Ruth Margaret Petersson Bancroft
September 2, 1908 - November 26, 2017
I am OFFICIALLY dedicating the year of 2018 in the horticultural realm, THE YEAR OF RUTH BANCROFT who peacefully passed away at her beautiful garden enveloped home in Walnut Creek, CA on November 26th, 2017. This will be the first Spring in nearly ALL of our lifetimes without this most wonderful person.
And yes, you read that right, Ruth Bancroft lived for an astounding 109 years! And at the time of her birth in 1908, life expectancy in the United States for a female born in that year was 52.8 years. Ruth was the Michael Jordan of longevity. How did she do it? Diet? Exercise? Beneficial genes? Yes, maybe those were factors, but I will propose the argument that the true fountain of youth for Ruth was gardening and horticulture.
“The garden will always be more beautiful next year”
And if this often used axiom is true, then why would you ever miss it?
Especially after working so hard on it. You have to make it to the next spring- there is no other option. There is no way you are going to miss all of those wondrous bulbs or wildflowers that promise to paint the landscape come spring that you painstakingly planted out the year before. This I believe was Ruth’s secret.
I believe the life force energy of the plants protected and favored her. I believe when one gives so much life to the world with the touch of their very hands, a very powerful life force and karmic energy is transferred into that person. It is as if the the plants realize that as they owe their birth, health, protection and even very existence to their horticultural creator, they all must protect that entity the same way one would lovingly protect their mother. And Ruth was the mother to millions of baby plants when you count every seed germinated, cutting rooted, bulb divided, plant planted. And each of these passed through her loving hands and felt the love she imparted into them.
CREATE LIFE, GET LIFE
That is my theory. So if you want to live long, happy and healthy like Ruth, not only should you eat well, exercise, stay positive etc., but I would recommend taking up gardening. She was an extreme gardener and she lived EXTREMELY long- Just sayin’.
Ruth, we all love you and thank you for blazing the trail to erase the boring, chemical dump. fertilizer sucking, combustion lawnmower engine greenhouse gas polluting, habitat desert, purposeless lawn off of our landscape and replacing it with the most wondrous tapestries of succulents and other exotic drought tolerant plantings that have become all the rage.
Thank You Ruth for this most wondrous and priceless
gift you gave to us all and We will miss you!!!!!
Here are a few pictures of my girlfriend Ruth on her 101st birhtday when she decided to spend it with me in my Richmond Nursery. What an honor!!!
I LOVE THIS WOMAN!!!
Ruth Margaret Petersson Bancroft
September 2, 1908 - November 26, 2017
Resident of Walnut Creek, CA
Ruth was born in Brockton, Mass. to Torsten Petersson and Ruth Nelson Petersson. She came to Berkeley, California as an infant because her father got a teaching post at UC Berkeley as a classics professor. Ruth grew up in the intellectual milieu of her parents' university friends. Ruth mainly attended private schools in Berkeley and then UC Berkeley where she studied architecture. When the stock market crash eliminated any chances of employment for female architects she changed her major to home arts. She found work teaching high school in Merced. In 1939 Ruth married Philip Bancroft, Jr. and moved to his family's farm in Walnut Creek where they grew walnuts and pears. There they raised their three children, Peter, Nina and Kathy.
Ruth was a collector. In the 1950s she collected sea shells. Her collection was meticulously documented: the shell's Latin name, where and when it was collected. A few years ago the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco accepted a large part of her collection because it was so well documented and shows how the animals have changed location and size over the past 60 years.
Ruth's collecting then expanded into plants. Ruth always loved plants and was a gardener in her home growing up in Berkeley. She continued to have her own garden in Walnut Creek, growing fruits and vegetables as well as a rock garden, many roses and hundreds of varieties of iris. By the late 1960s, with property taxes increasing every year, the farm had to be sold. By this time Ruth had begun to amass a large collection of succulents most of which were in green houses or under shelter. The garden was being watered by moving around hoses with sprinklers on their ends. An orchard near the house had to have the trees removed because of disease, and Phil offered the land to her for a new garden that would have a sprinkler system and save her a lot of work. Ruth was an artist. The family has beautiful clay sculptures she made when she was younger. Her artist's eye, along with her architectural training, allowed her to design the beautiful beds in her garden. Her garden is more than a beautiful collection of as many rare and unusual succulents and cacti as she could acquire. It is a resource for xeriscape and plant hardiness information. Her garden was the inspiration for the formation of the Garden Conservancy to preserve exceptional gardens. It is this garden that has now become the world famous Ruth Bancroft Garden.
My Relationship with Ruth
As a strangely exotic plant obsessed kid growing up in Concord, CA in the 70's, I had very little inspriation for my odd fascination except the occasional cactus garden here and there. There were just 5 types of palms prevalent within childhood bmx biking range. And ever so rarely, you would see some different plants that no others had and these were my favorite gardens of all to pass by. These gardens were few and far between. And sometimes, these super cool one of a kind plants that inhabited these gardens were on the other side of the fence shielded from the world and bmx biker exotic plant obsessed kids like me, except for the tops of the tallest ones thus irking your curiosity.
My favorite garden of all, was a long trek along the canal bike trail to neigboring Walnut Creek and was on the other side of a block long wooden fence along Bancroft Road. I would park my bike next to the fence and climb up onto the seat and lean over it to get a gimpse of the garden. It was absoluetley awesome. Huge cacti and succulents, exotic palms, and lustrous other plants of which I had no idea of their names. I always wondered who lived there but was too afraid/shy/respectful to go down the private road that had a no trespassing sign on it to seek out the owner. As a side note, and anyone who knows me can attest to this, I have gotten over all of my shyness plus some and so if you have a super cool garden, expect a knock on the door by me and garden tour request. But back then, I simply climbed back into my bike saddle and turned around to start the long journey down the canal trail and across the countless intersections back home knowing not that I would spark a long term friendship with the creator of this most marvelous garden later in life.
Roll forward to 1988 when taking a Horticulture class at Diablo Valley College from the legendary Stuart Winchester, the class was to go on a field trip to a nearby private garden in Walnut Creek that inspired the creation of The Garden Conservancy, a non profit organization whose mission it is to preserve extraordinary private gardens after the garden creator can no longer do so. The Bancroft Garden was to be the first. But up to this point, the garden existed in relative obscurity with thousands of people driving by it every day with no idea of the wonders that lie just a sidewalk and 2x4 width from them.
Not knowing where this field trip will end up, Stuart takes us over to Bancroft Road and right up to that long fence, but this time, I get to roll down the driveway into this exotic botanical wonderland. After all these years of wondering, I am super excited to finally see the secrets that lie beyond the fence. And what a scene it is. Plants I have never even seen before like Australian bottle trees, weeping Acacia, Grass Trees, Hechtia groundcover, Thunbergia Vines, and of course a plethora of cacti and succulents. And some I had seen before but not the varied species that inhabited this garden. And then what really blew me away was to see impossibly tender plants exisitng in huge sizes in the garden and wondering how on earth these plants were not only alive, but in perfect condition.
We entered into the Folly which housed a collection of smaller potted plants and this is where we met Ruth. Stuart introduced us to her and she in her soft voice and reserved style showed us the gardens. Of course I instantly fell in love with this women who basically had already created what I aimed to someday- an extensive and elaborate exotic botanical magic world in a place that all the by the book, narrow minded botanical naysayers said was impossible to do so. With just the right amount of elevational garden bed mounding to give the plants critical winter drainage off their roots, proper siting of plants in various mocroclimates within the garden, and in the most extreme cases, protecting them with huge elaborate mini greenhouses built of lumber and plastic sheeting, Ruth made the impossible possible.
Of course I idealized her right away and upon seeing this garden I became ever more emboldened to challenge the status quo and devote my life to bring these exotic plants into the public domain. For here in boring old Walnut Creek existed the most amazing array of exotic botany that could hold its ground amongst the World's most noteworthy gardens, both private and public. Ruth proved you could do it and you could do it right in our back yard of Contra Costa County. Game on!
So over the years I became a good friend of Ruth's as I often would visit these legendary gardeners like her and her contemporaries such as Richard Douglas who lived just down the street with by far the largest and most diverse collection of palms north of Santa Barbara, and Lee Anderson of Orinda who ran his rare and exotic mail order backyard nursery appropriately named Copacabana Gardens. These were my three big mentors and with Ruth's passing, they are all gone now. These are the legends and legends never really die. They all stoked in me the fire of my passion within me. They are the reason you are even reading this internet page for without them, I may have been a suit and tie wearing real estate agent, banker, stock broker or worse.
I was able to spend some very special time with Ruth and one of my favorite things to do was to come over and bring her my exotic fruit I grew in Lafayette. She especially loved my white sapotes, and avocados. We would hang out on her front porch of her home which is away from the garden and the public eye. It is like a greenhouse being enclosed in glass with lots of little botanical treasures. The biggest treat of all though was when Ruth spent two of her birthdays with me. On her 101st birthday, she came out to my nursery in Richmond to view it and enjoy a lunch of deli sandwiches on our picnic table. She mainly toured it by car driven by me weaving through my jungle of plants and she wore a huge smile the whole time. I think it made her happy to see that these types of plants would finally leak out into the public as they rightfully should.
Then, a year later she hit me up again wanting to see my private garden at my home in Lafayette. And of course I excitedly obliged the wish of this botanical icon. So she and garden director Becky Rice and Botanical Collection Curator Brian Kemble all came over for a late summer tour and lunch under a warm blue sky. And the best part of all was
that I convinced Ruth to hop on my golf cart and took her for a ride she'll probably never forget through the hilly garden and imersed her in her element. I basically have a whole dryland section of my garden that mimics Ruth's, but after all, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Again, she was all smiles.
Ruth didn't follow the lead of the juniper entrenched garden next door, or worse, the endless water and fertilizer gulping lawns in the suburbia that surrounded her. Heck no. She was instead
Cruising with Ruth and Garden Curator and Botanical Legend Brian Kemble via golf cart through my Lafayette Garden. There is nothing like showing your garden off to someone who really knows their stuff- and believe me, Ruth knew her stuff.
a maverick, a rebel, a botanical renegade. There is nothing us botanical renegades like to do more than to prove all others wrong and show them that yes, this plant can indeed grow here, and you best believe me as you are standing right in front of it and seeing it with your very own eyes. Ruth pushed the limit, she failed, and she failed and she failed again, but then, she would succeed here and there with previously impossible things. Small victories adding up over time like a fly wheel forever gaining momentum and becoming an unstoppable force. And our gardens, like our lives, are judged not on our failures, but the compounded effect of our successes, however small. A garden is not judged on what is not there, only what is. And in Ruth's case, there is a cornucopia of success.
I think we can all learn a life lesson from Ruth's pursuit of her botanical vision. Try, try and try again. Fear not failure and don't let others set limits on your dreams. Continue forward always. And never forget that the garden will always be much more beautiful next year.
I will miss you Ruth and our lunch time rendezvous in paradise
(Dont bother us, we're eating!!!!!!!)
RUTH NEEDS YOU! She needs you to help her take care of all of her wonderful plants and garden that she bestowed upon on us. To make a donation click HERE. She also wants you to come visit her garden. Click HERE to see her awesome website, and HERE for directions.