Monday, September 12, 2016

The Bold Dry Garden, a book review

"Before I started working on this book, I had never been to the Ruth Bancroft Garden" admits Johanna Silver in the very first sentence of the preface to The Bold Dry Garden. No she doesn't live in another country or on the east coast of the U.S., but rather in the Bay Area, and she's the garden editor of a prominent west coast magazine!
Johanna Silver, addressing the crowd during the media preview event
 
I've been to the RBG three times now, most recently an overnight trip to celebrate the release of The Bold Dry Garden — in the garden, and with the lady (Ruth herself) — who inspired it. Had I not met Johanna Silver during that trip I might have been taken aback by her admission, but I did meet her and her respect and appreciation for Ruth, and what she has created, comes shining through in person, and on the page. She was certainly up for the task of writing this book.

The Bold Dry Garden isn't on the shelves until late September/early October, but all in attendance that day got an advance copy, signed by Ruth, Johanna, and the photographer Marion Brenner (who's photographs of the garden are simply divine). I've poured over it several times since.

What most strikes me about this book is that it reads more as an eloquently written fan-letter to Ruth, and the garden, rather than the type of gardening book that's typically published nowadays. There is a chapter on Signature Plants Of the Dry Garden, a sort of introductory inventory by size and species, but that's it for what one would call a "list"...and gardening books seem to be all about lists and how-to's these days! In short I love this book, and Timber Press for publishing it.
Ruth Bancroft and garden curator Brian Kemble page through the book
 
The title of the book alludes to the one stipulation Ruth's husband, Phil, had for the garden when Ruth started it: no new wells would be dug and they would not tap into city water. If that makes him sound unsupportive think again, he built the shade houses which housed her growing succulent collection and accompanied her on buying trips. But when it came to water he understood the importance of the available water supply and that it needed to support the family, farm and existing garden. Living within your water means, what a concept!
The pond was part of the original plan for the garden, as drawn up by Lester Hawkins, designer and co-owner of Western Hills Nursery - it serves as a counterpoint to the dry plants all around.
 
The book is filled with bits of Ruth's history, her love of collecting and cataloging (not just plants, seashells for example) and stories of the beginning of the garden, like the fact Ruth's first succulent (purchased from a private breeder) was Aeonium 'Glenn Davidson' — which is still in the garden. Of Ruth's collection Johanna notes..."Collecting these plants in the 1950's and '60's was not easy. This was not the era of readily available echeverias and sedums at home-improvement stores and supermarkets. There were no internet searches or Pinterest boards. These plants were hard to come by..." Heck even in the (relatively) short time I've been gardening these plants have gone from hard to find to exploding in popularity and availability.
Ruth's folly just visible in the distance, it stands between the two shade houses built by Phil in 1972.
 
And those huge specimens throughout the garden? They were all planted from from 1-gallon and smaller. Not only because that's what was available, but with smaller plants Ruth could fit more in the car on buying trips to Southern California, and she had the joy of watching the plant grow (plus as a true plant person knows those small plants would quickly catch up, once planted out in the ground). Imagine, these palms (Washingtonia filifera), were planted from a 1-gallon pot in the early 1970's! Reading The Bold Dry Garden makes it clear, Ruth has always been gardening for the future.
Washingtonia filifera
 
During the media event Brian Kemble (who started working for Ruth in 1980, after touring the garden and realizing he MUST work there) spoke of a devastating freeze the winter after Ruth planted the garden, December of 1972. So many plants, dead — Ruth's daughter Nina is quoted in the book as saying the list of dead plants reached 40 pages. Did Ruth decide that was enough? Nope, she rolled up her sleeves and replanted.

In the book Johanna delves into the cultural requirements of these plants and the climate of Walnut Creek, CA., pointing out the plants need excellent drainage (mounding is the answer) and that many of them are borderline winter-hardy there. Ruth built custom winter covers for her plants and the staff has followed suit, a point that evidently is somewhat contentious. Many of those covers were still in use during my first visit in March of 2012 (photos here).

Having to amend for drainage and protect things that aren't winter hardy...is it any surprise I feel a gardening kinship to Ruth? Of course then there is this tidbit in the book, a quote from Brian: "the meaner the plant, the more Ruth liked it"...
Plenty of mean here!
 
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the role the Garden Conservancy has played in the Ruth Bancroft Garden, or wait, I've got that backwards. The role the Ruth Bancroft Garden has played in the Garden Conservancy. You see the Garden Conservancy, a "national, non-profit dedicated to saving and sharing outstanding American gardens for the inspiration and education of the public" was quite literally born of a visit to Ruth's garden. From the book: "Concerned about the future of his own garden, Frank asked what would happen to Ruth's garden after she lay down her trowel. She did not have an answer. Her children appreciated the dry garden from a collector's point of view, but did not share her interest in maintaining it. On their way home, Frank's wife half-jokingly suggested the idea of a non profit organization focused on garden preservation. Land agricultural trusts exist, so why not one for gardens? Frank mused that Ruth's garden would be the idea test for such an endeavor. It was so unique, so Western, and so American - it made perfect sense." ("Frank" is Frank Cabot, the founder of the Garden Conservancy)
Agave americana var. medio-picta 'Alba'
 
The Agave section (part of the Signature Plants Of the Dry Garden) Johanna writes "Ruth never liked to admit to choosing favorites, but the sheer volume of agaves reveals her love for the plant." And this interesting bit from the book solved a mystery for me, going back to a photo I saw in a magazine..."Many agaves are coated with a waxy bloom that helps reflect sunlight ad conserve water. This is especially notable on Agave franzosinii, which, for unknown reasons, has remarkable patterns where the wax rubs off as the leaves grow. Brian calls this the "lost wax effect," and has not seen this pronounced on any other specimen in any other garden."
Agave franzosinii, showing the "lost wax effect"
Visible even as the plant is in decline after flowering.

Finally...this sentence from book's dust jacket "At its heart, the Ruth Bancroft Garden is a testament to fearless planting" makes my heart sing! The words "fearless planting"... capture perfectly how I feel about gardening. I so believe in fearless planting and think everyone should embrace the concept. Gardening isn't brain surgery, you should be having fun. Plant things that you love, who cares if they're supposed to be planted together, might eventually crowd out a neighbor (plants can be moved or removed) or aren't "tasteful"...it's your garden, you should love it. And by the way, that's why you should buy this book. Because it's inspiring. Because it contains a subtle challenge to embrace your site, garden like you will live forever, and share your knowledge with those that care to ask.

Agave franzosinii at the entrance to the garden - in my mind these huge powder-blue Agaves will always be synonomous with the Ruth Bancroft Garden. Their commanding presence sets the tone as you enter. 
Bloomed out Agave parryi with more Agave franzosinii in the distance.
 
I will leave you with a few more photos from my visit to the garden, simply because I have them and want to share. When you get your copy of The Bold Dry Garden though you'll be able to enjoy Marion Brenner's exquisite photos...
Agave ovatifolia and Erythrina x bidwillii bloom

Agave parrasana

During the media preview Gerhard and I toured the garden with Brian Kemble, here he's pointing out an Aloe tomentosa

It's blooms are fuzzy! (tomentose = densely covered in short soft hairs, somewhat matted)

Leucadendron 'Ebony' - Australian  and South African plants are a great fit for the RBG, I'll never forget seeing this dark-beauty here during the SF Garden Bloggers Fling 

That day Gerhard and I convinced the nursery manager to sell us each a tiny plant, I still treasure that thing, although mine is confined to life in a container, since it's not hardy here in Portland.
 
Want to read another blogger's thoughts? Gerhard (Succulentts and More) reviews the book here.
 
Disclaimer: Timber Press provided me with a complimentary copy of The Bold Dry Garden. Had they not I would have bought one, and thought it worth every penny I paid. All material © 2009-2016 by Loree Bohl for danger garden. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited and just plain rude.

30 comments:

  1. What an excellent review! I can't wait to "dig" into my copy. From your review, it's clear the writing and photography are equally outstanding.

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    1. It's just such a "personable" book Gerhard, I'll be interested to hear what you think!

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  2. I am excited to read it too! Thanks for the advance peek, and I'm still jealous that you got to meet both the author and the gardener whose life's work inspired the book.

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    1. I still can't believe it happened Pam!

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  3. Nice review you wrote up. Sorry I missed the festivities, but I did make it to Ruth's 100th birthday party celebrations. I hadn't realized Joanne Silver was responsible for the new book, it didn't come up during our interactions/on-site meetings for the current 2016 Sunset Idea House here in the Oakland hills that my uber-talented design friend Michelle Derviss asked me to help design. That was an interesting project to work on a spec home/display garden in such a chaotic compressed time frame. And in another 6 degrees of separation sort of moment, Marion Brenner will be shooting my own garden for her next book at the end of this month, which I didn't think was going to happen as I never heard back from her scouting visit back in June until just a few days ago.

    Thanks for posting your review, I'll have to look for a copy.

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    1. I've really enjoyed Michelle's updates on the Idea House via Facebook. I feel fortunate to have met her at the 2012 SF Garden Show, after having read her blog way back when and following her design exploits. So what is Marion's next book going to be on? I look forward to seeing more of your garden in it!

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    2. She's working with two writers back east who will be writing the commentary and deciding the final cut of which gardens/designers will be featured. The general topic is Bay Area Gardens/Designers. Marion hasn't told me much more than this, what she's looking for, etc. so I don't know who or which gardens will be featured in the book, nor how many. I had taken her around to see about 8 of my client's gardens as well as my own, but she wasn't particularly interested in any of the others. If I'd known more what she was after, I definitely wouldn't have spent a half day touring projects for naught.

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  4. This is an amazing review that confirms I need to pre-order my copy. Ruth Bancroft's vision for her garden has become an incredible gift for generations of fearless gardeners, and I am pleased Johanna Silver was given the opportunity to use her thoughtful words to describe what she saw. Visiting this garden is high on my bucket list.

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    1. Ah Sheila...get yourself over there!!!

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  5. You and Ruth are kindred spirits to be sure. The "meaner the plant" and "fearless planting" quotes fit you as well!

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  6. Your review has convinced me to buy the book and brings back fond memories of touring this garden during the fling! Of course I fully embrace the sentiments in the next to last paragraph and my heart sings reading the words!

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    1. You my friend are definitely a fearless planter!

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  7. Must have been a fun event. I like the idea of the pond as a dramatic contrast to a dry garden. Unexpected but somehow natural. Oasis and all that.

    I have Aloe tomentosa; it has proven to be a painfully slow grower. It will be an age before it produces a flower show like the RBG copy.

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    1. "Unexpected but somehow natural"...yes! That's exactly how it feels.

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    2. You could always speed up the process by getting a blooming sized 5 or 15 gallon from San Marcos Growers.

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  8. I told my 86 y.o. mom about Ruth's birthday just to give her something to shoot for. I brought up an old blog post in her honor. What an amazing woman and garden. With Marion Brenner's photos, the book is a must-buy.

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    1. I enjoyed your blog post! And go Denise's mom!!!

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  9. Thanks so much for sharing your impressions of this book. I've been curious to know more about it. I love that it's not a how to book.

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    1. I think you'd really enjoy the book Alison...and you might even glean a tip or two about growing succulents in your own garden.

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  10. Wow, Loree, that is so cool. The book, the event, meeting Ruth Bancroft and the author. Great review and your line about planting what you love is very quotable.

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    1. Thanks Shirley, I'm flattered that you think so.

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  11. Fascinating garden. Leucadendrons aren't Australian, though, they're South African.

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    1. Thank you for the catch! I changed my photo caption. I was lured into thinking so based on their inclusion in the Australian sections at most botanical gardens. I should know better!

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  12. You had me at the cover...but the rest of your post sealed the deal.

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  13. Beautiful review, and I can't wait to get hold of this book!

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    1. Surely it will be available on your side of the pond about the same time it is here???

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  14. So if I get the book I'll never have to visit the RBG... :(

    I love "fearless planting" too, and think you should get your stock tank bamboos into the ground in support of this principle. ;)

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  15. Late to the review party, but looks like a great book. I'm so glad that, not only are you familiar with this garden, but that you were able to attend the book revel. Very cool.
    That dark Leucodendron is dreamy. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Agave parrasana? :) Just about makes tears well up in my eyes.

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