Ruth Bancroft Garden in late June 2020

It's no secret that the Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG) in Walnut Creek is one of my favorite gardens, and I jump at every chance I get to visit.

That's exactly what happened last Saturday. I had somewhere to be in East Bay, and the RBG was only 15 minutes further. It would have been foolish not to take advantage of this opportunity!

COVID-19 measures are still in force, including the mandatory use of face masks and social distancing. Everybody I saw was complying, and nobody was disgruntled or ill-tempered. These requirements are simply the new normal.

The RBG is getting ready for their annual Sculpture in the Garden show starting on Friday, July 17 and running until September 1. Quite a few sculptures were in place already while others were still waiting near the entrance. You'll see some of entries in the photos below.

Agave franzosinii

Young Agave franzosinii

“Bolt” by Eileen Fitz-Faulkner ($2500) and Agave ovatifolia

“Winter” by Carol Hathaway ($1000)

Eucalyptus macrocarpa, flower on the right

Yuccas, dasylirions, and friends

“Garden Devil” by Joe Bologna ($895)

Succulents and cycads

Saint Catherine's lace (Eriogonum giganteum) and chapparal yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei), both California natives

Saint Catherine's lace (Eriogonum giganteum)

Saint Catherine's lace (Eriogonum giganteum) and Agave shawii, one of only a couple of agaves native to California

California native section. The sculpture is “Tribal Totem #1” by Henriette Ponte ($890).

Red buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens)

Three California natives underused in gardens: chuparosa (Justicia californica), both red and yellow varieties, and rose sage  (Salvia pachyphylla)

This donated Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia)  has fast become a signature plant in the California native section

California natives on the right, agaveville on the left

Lots of agaves

This Agave parrasana× salmiana hybrid has one of the beefiest flower stalks relative to the size of the rosette

Flowers on inflorescence of Agave parrasana× salmiana hybrid

Aloe tomentosa, truly spectacular in bloom. If you look closely, the flowers are fuzzy.

The purple shrub is a beautiful specimen of Leucadendron 'Ebony'

Another Leucadendron 'Ebony', this time next to a large Agave ovatifolia

Aloe ‘Hellskloof Bells’, garden curator Brian Kemble's hybrid between Aloe pearsonii and Aloe distans. These are actually two slightly different plants from the same seed batch.

The aloe is cool and all, but look at that eucalyptus!

This is not an in-your-face scene, but I love the textural contrast. Eremophila nivea on the left, Banksia undata (aka Dryandra praemorsa) in the middle, Acacia aphylla on the right, all of them Australian natives.

Agave americana and “System #5” by Diana Markessinis ($1450)

Agave ovatifolia and “Mermaid” by Carol Hathaway ($800)

Doesn't this look cool? I think it's Agave ocahui. And take a look at this: ×Mangave 'Praying Hands', available from Walters Gardens next year. Agave ocahui is one of the parents.
APRIL 2021 UPDATE: According to RBG curator Brian Kemble, this mystery agave originally came from the Bolinas garden of the late succulent collector Herman Schwartz. Brian calls it Agave mitis 'Chocolate Edge' because of the brown margin, although he conjectures it might be a hybrid because of the unusual way the leaves fold up.

'Ruth Bancroft' manzanita, a hybrid that popped up on its own in the garden many years ago

The peeling bark is one of the most attractive features of manzanitas

Here's a photo of the entire shrub. Or would it be more accurate to call it a small tree?

Agave ovatifolia 'Orca'

Another Agave ovatifolia, this one flowering

Head sculptures seem to be particularly popular this year

“Forty Hands” by Clayton Thiel ($4300)

“City Head” by Clayton Thiel ($4500)

Aloidendron 'Hercules'

Hybrid coral bean (Erythrina × bidwillii) and Yucca rostrata

Erythrina × bidwillii and Agave montana

Agave 'Cornelius'

“Native Sage Towers” by Dustin Gimbel ($2200) is well paired with this opuntia

Cleistocactus straussii, with flowering ×Mangave 'Espresso' on the left

×Mangave 'Espresso'

Oreocereus celsianus

Ferocactus pottsii

The shade structure renovation (bed 6) is making progress

Check out my post from late May for comparison

A ton of rocks (quite literally) have been placed

Aloe waiting to replanted under the shade structure

'Desert Museum' palo verde in all its glory

Quite a few agave flower stalks, too

Like this Agave americana, all but collapsed

Puya alpestris with its otherworldly metallic turquoise flowers

One of many cycads now planted permanently in the garden

Agave vilmoriniana 'Stained Glass'

This was my favorite sculpture in the garden: “Reeds” by Jeff Owens ($1800). It's an array of metal rods welded to a base. They're thin enough to wiggle in the wind, creating a subtle interplay of movement and sound.

Gasteria batesiana hybrid

Ice plant, possibly a Delosperma although there are so many different genera that look confusingly similar to me

Pond after its extensive renovation. It's never looked this good.

Hechtia in the foreground

Sun-bleached Agave impressa. These are plants waiting to go back into bed 6 where the shade structure is.

Massive Agave americana that used to be one of the signature plants of bed 6. It's just sitting there right now, roots exposed. I bet it can't wait to go back to its old home! The totems by Henriette Ponte ($940-$990) are also waiting to be moved to their destinations.

COVID-19-related restrictions are being re-tightened in California after a surge of new cases, and while this hasn't affected places like the RBG yet, we don't know what's going to happen down the line. All the more reason to visit now, while you still can. This Independence Day weekend would be a great time if you're in Northern California!

7/14/2020 UPDATE: Names of sculptures and artists added


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  1. This is almost as good as seeing it in person! Thanks for the great coverage, Gerhard. I DO want to visit RBG one day but that's clearly going to wait awhile. I was surprised at how much I like the Erythrina × bidwillii as I usually shy away from strong reds like that. I was impressed by several of the sculptures but I was immediately fixated on the wire sculpture you highlighted - it's simple and absolutely perfect for a garden, or at least a setting like that one. Now I'm wondering how I (or more likely my handy husband) could create something like that.

    1. In the July "What in Bloom" video (here), Brian Kemble says that they cut the Erythrina all the way to the ground in the winter. So what you see in the photo is this year's growth. Impressive!

      If you husband manages to create a sculpture like that, please let me know. I'll commission one!

  2. the gardens look great. So many beautiful blemish free agaves they almost look like sculptures themselves. Pond looks wonderfully cool and serene.

    1. The garden staff does a fantastic job keeping everything in tip top shape. Not a weed to be seen!

  3. I like those metal rods too if they're wind-driven as you say. So funny to see some of these same sculpture heads from a visit many years ago. The foam of eriogonum flowers with agaves is a classic. And that hechtia among rocks at the pond is a stunning bit of planting too. So glad you made the visit!

    1. I seem to spot something new everytime I visit. The eriogonums are spectacular this year.

      According to the RBG website, Dustin Gimble will have a piece in the Sculpture in the Garden show. Will look for it once all the pieces have been installed.

  4. It's always a good day to visit the RBG! Although all that "art"... ugh.

  5. Some amazing plants in this post. From the Eucalyptus macrocarpa flower, to Leucadendron 'Ebony' next to the large A. ovatifolia, to the bizarre (not photoshopped!) Puya alpestris. For the first time I see a plant that I also have: the compact sempervivum ground cover (picture 43), don't know the name but love it a lot.
    Thumbs up for the metal rod sculpture: the shadow it create gives it a constantly changing look. Waiting to see if Kris's husband starts taking orders :-D

    1. I think the compact sempervivum is Sempervivum arachnoideum. It's one of the few semps that do well here.

  6. A visit to RBG is always a worthy pastime. I'm looking forward to seeing the shade structure replanted. All brand new photo compositions ! I wonder if they'll be able to a plant sale this fall ?

    1. From what I understand, they're not going to have plant sales anymore. Members get 20% off on nusery purchases year round.


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