UC Berkeley alumna Ruth Bancroft, pioneer of gardening, dies at 109

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Marion Brenner/Courtesy

Ruth Bancroft, a pioneer of dry gardening and founder of the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, died in her home at age 109 on Nov. 26.

Many people visit the Bancroft Garden to learn about water conservation and appropriate landscaping to the surrounding climate, according to Becky Harrington, former executive director of the garden. The garden is renowned for its innovative horticulture and lush design, inspiring the founding of The Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that preserves private gardens for public use.

Johanna Silver, author of “The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden,” said Bancroft’s garden is the most “iconic” in Northern California. Bancroft’s friends stressed her intellectual curiosity and fearlessness when experimenting in the garden.

Brian Kemble, curator at the garden, started working with Bancroft in 1980 and collaborated with her to grow the cacti collection. He said Bancroft imagined the plants were color swatches and painted with them to make a composition. Bancroft wanted the plants to spill out into the paths irregularly, instead of following the conventions of a formal, symmetrical garden with hard edges, he said.

Gretchen Bartzen, director of fundraising and development at the garden, said gardening was the most relaxing activity in Bancroft’s life because she had the freedom to “create her own world.”

Bancroft was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Berkeley. She studied architecture at UC Berkeley but switched her degree to home arts after the 1929 economic crash. She married Philip Bancroft Jr., whose family owned a 400-acre farm in Walnut Creek, in 1939.

In 1971, the last walnut orchard on the farm was cut down and Bancroft’s husband offered her three acres to house her large collection of succulents, which had outgrown her personal garden. After attracting attention from other gardeners and horticulturists, her garden was opened to the public in the 1990s.

According to her friends and colleagues, Bancroft never wore a hat, gloves or sunscreen while gardening. Kemble said he once found her in the garden with blood streaming down her arms after being poked by a spiky agave plant. But when he suggested she go inside to wash off the blood, she replied, “If I stopped every time I got a scratch, I would never get anything done.”

“She just went at it,” Bartzen said. “She didn’t want to stop working, she didn’t want to chat. … She was engrossed in her garden.”

Bancroft took meticulous records and was an avid collector — her collections included seashells, bearded irises and tapestries. Susie Newcomb, her close friend, said that when she visited Pescadero every spring, Bancroft would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to go tidepooling to collect seashells. The California Academy of Sciences took many of her shells, which were labeled in Latin and paired with detailed notes.

Bancroft was also passionate about weeding — Newcomb said that Bancroft loved the activity since she was a child and used to weed at her grandmother’s lakeside home.

After a long day at work in the garden, Bancroft would come home and trace leaf shapes in botany books and have a glass of sherry, according to Silver.

“She was tough as nails,” Silver said. “I’m raising a glass of sherry to her and to her longevity.”

Contact Hannah Piette at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Hannah_PietteDC.

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