|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.
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|
|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.