2023 Ruth Bancroft Garden Waterwise Garden Tour

A few weekends ago, I attended the 2023 Waterwise Garden Tour hosted by the Ruth Bancroft Garden, the Contra Costa Water District, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District. The tour included 18 gardens in the East Bay cities of Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Moraga featuring water-conscious landscaping. Many were examples of lawn conversions eligible for rebates from the two participating utilities.

To avoid congestion, the gardens were grouped by city into three circuits. Each circuit started and ended in a different city. When buying a ticket, people had to chose which circuit they wanted. This worked well, because no garden I stopped at was so crowded that I wasn’t able to enjoy it.

The tour ran from 9 am to 4pm, with a one-hour break for lunch. I visited about half of the gardens, and I feel like I saw a good cross-section of the types of landscapes resource-conscious homeowners opt for these days. The plant palette ranged from California and Southwestern natives to Mediterranean plants to succulents, often in combination. I spotted very few cacti; that’s too bad, but it’s in line with the public’s general aversion to prickly plants.

Agaves were reasonably well represented, although there was little variety: Virtually all the agaves I saw were either Agave ovatifolia, Agave parryi, or Agave ‘Blue Glow’.

The photos below are from the gardens I found most interesting. I didn’t take photos at a couple of gardens; they were newly installed, and the plants were small and immature.

The two gardens in the first set below are next to each other. One is described as “Modern experimental,” the other as “Contemporary California native.” I’ve seen very few 100% California native gardens that wow me, so I was happy to see that the latter also included plants from South Africa and Australia. They greatly enhanced what might otherwise have been an aesthetically limited palette.

Contemporary California native garden

Size: 1,200 sq. ft. (front yard only)

Top priorities: have a garden featuring California natives

Two different colors of desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Dudleya brittonii and Achillea ‘Little Moonshine’

White-flowering Sphaeralcea ambigua, Achillea ‘Little Moonshine’, and Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’

Sphaeralcea ambigua and Achillea ‘Little Moonshine’,

Modern experimental garden

Size: 2,000 sq. ft. (front yard only)

Top priorities: save water, create habitat for birds and pollinators as well as a space for the homeowner, a landscape designer, to test plants.

Honeybush (Melianthos major) in flower

Melianthos major, Senecio ficoides ‘Skyscraper’, Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’

Grevillea ‘Moonlight’

White-flowering California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

Various aeoniums and Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’

Waterwise California native garden

Size: 3,000 sq. ft. (front and backyard)

Top priorities: save water, attract wildlife, add beauty.

This garden isn’t 100% California native either, but the plants are certainly climate-appropriate. 

Wild modern garden

Size: approx. 20,000 sq. ft. (front and backyard)

This is the personal garden of designer Cricket Riley, who heads the Ruth Bancroft Garden’s landscape design program. I was very curious to see what kind of garden she had created for herself and her family, but I was not prepared to fall in love so completely and utterly. Everything about Cricket’s garden resonated with me—from the eclectic plant palette (Australian shrubs and trees, a variety of palms, six Agave ovatifolia and various other species, aloes, etc.) to the hardscape. The garden complements the mid-century modern house perfectly. If I magically found myself living there, I’d see no reason to change anything. It doesn’t happen often that I find myself so in tune with somebody else’s vision.

 For more photos of Cricket’s garden, check out this post.

Cricket’s front garden is small, but it packs a punch with half a dozen agaves and, at this time of year, a sea of white-flowering California poppies

Agave ovatifolia in a sea of white-flowering California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

Entry garden featuring agaves, yuccas, and cacti (yes, cacti!)

Patio in the back

One of the most amazing private pools I’ve ever seen

The property is ½ acre and features a number of distinct areas

In addition to the main house, there is a guest house (above) and two other structures

RBG-inspired with California native & edible landscaping

Size: approx. 1,500 sq. ft. (front yard only)

Priorities: help the environment, save water and money, have a relatively low-maintenance garden, demonstrate the diversity of plants, including edibles that are drought tolerant (although they may not look like it)

The first thing I noticed when I drove up were the raised vegetable beds along the sidewalk. I’ve seen clunky iterations elsewhere, but here they are beautifully integrated. As I was walking around examining the plants up close, I was thinking to myself, this looks like a living Annie’s Annuals catalog. A few minutes later, Alice Kitajima, the Ruth Bancroft Garden’s program director who had organized this garden tour, introduced me to the homeowner, Melissa. Melissa had been the marketing director of the Ruth Bancroft Garden and is now—get this—the marketing director of Annie’s Annuals! I had to laugh when I found out.

For more photos of Melissa’s floriferous front yard, check out this post.

Homeowner Melissa isn’t a big fan of succulents per se, but she loves Mangave ‘Mission to Mars’. To her, it embodies the Ruth Bancroft Garden.

This has been the first garden tour I’ve been on since before Covid. I hadn’t quite realized how much I’d missed them. On every tour, there are gardens that don’t resonate with me, but even those are an opportunity to learn (why don’t I like them, what would I change, etc.).

© Gerhard Bock, 2023. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. It's nice to see what other gardener's are up to. The last two gardens really show a designer's touch. It's amazing what a bit of good hardscape can do to highlight the plantings. In Cricket's garden having the bold agaves is a beautiful contrast to the more light weight poppies. The top two are lovely too but I think having a couple of larger more solid borders or an agave or yucca would have made them pop a bit more.

    1. I think Cricket's front yard will look very different without the poppies. I hope she'll post photos on her Instagram account (@cricketriley_ if you want to follow her).

  2. All are different and interesting. I had never seen white CA poppies before! The Octopus Agave at Cricket Riley's front entrance is probably going to overtake the sidewalk to the front door! Mine here in my back garden are about twice that size. We all learn, even the experts!

    1. White poppies do pop up in wild populations of regular orange poppies, but I've never seen an all-white planting before either. Cricket told me that she removes all the orange poppies that appear.

  3. Garden tours are great fun. I find that beyond my personal preferences, if the plants are suited to the climate and are happy, a garden will look good. The photo that I loved the most was #21: the shady "junction" in Cricket’s garden. It looks like a perfect place to find refuge from the heat and sun.
    I'm looking forward to the West Seattle garden tour in July, and to more photos of the gardens that impressed you the most.

    1. The shady junction was one my favorite spots, too. So tranquil, yet you have a view of a large part of the garden.

  4. I've followed Cricket on Instagram for awhile and love seeing her garden there, I look forward to more in your future post! Reading along here I couldn't help but wonder how my listing would start? The name? Well I suppose the tour organizers wouldn't let me escape using danger it would probably be something like "danger in NE Portland" 5,217 (lot) Goals? Wow, have all the cool plants? I've never really thought about my garden goals in that way (have you?).

    1. Yes, you're "danger" where you like it not, haha. Garden goals? What are those? If anything, my are modest: Get as many weeds pulled as I can without losing my mind.

  5. That's just the kind of garden tour I've like to see in my own area. I would love to see more of Cricket's and Melissa's gardens. The former had me wishing I'd sown more California poppy seeds earlier in our rainy season. I've had trouble getting them to bloom due to our drier winters in recent years and I'd assumed I'd have the same problem this year so I didn't even make an effort until late February.

    1. You're in an upscale area, there must be plenty of interesting gardens. But not every garden owner relishes the idea of strangers trampling through their private space.

  6. How fun, nothing better than exploring what other gardeners are doing. Melissa's garden is lovely! I think my goal would be to bring myself joy, how selfish is that?! hahahaha. Side note, thank you & thank you for highlighting Waltzing Matilija and Troy's garden. I visited yesterday, the first day open to the public AND WOW! So thrilling to have so many choices, and to see his 2 year old garden with bigger specimens. I was joyful and came home with a nice haul. He asked me how I found the nursery, and I told him from your blog. He replied "Gerhard, I love that guy!" :)

    1. Re: Troy: I'm so glad you made it. He's one of the best, both as a person and as a plantsman.

  7. Thank you for coming on the tour and posting about it! I'm the landscape designer/homeowner from the first two gardens above. Both are lawn conversions and very young gardens but I hope you enjoyed them! I so wish that I had recognized you and been able to chat intentionally with you! The whole day was such a wonderful blur. I hope to cross paths with you soon! - Karly (and yes Cricket's garden is pure magic and she's pretty great too ha!)


Post a Comment