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Gardening Answers Knowledgebase

Knowledgebase record #281

The Bold Dry Garden by Johanna Silver, 2016

Reviewed by: Brian Thompson
Review date: 2017-01-01

The Bold Dry Garden cover

Twice in the early aughts, I participated in garden tours to the greater San Francisco area, once in April and once in September. A highlight of both tours was the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California. I was delighted to learn recently of a new book capturing and celebrating this garden, and to learn that Ms. Bancroft, whom our group met briefly at age 94, is still with us at 108!

This garden has two distinct personalities, reflecting different periods of its creator’s gardening interests. In her childhood she was introduced to bearded iris by neighbors who were experts on these plants. When she had her own house, she developed a huge selection of historical cultivars that were just finishing their bloom during my spring visit. These are carefully maintained on a schedule of digging up one-third of the collection every year to divide and replant. The health of the collection reflected this high level of care.

As an adult, Bancroft became fascinated with succulent plants. Initially this was a collection of small, potted plants maintained near her home. In the 1970s, her husband’s removal of a diseased walnut orchard provided three empty acres on their property. Despite losing much of her collection to a freak freeze shortly after planting the garden out, she never looked back.

The results are sublime and I would highly recommend a visit to this garden anytime you are in the area. However, if that’s not in the offing, or if you’re just back and want a keepsake, I also highly recommend “The Bold Dry Garden” written by Johanna Silver with photographs – many gorgeous photographs – by Marion Brenner.

This book would happily grace any coffee table, but ideally it will be read and cherished and studied – the “signature plants” chapter could be a stand-alone book on succulents. If these plants are not your interest, then read this book for the story of Ruth Bancroft.

At age 63 she started her succulent garden, an untested concept in her climate at the time. She began with plants in gallon-size pots or smaller. At 83 she opened the now-maturing succulent garden to the public, and she continued working in it daily well into her nineties. Hers is a story to keep all of us gardeners going when we’re bothered by a few aches and pains!

Excerpted from the Winter 2017 Arboretum Bulletin.

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