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!

48 replies
  1. Paul Martin
    Paul Martin says:

    Succulents are such great plants to work with. I love how they multiple so easily and quickly.

    Working them into a garden design is pretty amazing also… mixing varieties as well as throwing in other plants such as palms and bamboo adds to the whole “picture”.

    I’m in Hawaiian native plant conservation here on the Big Island of Hawaii and get to work with a few native and endangered Hawaiian portulacas.

    Having this book in my collection would inspire me even more in my already passionate line of work. Also to inspire me further to pursue my side business, Waterwise Hawaii – promoting xeriscape landscape design with both succulents and native plants on our west side of the island, where rainfall is very minimal.

    Keep up the great work!
    aloha from Hawaii.

  2. Cassie Barton
    Cassie Barton says:

    It would be an honor to own a copy of this book because I love everything succulent and still have so much to figure out after being obsessed for over 4 wonderful years. And one can never stop learning; ever.

  3. Anne Wrightson
    Anne Wrightson says:

    I would like a copy of the book to learn more about growing a dry garden and help promoting the dry garden in Australia. Have become a succulent addict and slowly converting my garden to a dry climate garden. Would ultimately like to visit America and tour around a lot of nurseries and the Ruth Bancroft garden. Debra Lee Baldwin and Laura Eubanks two of my biggest inspirations so far.

    A big fan from Australia
    Anne Wrightson

  4. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    With the climate change upon us & if this past summer is any evidence of what’s to come, we need to learn what to plant that required less water.
    Also, we need to be conserving water daily.

  5. Cathy Godfrey
    Cathy Godfrey says:

    I confess! I am both a plantoholic and a plant-bookoholic. I do pretty well on the keeping-them-alive-and-happy status but I was not blessed with the creative design gene. I love browsing through my books and getting ideas and continually learning. I would love to add Johanna’s book to my library and learn from Ruth’s story and see her lovely garden.

  6. Kristi Lupoli
    Kristi Lupoli says:

    I aspire to be 108 and actively creating a garden of beauty that reflects my life – Ruth appears to have integrated her life and it’s collections into her garden and certainly her garden is sustaining to her life – these are cues to heed. I love her honesty and imagination – as well as her organization – and documentation, and wish to read more. My favorite line of the write up was Brian’s note that “When you see a plant in habitat, it’s like looking into its soul.” I know this feeling – and by my eye Ruth’s plants seem at peace in their placement…all. The few photographs presented are but a temptation – I look forward to enjoying her palettes, design development and evolution. I hope to be chosen to enjoy this gift of art.

  7. Susan Beer
    Susan Beer says:

    I would love to have this book to help me with succulent gardening here in Greece, where I face a hot, dry climate for months of the year. WInters are becoming dryer, the plants that thrive are the natives and any that can live without the promise of rain. Yes, we do water , but raising drought resistant varieties is my goal here in my garden. Bold fits this landscape and my idea of design for the plantings around my home.

  8. Libbi Salvo
    Libbi Salvo says:

    This looks like a beautiful book. I have been converting my yard in Escondido to succulents since the wildfires of 2007. My entire back yard was consumed by the fire, losing all my shade trees and also my irrigation. This seemed like a perfect time to convert to where i only irrigate what we can eat, and a very few landscape plants. I continue to convert one area at a time to succulents, frequently referring to Debra Lee Baldwin’s wonderful book, “Designing With Succulents”. I think this book would be a great partner to this.

    Thanks for the wonderful u-tubes you share with us.

  9. Desiree M.
    Desiree M. says:

    After seeing photos in books and magazines of the RBG for over 20 years, it’s time to see it in person!
    Until then, I can see this book being a treasure in my collection.

  10. Jeanne Lee
    Jeanne Lee says:

    Looking forward to retirement and developing more of a succulent hobby. Love the variation that a plant can form around a rock or a display item. Need help with more creativity.

  11. sheryl coates
    sheryl coates says:

    I would love this book. It is not so easy finding quality books in Australia about succulent gardening.
    We are pretty new here in West Australia as to how many plants are available etc.
    Fortunately some clever people have worked out ways to get them imported.. and now this state is starting to explode with these beautiful plants..
    I really, really, really would love to own this book. I had it written down a couple of weeks ago, from something else I read, but hadnt been able to source one.
    Please please please.. send to Australia. I will share information from it with other succulent gardeners I know.

  12. Michelle Derviss
    Michelle Derviss says:

    Nice review. This looks like another wonderful book that designers can use to educate our clients with on the beauty and diversity of using cactus and succulents in the garden.
    Beautifully photographed and passionately written. We are lucky to have this garden and these wonderful people in our lives.
    In appreciation, Michelle

  13. Linda Weatherred
    Linda Weatherred says:

    Earlier this year, thanks to my boss’s love of succulents, I started reading up on how to grow them. I bought Debra’s book Succulents Simplified and started my journey/quest to become knowledgeable enough to “paint” my gardens with succulents. The driving force was the state of our water shortage and the need to make the necessary changes to the way we plant and maintain our yards and gardens. I am a watercolor artist so the visual is very important to me. However, trying to learn enough about what each plant does, colors, size, needs, etc., has been overwhelming and I want to know it all now! 🙂 Because I am visual, I believe my best mechanism of learning is to see the plants as they grow naturally so I can plant them together in the best, most complimentary and strategic way. I would love to have this book to help me do that. It sounds like this book would be a wonderful trip to take with Ruth with the aid of Joanna’s beautiful photographs.

  14. Jean Emery
    Jean Emery says:

    I visited the garden during the winter several years ago; it was amazing; would love to have pictures of it in summer glory. I’m starting a garden here in San Diego at age 76, so Ruth Bancroft starting hers at age 63 is an inspiration.

  15. Catherine Zilko
    Catherine Zilko says:

    It would be great to add The Bold Dry Garden to my collection of books. I already have all the books by Debra Lee Baldwin. My entire yard is all cactus/succulents and it’s always changing.
    Would love to see some new ideas.

  16. Connie Beck
    Connie Beck says:

    I have heard and enjoyed Johanna talk in the past and, about ten years ago, I visited the Ruth Bancroft garden. My camera batteries died halfway through the garden! I’d love to have the book and see what I can only recall in my mind now!

  17. Tom Osvold
    Tom Osvold says:

    We met our first succulent at Waterwise Botanicals in Bonaell, Ca and have been going back year after year to re fall in love with the beautiful gardens and learning experiences they provide. They have replaced orchids and azaleas as out #1 passion.
    We are anxious to see you new publication and pour over the pictures of what can we look forward to planting.
    Thank you for your kind offer.

  18. Rick Anthony
    Rick Anthony says:

    I am New to Succulent Gardening !
    Living in the Midwest – We are limited to the access of Succulents .
    We can get common plants but have to order any of the Fsncy Succulent Plants .
    Good Luck to Me ! lol

  19. Birte Harley
    Birte Harley says:

    I live in Fair Oaks, Calif. As with most of California these days we are in need of saving water. What better way than to replace my front yard lawn. I am a member of the Carmichael Cactus and Succulent club so I have some knowledge of what plants to use for replacements. However, I would like a bit of help with that and I have a feeling that your new book will do just that. I would love to be included in the drawing for that book. I have all your books and consider them the very best on the subject of Cacti and Succulents. I often use them for inspiration. Thank you for coming our with another, I look forward to seeing it.
    Birte Harley…a fan of yours..

  20. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Hi Debra! I am a big fan of yours and have all of your books. Love them all. I live in central Florida where the weather can be challenging for a succulent lover. Between the summer heat and drenching rains, my succulents struggle to overcome the elements. Your books have been a wonderful source of information and help to me. I’ m so envious of the wide variety and availability of succulents that you have access to in California. While I would love to make one of your workshops, I content myself with your videos (thank you so much for making them available to us) and perusing your books over-and-over again. I would love to have your new book and having it autographed would be wonderful! But you can be sure that it will be added to my collection one way or the other. Thank you for all that you do.

  21. Vitina Tiso
    Vitina Tiso says:

    Thank you Debra for this opportunity to win a copy of THE BOLD DRY GARDEN. My garden has become bold and drier since I bought and read your first book DESIGNING WITH SUCCULENTS after meeting you at Patrick Anderson’s garden. His garden was on our Fallbrook Garden Cub tour that year. I became so inspired after reading your book that I completely transformed my dreary front garden…took out the weedy grass….added some stones and paving here and there and planted succulents . I have since added and continue to do so with the help of our Fallbrook Garden club succulent group.
    I have enjoyed your emails and website through the years and look forward to more adventures in gardening with succulents.

  22. Larry
    Larry says:

    Gophers don’t like them (mostly), drought doesn’t phase them, easy to propagate, fairly quick growing – what is not to like. I really would like to win you book. I definite have areas in my landscape that could use help.
    Thanks, Larry

  23. Renata Muller
    Renata Muller says:

    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!

  24. Joelene
    Joelene says:

    I would love to have this book. I have just recently started an obsession with succulents, about four months now, and have so much to learn! I have even tried propagating my own already. It all started with my mother’s passing, she requested we plant something in remembrance, and I decided to go all out and make her a memorial garden – of course I chose succulents, and have been obsessed ever since. I am still busy with her memorial garden and am quite proud of myself so far considering I am such a novice, but the book would be a wonderful learning and experimenting tool for me, and of course help to make mom’s memorial garden one definitely worth ‘remembrance’

  25. Jody Murray
    Jody Murray says:

    I would love to have this book, it would help further my dream of working with plants. You can never have too much knowledge. It would just be a great addition to my collection. Thank you for the opportunity!

  26. sue girard
    sue girard says:

    …Why? because who doesn’t get enthused reading a great book about PLANTS! I need some inspiration to redo my front yard after letting the grass die 5 years ago. Neighbors will be happy 😉 MUST make it lovely to make it up to them.
    thanks for writing it!

  27. Ruth Little
    Ruth Little says:

    Apart from sharing a given name, I’m a bit of an obsessive plant collector too, I believe when you want to know more about something you should seek an experts view, a growers opinion and not a generic one.

  28. Karen Hamberg
    Karen Hamberg says:

    I would love to add this to my collection of plant books! I don’t have many books on succulents, but I’m obsessed with them and keep trying to expand them in my garden. It’s difficult in the wet Pacific NW, so many are inside.

  29. Angela Johnson
    Angela Johnson says:

    From a young age, I was taught Horticulture through books and people who had a passion for it. It’s become a career for me, resort horticulture, to be exact. A facade to many, though very similar to estate gardens with a purpose to share and being beauty to others through plants. I’d love to have a copy of this book, as a long awaited project is finally coming to me next year and will involve mostly bold dry plantings! Beautiful book and message. ❤️

  30. Theresa Koch
    Theresa Koch says:

    I’m from WI but live in NM now. I would love to learn about gardening in this area & I am exploring succulents , would love to have this book…please & thank you. Happy growing!!

  31. Lenora Bryant
    Lenora Bryant says:

    I would love to win The Bold dry Garden. I am constantly sharing your books with my neighbors, trying to get them to convert their lawns into dry gardens to conserve water!

  32. Susan Quimby
    Susan Quimby says:

    We live in the high desert area of Oregon and I have found that one of the things that grow here are succulents. I would love more info about different varieties and the growing conditions they like. Would love this book! Thanks

  33. Denise
    Denise says:

    Hi Debra!! I first tell in love with succulents when I came to watch you at the Paul Ecke show at San Diego county dair. i purchased one of your books right then and hhard your autograph. I love your passion for these plants they are amazing beautiful resilient plants and I now own hundreds. Thank you for sharing with us and I would love to own another one of your books they are awesome!!

  34. Frank Montoya jr.
    Frank Montoya jr. says:

    I started to read this book while visiting a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Long Beach. I fell in love with the book and Johanna’s narrative. The life of Ruth Bancroft and her habits is captivating. I would love to finish reading the book and then vivit the garden.


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