Ruth Bancroft Garden, San Francisco


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).

2013_07010166logoI 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 2013_07010167succulents 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 grey that much and plants which have developed for coping with drought tend to be grey 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.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Ditto! I can see where you are coming from!!

  2. Pam/Digging says:

    I’m afraid you’d dislike my Texas garden too, Helen! Lots of gray-greens and spiky plants. 😉 Seriously, though, I understand where you’re coming from. Southwestern gardens can indeed seem alien and harsh to eyes used to softer, lusher gardens. And it was awfully hot that morning as well. Desert gardens are meant to be enjoyed at cooler times of day.

  3. Yolanda says:

    It’s always good to take ideas from the gardens, although this is what not to do for oneself.
    I have a Mediterranean garden without irrigation and in fact, I have many gray plants but also many roses and native plants … I believe that this is possible when you put the right plant in the right place.
    Greetings from Spain.

  4. Cathy says:

    Imagine being offered 3 acres to extend your garden …..heaven (although a nightmare planning how to lay it out) !

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Cathy
      And a huge amount of work to maintain – sounds wonderful but I suspect very challenging

  5. I liked this garden, but then I also like heat, and it was lovely to see desert-style planting beneath a blue sky. I admit, it was more interesting as a collection of plants and as a backdrop for the sculpture than it was as a garden in itself. And I completely agree with you about the plants that needed extra shading. If it won’t grow there, don’t grow it!
    I wonder how Ruth Bancroft managed when she started the garden, and whether climate change/loss of trees means the site is actually hotter now than it was back in the 70s.

  6. GREAT POST and PHOTOS! I would love to go there!

  7. I keep thinking of what it would be like to have three acres to expand your garden. What an amazing opportunity.

  8. Pauline says:

    I think we are conditioned to seeing lush greeness around us in these islands, anything else just seems wrong somehow. If I was given another 3 acres to play with, half would be more woodland and half, a summer meadow, I don’t need any more to “garden” in thank goodness!

  9. Diana Studer says:

    just saying – the Melianthus you do like, is grey (blue-grey glaucous) and mediterranean (South Africa’s Western Cape) – but it gives me a lush sub-tropical feel. In my garden the flowers are way up in the sky over my head. The 3 Agave pups I rescued stabbed me once too often, and have gone to a new home. Don’t like prickly cactus!

  10. bittster says:

    I got a good laugh out of this post. Not to discount your discomfort, but the image of you two hiding and muttering seems perfect in such a much acclaimed garden. Once I get too hot nothing makes me happy until I hit the air conditioning and a cold drink… and even then I still likely won’t want to go back outside.

  11. grace says:

    What a garden! love it

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