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Are You a Plant Collector, Gardener or Both?

The Bold Dry Garden Book

As she researched her book, The Bold Dry Garden, it dawned on Sunset’s garden editor Johanna Silver that plant collectors are not necessarily gardeners, and vice-versa. The subject, Ruth Bancroft, is both gardener and collector—as is Brian Kemble, the curator of the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA. Since 1980, Brian has helped Ruth (now age 108) orchestrate an inviting, 3.5-acre showcase of unusual succulents and low-water companion plants.

Johanna, Brian and I were having dinner when she fixed me with her level gaze and asked, “Are you a collector?” I knew from reading her book that she isn’t. “I am no closer to being a plant collector than I was when I signed up to write this book,” she admits in the Preface. Yet Johanna went on to write that she is “now more likely to research where a plant comes from and track down photos of its natural habitat in order to get a sense of what helps it thrive in the garden.”

Earlier we had been at Johanna’s and Brian’s joint presentation at the San Diego Horticultural Society, during which Brian had observed, “When you see a plant in habitat, it’s like looking into its soul.” No wonder that speakers at Cactus and Succulent Society meetings show photos of little-known genera in arid, rocky terrains accessible only by hiking or horseback. Brian, in fact, had just returned from his sixth or seventh South African plant-hunting expedition.

It makes sense that to cultivate any plant perfectly, one needs to be aware of the conditions in which it grows wild. But although I’m thrilled every time I see a succulent I haven’t seen before, I don’t necessarily want it. So I replied to Johanna’s question: “No, I’m not a collector.” She nodded. We may love plants and gardening in all their multifaceted aspects, but we lack the collector’s gene.

Johanna Silver

Johanna Silver

Ruth Bancroft, on the other hand, kept detailed handwritten notes on every plant she acquired, and also had extensive collections of sea shells, art, books, and textiles. “There is a certain flavor of obsession that comes with collecting,” Johanna writes, “an inability to stop. A collector is passionate, driven, and on a quest for knowledge. The habit only intensifies as the desired objects become more obscure.”

While he was in town, I escorted Brian to several San Diego garden destinations, and observed this gentle, quiet man come to life with an explosive “Oh, my God!” at Petra Crist’s Rare Succulents nursery when he saw some of her specimen plants. Invariably, he and Petra verbally revisited the wilds of Socotra, the Great Karoo, or Madagascar as they discussed a plant’s unique characteristics.

Petra Crist and Brian Kemble discuss a cyphostemma

Petra Crist and Brian Kemble discuss a cyphostemma, a lumpy-trunked succulent tree from Madagascar.

Johanna said she’d like to go on a plant-hunting expedition. Not me. Too dangerous. (On his recent trip, Brian sustained an injury that left him hobbling for several days.) However, I do understand the appeal. It must be similar to a photographer’s quest for the perfect shot, my genealogist friend’s desire to track down every ancestor, or the adrenaline rush I sometimes get when shopping at high-end second-hand stores.

How Ruth acquired, successfully cultivated, and combined her plant collection into a great garden—despite such setbacks as killing frosts—is described with wit and clarity by Johanna; fact-checked by Brian; and photographed brilliantly by Marion Brenner, who pursued and captured the garden’s soul.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: To enter to win a copy of The Bold Dry Garden, simply leave a comment below stating why you’d like to have it. Johanna or our mutual publisher, Timber Press, will pick the winner on Tuesday, Nov. 1. I’ll announce the winner here and contact him or her to obtain a mailing address.

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE WINNER! Many thanks to all who participated. Johanna selected Renata Muller because “I like that she recognizes Ruth for the gutsy/brave pioneer that she is!”

Renata wrote: “I am both a gardener and Succ-aholic. I have visited and purchased specimens from The Ruth Bancroft Garden. I cannot think of a more amazing garden story than that of Ruth Bancrofts. In a time when boldness and courage was not on the female virtues roster, she was a pioneer. Gutsy and brave and not content with the mainstream pansy route. She saw the beauty in the dry landscape and brought it and a lot of plant knowledge to millions thru her toils creating the incredible garden we all can visit and drool over, as well as the wisdom and experience she imparted dry scape novices and wanna be’s with the help she offered the local community with her newspaper articles. She was sustainable when sustainable wasnt cool! I would love a book about this grand lady and her creation and legacy!”

So there you have it…I’ll contact Renata and Timber Press will send her a copy of the book!