Harmony in the Garden Blog

The Bold Dry Garden – a review and giveaway

14138855_10207327390806941_6975795770518816713_oA few weeks ago I had the pleasure to attend a party celebrating Timber Press’s new release, The Bold Dry Garden, written by Johanna Silver (who is also the garden editor for Sunset magazine).

The event was held at one of my favorite places, The Ruth Bancroft Garden (appropriate, as that’s the subject of the book!)  Not only did I get to spend the morning in a beautiful garden, but Ruth herself was there (no small feat as she’s 108 years old!) as well as other key horticulturalists and gardeners mentioned in the book.

After listening to Johanna discuss her personal experience getting to know Ruth and her garden, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could dive into the book.

Let me just say that this is one of the most beautiful books ever.  Some might call it a coffee table book, as the oversized hardback book is chock full of mouthwatering photos (taken by award-winning Marion Brenner).  But unlike other coffee table books, where the tendency is to flip through and look at the pretty photos, this is one that you’ll eagerly read from cover to cover.  Here are a few reasons why…


05-olfers-children-of-the-root-1928_900Ruth’s Story

The book opens with an in-depth look at Ruth Bancroft herself, and I must say it’s as engaging as any fictional character. In a nutshell, Ruth is amazing.

From an early age, she developed an insatiable desire for collecting and studying things found in nature, including an extensive seashell collection that ended up in the California Academy of Sciences.

Her life-long curiosity and laser-focused vision of what her suburban property could be are inspiring, to say the least.  Ruth recently celebrated her 108th birthday and still visits her wildflowers, cacti, and succulents as often as she can.

One of the things I found particularly charming was this page (above), taken from one of Ruth’s childhood books ‘When The Root Children Wake Up’, by Sibylle von Olfers.  As a child, Ruth would spend hours examining the details of the different flowers, and I have to believe this was one of the earliest seeds planted in her imagination.


dsc_0053-1The Garden

Even if you don’t live in the Bay Area, this is a garden of great significance and one that you’ll want to discover.

Did you know, for example, that this is the garden that inspired the Garden Conservancy Program?

And that the Ruth Bancroft Garden was it’s very first garden?



Long before xeriscaping, drought-tolerant, and conserving water were everyday terms in our gardening conversation, Ruth realized that California’s rapid population growth would have a disastrous effect on its water supply.

So in the 1970’s, Ruth made it her mission to create a sustainable and water-wise garden that bucked the trend of wall-to-wall lawns surrounded by thirsty foundation shrubs.


img_9872Here’s an interesting fact, made even more fascinating once you visit the garden and walk among the giant, towering specimens of succulents and cactus:

Ruth started this garden with the smallest plants she could find, primarily 4″ pots with the occasional 1-gallon.  Thriftiness wasn’t the main reason, but rather her insatiable curiosity:  she wanted to observe the plant’s entire life cycle, no matter how many years it took.

Rare is the person who has that much patience in the garden!


dsc_0073-1Behind The Scenes

Throughout the book you’ll discover secrets to Ruth’s success and tips you can use in your garden.

For example, you’ll learn the importance of rocks in the garden; how to choose them, best sizes to use, and what shapes work best.

Design strategies that Ruth has implemented are brought to light, thanks to Marion Brenner’s jaw-dropping photographs.  You’ll see repetition in form and color, contrast in shapes and texture, and the importance of drifts in the garden.


dsc_0036-1The Stars of the Garden

Rivaling Ruth for ‘star-status’ is her expansive collection of cactus and succulents.

The plants are grouped into manageable sections (sempervivum, sedum, agave, aeonium, yuccas, and cactus to name a few) along with other low-water plants that grow in the garden (protea, terrestrial bromeliads, and California natives).




Best of all, the photos were taken over the course of a year, with Johanna and Marion visiting the garden on a weekly basis.

Marion has captured individual plants in all their glory, bursting forth with colorful displays of blooms, as well as during their quieter months when they go dormant. This gives the reader a clear picture of what that plant will look like throughout the year.

It also is a valuable resource for those wanting to create a garden that blooms throughout the year, understanding what will bloom in spring, summer or fall.

The photos below are from my past visits to the garden (and pale in comparison to Marion’s) but will hopefully give you an idea of what you will find in the book.






I believe Johanna summed it up best when she said:

‘With climate change on the horizon, we are faced with the opportunity to channel the Ruth in all of us.  Without knowing how it will all turn out, can we challenge ourselves to be adventurous in our plant choices, attentive to climatic cues, undaunted by failure, and contented by our gardens?’


And now for more fun – a giveaway!

Timber Press and Johanna have generously offered this stunning book to one of my lucky readers.  To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment below – it’s as easy as that!


………………………………………………………………The Fine Print…………………………………………….

*********Update – congratulations Sue Mings!  You’re the winner of The Bold, Dry Garden!  As soon as you send me your mailing address, we’ll get the book out to you asap.  Thanks again, everyone!

A random winner will be chosen by midnight October 2nd and contacted within 24 hours. If the proposed winner forfeits or does not claim the prize by October 9th, the prize will be re-awarded based on the sponsor’s sole discretion. All prizes will be awarded. Please provide your first and last name to enter this contest so I can immediately contact you if you win. The winner agrees to allow his/her first name to be mentioned in conjunction with this giveaway.

This giveaway is limited to U.S. residents only, who are over the age of 18 years old. No purchase necessary to win. This sweepstake is also void where prohibited by law and by entering this giveaway, you agree to these conditions.

Enjoyed this article?  Please share it with others: 

Please leave a comment:


  • I drove many hours to visit that gorgeous garden, and then my camera battery died! I have only memories and would love the book to refresh those fond thoughts!

  • Thank you for sharing your insights into this garden and the person who started it all, Ruth. I would love to visit the garden next year when we make our way out west to see our beautiful country. THis book has great ideas for using less water and is inspiring.

  • I’ve only been to the Bancroft Garden once, but it was so cool. The employees (docents?) had fun stories to share about Ruth and the property history. Clearly she’s an awesome woman. The nursery was also top-notch.

  • Great review. Great pictures. And as always, great blog article.

  • What better combination than Ruth Bancroft garden and Rebecca Sweet blog. Can wait to get a hold of the book.

  • My daughter-in-law treated me to a visit to this garden. What a treat it was. I did not know all the plants were started from 4″ plants, or that Ruth is 108 years old or that her Garden is the first garden of the Conservancy. Love your blog, and will always remember my visit to Ruth Bancroft’s garden.

  • Beautiful! Can’t wait to read Ruth’s story and about the Bancroft Garden and see all the gorgeous photos of the garden.

  • Looks like a good book, and your post gives a good idea of the contents.

    I enjoyed my once visit to the RBG, hope to see it again this autumn.

  • I worked with Johanna years ago and am so happy for her success with this book.

  • I hope to visit this garden soon, but maybe should wait until spring. So until then, I would love to have this book on my table! I love your blog!!!

  • Looks like a fantastic book! Would love to visit the Ruth Bancroft garden some day.

  • Great post! It looks like a wonderful outing. Thanks for introducing me to succulents! I’ll have to visit Bancroft Garden soon.

  • The Bancroft Garden is such an incredible treasure. I have long enjoyed Ruth Bancroft’s newspaper columns. Thanks for doing this feature on this great new book!

  • Beautiful post – now I’m more eager than ever to get my own copy of this wonderful book! (And thanks for your generosity in hosting this giveaway!)

  • I’m excited to read the book. I have wanted to see Ruth Bancroft’s garden for many years. Recently a friend, the artist John King, completed an installation at the Garden, which has increased my desire to visit. Ruth Bancroft is an inspiration to all of us who love gardening. Thank you for the great article and review.

  • After many years, my daughter and I finally made plans to visit the garden in October. Thank you for giving us the amazing details of Ruth Bancroft’s early life and her achievements. I know I’ll be seeing a fabulous garden created by an inspiring person!

  • Love the idea of pictures of the plant in all its seasons.

  • Johanna and Marion couldn’t have produced a better book on the RBG. I agree, it’s the rare coffee table book where you actually want to read every single word of the text–especially since the story of Ruth’s life and the creation of her magnificent garden is so fascinating.

  • I have been inspired by Ruth Bancroft for many years. I am unable to work in my garden like I used to, but still spend a lot of time dreaming about what I want it to be. I live in Western North Carolina. Our climate and challenges our different. We all share to challenges of drought and climate change. One of the major take-a-ways of Ruth adventure is using materials native to your own area. This is something I also began doing long before it was popular to do so, partly inspired by the Bancroft Garden. Thank you for this article.Would love to have a copy of the book.

  • What an inspiring woman. How wonderful to get to meet her. I would love to have the book.

  • It’s a beautiful garden, and I am grateful I have been able to visit it several times. The book sounds delightful!

  • I like the fact that Ruth started with 4 inch or gallon pots, so she could watch their entire life cycles. Patience indeed!

  • Your posts are always so wonderful. I have visited this garden several times and every visit I seesomething different and inspiring. We are lucky to have this great garden and Ruth still with us.

  • I had the pleasure of visiting the Ruth Bancroft Garden in 2013. Whenever I visit a place of significance on my travels, I like to buy a book about it to help me learn more about it and to remember my visit. I do not have such a book about Ruth’s garden, so this would be a treasure! Not only that, even though I can’t grow many of the plants in Ruth’s garden, my own property has become more of a dry shade one and I’m having to change the way I garden. I think this book would be an inspirational aid. Needless to say, I’d LOVE to win this!

  • I’m so inspired be this post!
    Thank you Rebecca!
    Will make sure I take a field trip to the garden next year!

  • I have been a member of the Garden Coservancy for years and am on the Bancroft garden mailing list. Have I been there? NO! I think you have finally gotten me going. Thanks, Rebecca, for your amazing work. I am always excited to see something from you.

  • I have been lucky enough to have visited the Bancroft Garden. It is fascinating. You so rarely get to see such large and mature versions of some of those plants

  • I loved hearing about Ruth’s curiosity and spirit of adventure with her plants. I had the chance to visit her garden a few years ago and was amazed at the variety of cacti and succulents in a landscape setting. She is an inspiration to experiment and keep learning. Thank you Rebecca for reminding us of what a gem Ruth and her Garden are.

  • I rather think that Margaret Jones, with her donation of “When The Root Children Wake Up” would be the frontrunner in the book drawing. Thank you for a lovely and informative post as always. I most certainly will order the new book, and look forward to continuing my “dry” or at least “drier” garden education.

  • Thank you for writing about Ruth’s garden. It is a beautiful piece of art and touches my soul. She has given all of us a real gift.

  • In the last several years I have been fascinated with succulents. I filled in my pool and my new landscaping includes many. I can’t drive at the present time due to heart failure but would love to go to the Bancroft Garden when I can. Rita Nutile

  • I am planning to add this book to my gardening collection. I have been transitioning my mediterranean garden to more and more California natives and succulents with each new season. I am planning a visit to the Ruth Bancroft garden this fall so this book comes at a perfect time to really study a mature garden. Thanks for all that you do to keep gardeners informed Rebecca!

  • Thank you for bringing this inspirational garden to your readers! Some great ideas as I plan to redo my backyard.

  • I believe that I have a copy of Ruth,s childhood book, When the Root Children Wake up. If the Rith Bancroft Garden would like it, I would love to donate it. The pictures are beautiful, I can understand spending hours studying them….I did.

    • Oh, what a kind offer – thank you, Margaret. I’ll pass this along to Johanna and let you know if they’re interested. I’m going to ask for a copy of the newer reprinted version for Christmas and add it to my collection – it looks absolutely darling.

  • I love your informative newsletters. I can’t believe I lived in San Jose for 30 years and never heard about the Ruth Bancroft Garden. I retired 12 years ago and moved out of the area. I now live in Arroyo Grande on the Central Coast and that is where my love of gardening developed. I will definitely plan to visit the garden when I am in the bay area. Thank you for this wonderful article!

  • I find myself drawn more and more to these “dry” gardens. We recently roamed around the garden of the restaurant Jardines de San Juan. I love the style of an Olde California garden such as that.
    Thanks for the opportunity! If I don’t win I certainly will be picking up this book.
    Maria Matthews

  • Thanks for sharing this book. How wonderful that Ruth has lived to 108 to see this book published celebrating her amazing legacy which will inspire future generations.

  • I’m focused on re-landscaping my garden and among other things, have been looking for ideas for placing succulents in the landscape. This garden is where I need to go soon!

  • I will have to make a pilgrimage. Both the garden and the book sound lovely.

  • I visited this garden a very long time ago and want to go back! The book sounds amazing and would certainly be an awesome addition to my garden library. Thank you for your articles, it is always a pleasure seeing I have an email from you Rebecca.


  • Count me in! I am a fan of drought resistant gardening. Thank you!
    Deborah West

  • I am just embarking on a succulent bed so this will provide awesome inspiration!

  • I’m a fan of the Ruth Bancroft Garden too! Love their plant sales 🙂

  • We are going to that area in May to our granddaughters college graduation and you have just added another great place for us to go. We will be staying in SF for 5 days. Are there any other must sees for a gardener? Bette, San Diego area

  • I would love to incorporate some of the ideas into my garden.

  • The garden is beautiful. I have visited it a few times, but I had no idea that Ms. Bancroft is still living! Gardening truly is good for health.

  • Thank you for sharing your recent experience with your visit to Ruth’s garden. I hope to be able to visit it myself this coming Spring, for the first time! I will be retiring from my current job and career of many years to start my own garden design business and I’m so excited to know I will have the time to visit a number of wonderful gardens and meet many amazing people soon!

    Now, I want to read the book ‘When the Root Children Wake Up’!!

  • I can’t wait to see this book as my tiny gardens are transitioning to dry with your plans and plant choices.

  • We are planning a move to the Southwest and I’m already hugely inspired by Rebecca’s photos of Ruth’s garden. How exciting it is to be able to grow those gorgeous plants with so little water. I can’t wait to get started on my garden! Rebecca, thanks for all of your wise and witty gardening advice and beautiful, inspiring photos. Receiving your emails is always a high point in my day.

    Keep up the fabulous work!

    • Thank you for your kind words, Melissa, you made my day. Good luck with your big move – very exciting!!! This book will definitely inspire you! 🙂

  • I am inspired to visit Bancroft garden after reading this article. Will do so soon.

  • I love the Bancroft Garden, it’s an inspirational place to visit.

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