Redesigned Ruth Bancroft Garden nursery needs tweaking

I've probably bought more plants at the Ruth Bancroft Garden Nursery than anywhere else. In the old days, I couldn't wait for the spring and fall plant sales when tables full of exciting succulents and other plants were set up all over the garden.

In February 2015, the nursery expanded significantly, ushering in what I consider the golden age. Under the leadership of nursery manager Troy McGregor, the nursery began to offer a large variety of South African and Australian shrubs (including many proteaceas), more succulents than ever, and even water-wise trees. A consummate plantsman originally from Australia, Troy brought in plants that simply weren't available anywhere else in Northern California, always focusing on climate appropriateness and low-water use.

But nothing lasts forever. Troy left to open his own landscape design company, Gondwana Flora. The RBG broke ground to build a multi-million dollar Visitor and Education Center, and a new executive director, Carol Laughlin, took office.

While the site preparations for the new Visitor Center were under way, the nursery did business on the north side of the garden in the green metal-frame building called Ruth's Folly. Now, with the Visitor Center foundation complete, the nursery has moved back to its old spot on the south side of the garden near the main entrance. The official opening of the nursery was last Saturday, May 19. I attended the preview party on Friday, May 18 to get a sneak peek at the new space.

What is the new nursery like? I was as curious to find out as I'm sure many of you are.

I don't assume the tables that were set up on the left will always be there, but on Friday evening the nursery looked more like an event space than a place to buy plants.

The kiosk (on the left in the next photo) is brand new. It's larger than the old one and will have room for books and other things. The fence on the right replaced the old living wall. The mosaic wall in the middle is new; it's one of two "Welcome Walls."

The Welcome Walls were created by artists Donna Billick and Amanda Larson. 200 community members designed the tiles that make up the walls as part of a tile-making workshop led by Donna and Amanda. Each wall is 20' long and 4' tall and depicts a variety of succulents, cacti, and other low-water plants. 

The mosaic walls are easily my favorite feature in the redesigned space.

Donor tiles will be installed on the back side of each wall.

The construction fence is decorated with large renderings of what the Visitor Center will look like. I think the design is a great match for the spirit and philosophy of the garden. I look forward to seeing the real thing in a year or two!

The palo verde trees you see in these renderings have already been planted.

Not much to see yet on the other side of the fence:

The garden wasn't open on Friday, but this is the new view that will greet you when you enter the garden from the nursery area:

Relocated Agave franzosinii and newly donated Yucca rostrata

Now let's explore the completely redesigned nursery. 

The photos above are of the outside sale area. The layout is shopper-friendly and open, and strategically placed pottery, chairs and tables (all for sale) offer cheery pops of color. However, the plant selection looks smaller than before. Plants are spaced farther apart on the racks to give the illusion of volume. I could be mistaken (wouldn't be the first time), but it seems to me the old nursery had a bigger inventory. 

This Welcome Wall separates the nursery from what the entrance to the garden;

The preview party on Friday featured a silent auction with rare plants, including this Aloe hardyii donated by garden curator Brian Kemble, a renowned aloe authority:

A new seating area has been created adjacent to the nursery and the parking lot. At least it was a seating area on Friday. Maybe it will be used for plants or pottery during regular nursery operations?

'Desert Museum' palo verde is fast becoming a popular tree for water-wise landscaping. I was glad to see the RBG nursery has a good inventory, as you can see in the photo below:

Now let's take a look inside the "tent." The shade structure itself is the same. Before, it was filled with plants, mostly in 2-4" sizes. Now it's a different animal altogether.

The gate was donated. I think it came from a garage. A mirror image gate is on the other side.

There are still plants...

...but nowhere near as many. 

The rest of the space is taken up by pottery, books, and decor items.

I'm not sure if the lighting is for sale, too, or simply—well, lighting.

Some items seemed odd choices, like these bird cages...

...or this piece of furniture: 

On the other hand, I liked most of the plant/pot combos. In the $25 range, they were well priced, considering the aloe in the next photo, for example, is a $15+ plant (1 gallon size).

Aloe capitata var. quartziticola 

Not sure which echeveria, but the grayish pink color went well with the pot

Selling books is great, but I wish the entire bookcase were full of books

I liked most of the pots...

...and loved these. They were well priced, BUT most of them didn't have a drain hole! Bad idea selling pots without drain holes in a nursery focused on succulents. How many plants will die because of non-existent drainage? I simply cannot follow the rationale behind this decision. Yes, the pots look great, but they're impractical, to say the least. 

Not my taste but I heard other people commenting favorably

While I would never buy these plates, I do think they're pretty

It makes sense from a retail perspective to jump on the tillandsia/air plant bandwagon

Selling complimentary pots is only logical

Some nice tillandsia specimens, too

Believe what? That there are people who would buy a "Believe" sign?

Two more oddities 

At least there are two nice aloes for decor

As I was looking at all the things for sale, I had conflicting thoughts running through my mind. The outside nursery area is still plant-centric, fortunately, and I'm clinging to the hope that it will be better stocked in the weeks and months to come. 

On the other hand, the inside area, what I referred to as the "tent," made me plain sad. Why carry all these decor items that look like they came straight from Cost Plus? To offer one-stop shopping? Since the selection is so small, though, that doesn't seem like a convincing argument to me. While I'm not anti-change, I'm not in favor of change for change's sake either. 

I really wanted to like the rebooted nursery, but it seems to suffer from an identity crisis. I fervently hope the powers that be will come to the realization that what made the RBG nursery great in the first place were the plants. I doubt any customer ever missed the absence of tchotchkes. 

I want the old nursery back, and I bet I'm not the only one.

Walking to my car along the length of the garden, I stopped several times to admire the plantings next to the sidewalk. And I realized that the garden itself is still all about the plants, just like it had been when Ruth Bancroft was still actively involved. I'm so grateful that Brian Kemble, Walker Young and Ryan Penn continue to be sensitive stewards of the garden and committed guardians of Ruth's legacy. 


  1. Great post, I’m completely in agreement on your critique. I bet Scully and Mulder would buy that ‘Believe’ thing... 😂

  2. I remember speaking to a docent a couple years back, who told me Ruth never liked the "Sculpture in the Garden" that happened every summer. It kind of looks like that's the direction everyone else wanted, so now that she's gone it's going to happen.

    Also, where were all those plants for the spring sale?! Were they saving them for the reopening? I was sorely disappointed during the sale; the selections seemed much more limited than before. I actually didn't buy anything, which is unheard of at plant sales.

    1. Yeah, I can't help but wonder what Ruth would think of these developments.

      I didn't have a chance to go to the spring sale but usually they bring in plants especially for that occasion...

  3. Hmm. It looks a bit like the new nursery is trying hard to be all things to all people and possibly losing track of what its core clientele wants. It brought to mind Roger's recent decision to add baby clothes and gifts to its produce line. Hopefully, they'll adjust their approach as time goes on.

    1. Baby clothes at Rogers? Heaven help us!

      Here's one troubling thought I can't shake: Maybe customers WANT more accessories and fewer plants? Maybe we're the dinosaurs, about to die out?

  4. Ooh, the snark over that "Believe" sign -- wicked Gerhard! I have to say, from my distant perspective, the nursery looks pretty nice and well merchandised. I'm especially liking the mash-up of the mottled 'Macho Mocha' mangaves with similarly colored pots, and the cool tillandsia pots. But then again, I didn't see what the place was before, and I can easily imagine how fewer plants and more tchotchkes would be dismaying. I'm mostly dismayed that I don't see my books on the bookshelf. ;)

    1. Snark? Moi???

      I do like the new pots a lot, buth in terms of looks and price. But why don't they have drain holes? Not everybody has the tools to drill holes at home. And some materials are very difficult to drill (and/or crack easily). Maybe the nursery will offer to drill holes, like some do?

      Your books would be great match. I'll suggest they add them to their inventory!

  5. Thanks for the update. I like to visit the garden but find the plants a bit over priced - tho I still buy some :) I hope the garden stays about plants / education and not about selling accessories.

    1. Yes, some plants are pricy but those are usually slower-growing species or older and larger plants. On the other hand, there are some great bargains to be found as well. For me, plant pricing isn't so much of an issue at the RBG nursery because it all goes towards supporting the garden.

  6. Maybe we are supposed to BELIEVE that the nursery will get a greater variety and number of plants. I'm a fan of merchandise but all of the items shown here are available at retailers in this area as well. (Some nurseries here offer to drill a drain hole in any pot you buy that lacks one.) Wouldn't it be swell if the inside area carried work by local artists, maybe cool tiles similar to the ones in the mosaic walls, and other, more unique items rather than the standard retail fare? RBC is such a marvelous place and I hope that the golden age of the nursery returns.

    1. I like your interpretation of the Believe sign!!

      The "old" nursery did have work by local artists, but it was more expensive than the mass-produced goods from overseas (as it SHOULD be). I don't know how well it sold, but it was always a treat to look at creative pottery etc.

  7. I will hold onto the hope that this is just the beginning and things will get better with time. Or maybe that other stuff will sell like hotcakes and the plant selection will dwindle even further. Ugh.

    1. I want nothing more than for the garden to thrive so if this new concept ends up being a huge success financially and helps ensure a prosperous future for the RBG, then I will support it.

  8. Well, the mosaic wall is just splendid I must say. In my opinion there are some nurseries that cater to plantspeople and some that cater to the casual gardener (who wants color) and the gift/decor shopper. The nursery I am associated with caters more to the former but through the years and different management cycles in and out there are those that will insist on upping the gift-tchotchke game , which results in yet another sad cycle of dead decor items and markdowns.This happens over and over. It is hard to imagine that the RBG nursery will ever have the retail traffic to support all the foo-foo. On the other hand if the inclusion of this stuff actually succeeds in producing more revenue to continue supporting improvements in the garden I'm all for it. I think it's a long shot though. I may have to head over there this weekend and see it myself. Thanks for this thoughtful overview Gerhard !

    1. I agree, the mosaic walls are fantastic. I'd gladly buy a few of those tiles for my own garden if they were available.

      You have a lot more insight into the nursery business than I do. I'm sure you've seen it all over the years.

  9. Kris took the words out of my mouth -- it looks like the RBG is following the Rogers Gardens retail juggernaut, which as we learned in Austin is the No. 1 nursery in the country. Years ago Rogers had the newest and best plants, but retail creep has moved the focus away from plants. Now the new restaurant at Rogers is a huge success -- so the plants function more as a backdrop to everything else going on -- retail, eating. I'm afraid you, me, the commenters on your blog are the minority, Gerhard, and apparently we're not enough to keep these nurseries economically viable, or so it would seem...

    1. Rogers is the #1 nursery in the country? I missed that bit of news. The thing about Rogers is that it's a HUGE place, and they *do* have plenty of space for it all: plants, pottery, decor, and apparently even baby clothing. Not to mention a restaurant.

      The RBG nursery is tiny and will never be able to compete with larger businesses when it comes to hardline variety and selection.

  10. Is there a nursery that isn't trending toward more decor? Most of the ones around here are -- some that didn't have closed. A sign of the times, or an indication that pure plant people won't spend enough to keep these places alive?

  11. Yep, you speak for me too. I'm going to guess that more plants will come in after the summer or in late winter/ early spring perhaps.

    Still, I know the foundation has a mandate to keep the garden wonderful and sustainable and so they probably are experimenting with marketing approaches. This looks like a Flora Grubb inspired redesign to me and she certainly seems to be doing very well. I haven't been back since the nursery was still in its temporary location but I look forward to seeing it again as soon as feasible.

    I'm going to link this post to the Cal Hort Fb page so people can more easily discover this wonderful blog of yours which was given the website award. But who am I fooling? Most Cal Hort members seem to scoff at even looking at Fb, I'm not sure if those folks do anything else on the internet. Maybe. But I'd be very happy to be proven wrong. If you're reading this and belong to Cal Hort, please give yourself a shout out and put me in my place. I'd love that.

    I hope you never get tired of chronicling your garden adventures, Gerhard. Took a heads up from Bracie T. for me to discover it. But we'll keep in touch regardless.

    1. Mark, thank you so much for your kind words. They mean a lot. Your mention of Bracie made me so sad. I wish she was still with us.

  12. Oops, almost forgot. My buddy Ellen Frank, the last elected president of Cal Hort, tells me that Troy McGregor lives not too far from her and she thinks he is working on a nursery of his own. I don't know if it is a public thing or just a place to raise plants for his clients. Anyway, Ellen is going to host a coffee event in her Martinez garden either late summer or early fall and she is going to get me contact info for Troy to see about linking a visit to his nursery if possible. I'll keep you posted.

    1. I'd be happy to put you in touch with Troy so see if this would be a possibility.

  13. Eagle-eye Ellen doesn't miss a thing. The yard (aka. Kens Place) is where I store my equipment and harden off plants before they are installed into gardens. I also grow a few varieties that I have a hard time sourcing locally. It isn't a nursery as such or open to the public, but I'd be happy to host your group and share with/learn from other plant geeks. Fair warning though, Ken is a bit of a 'Chatty Cathy' when you get him going. ~Troy

    1. Hi Gerhart! This is Anna Halverson from the Ruth Bancroft Garden. Thank you for your candid review of our new Nursery. While we wish we could have gotten 5 stars from you right out of the gate, we have heard your feedback and are grateful for friends who can be forthright in their responses. We hope that you will stick with us as we continue to innovate and improve the Nursery. We acknowledge that there is some tweaking to do, but we hope that our new Nursery space can be a place that delights both true succulent/drought-adapted plant aficionados and curious visitors who are either just getting into succulents or perhaps looking for a gift for someone who is. The fact is that we need the Nursery to be a thriving retail operation in order to support the mission and operations of the Garden. Our hope is that with stylish accents and artful staging of our plants, we can appeal to visitors who may not ALREADY be plant geeks (and perhaps help ease that conversion!!)

      People find their way to succulents through a variety of paths—some are drawn by the ecological/sustainable aspects of their low-water needs; some are drawn by a strong interest in the horticultural/botanical interests of the plants themselves; some for the way their form manifests adaptations to intense environmental pressures they experienced over the course of their evolutionary history; but for others their interest in succulents first starts with an interest in current style and design trends. Our hope is that no matter what initially turns people on to this plant palette, they will find more than enough to satiate their interest in our Nursery and Garden. Well…maybe not exactly to satiate their interest…we want to keep them craving more!!

      We have definitely taken to heart your comments about needing to bump our inventory of truly special, hard-to-find plants. That comment is totally in line with what we are trying to achieve, so we know that we need to increase our efforts there. Carol, our Executive Director, is working with our Nursery and Horticultural staff (Brian, Walker and Ryan) to develop a specially curated collectors area in the Nursery that will feature rare, new and uncommon plants. This plan was already in the works, but has yet to be fully realized. Please stay tuned!

      The square footage of the Nursery space has grown, so the plants may seem more spread out. Also, we are very proud to feature the work of many local artists in our Nursery. For instance, we carry many pieces by local ceramic artist, Ellen Sachtschale, whose “Garden Vessels” pair beautifully with the dramatic forms and subtle colors of succulent plants. Visit Ellen’s website to see examples of her work. Even the “plantillows,” the aloe/agave shaped pillows you photographed are created by a local artist, Sabine Herman. And lastly, the pots that do not have drainage holes may be used as cachepots or can be drilled with a drainage hole. In fact, we had a free demonstration in the Garden just on May 10 about how to drill a drainage hole in a ceramic pot!

      So, thanks again for your comments and for your stalwart support of the Ruth Bancroft Garden!

    2. Thank you so much for writing, Anna. It was great getting more background about the evolution of the garden.

      I agree, the nursery needs to be a place that attracts both novices/casual gardeners and more hardcore plant lovers. Finding the right balance will require some experimenting and tweaking. It sounds like you're definitely prepared to do that, and that makes me happy to hear.

      A specially curated collectors area would be awesome. It would be a big draw for me. I know that Brian has created many special hybrids over the years; I'd love to be able to buy some. And I'm sure that Walker and Ryan have all kinds of goodies stashed away in the greenhouses.

      As for the pots without drain holes, I think one solution would be for the nursery staff to drill holes. The pots themselves are wonderful and I would have bought some if they had holes (I've drilled many a hole over the years but it's just an extra chore I don't want to have to do). Or at least post a sign telling customers that the pots don't have holes and have a handout with step-by-step instructions on how to drill holes.

      I love the RBG, and any kind of criticsm on my part is meant to be constructive. While I personally would prefer to have a nursery that's about plants and less about garden decor, if the current concept turns out to be successful, I'll be happy, too.

      Thanks again, Anna. I really appreciate it.

  14. Ok now I need to go visit! And spend some money! Lol. Love what they are doing! And that WALL! So beautiful!

    1. Candy, road trip time!! Yes, support them with your $. It goes to a good cause.

  15. You are more understanding than I. My visit to the RBG nursery was memorable--a plant lover's delight. Sad to see it invaded by shoddy decorative crap that will end up in a landfill.

    Plants, at least, can be composted.

    My poor Aloe hardyii is currently engulfed by Agave marmorata. Hope it survives until the beastie blooms and gets removed.


Post a Comment