemed more appropriate to plant things that needed less water.”
By 1989, the plot of land transformed into an elaborate environment that she tended daily. When East Coast plantsman Frank Cabot visited that year, he was so astonished by what he saw, as well as the 81-year-old gardener’s concerns that no one would continue taking care of the land after she died, that he founded the Garden Conservancy, a national organization that preserves private gardens for the public good — starting with Bancroft’s.
The Ruth Bancroft Garden became a nonprofit in 1992 when the family donated the land to be a center for tours, workshops, training, and education. Bancroft continued to be the principal gardener until the age of 97.
“She genuinely gardened for herself, never assuming that anyone else would really be interested in what she was doing way out in Walnut Creek,” wrote the garden’s first executive director, Richard Turner, retired editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine.
The Bancroft family and the garden plan to honor Ruth’s life and work in the garden in early 2018. Details will be shared here.