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Photograph by Eric Luse; San Francisco Chronicle; Polaris
Ruth Bancroft still lives alone on her sprawling Walnut Creek garden estate as she turns 100 this month, though her daughter resides next door and makes them dinner every night. “I couldn’t get by without her making supper,” says the creator of the nationally renowned Ruth Bancroft Garden while perched on a chair on her veranda. “I take care of breakfast and lunch, but dinner, that’s something else.”
Bancroft has hung up the gloves that once helped her nurture a vast collection of cacti and other succulents, but she still advises garden planning. The fact that she lives on her own speaks to her long-standing independent streak. Raised in Berkeley, she was one of two women in Cal’s architecture department and was well aware that the professors “weren’t too keen on girls being there.”
In 1939, Bancroft married Philip Bancroft Jr., the grandson of Hubert Howe Bancroft (the founder of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library), who had started a 400-acre pear and walnut farm in Ygnacio Valley in the 1880s. In the 1960s, the family sold most of the land to home builders. On three-and-a-half remaining acres, Ruth Bancroft put her eye for design to work, plotting out dramatic contrasts in texture and color among the disparate cacti. “The garden was entirely for my own pleasure,” she says. “I bought what I liked and planted it where I liked.”
Bancroft would often work into the early evening, even in her later years. There is a muscularity to the grounds, where shape takes center stage—the jagged agaves, the pie-plate prickly pears. And yet, in moments, there is almost a delicacy—the barrel cactus unfolding a violet bloom, as lovely as the woman who planted it.
For tours of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, call (925) 210-9663, or go to www.ruthbancroftgarden.org.