Excerpted from the September 2021 issue of Garden Conservancy News
It’s been an eventful year for the Ruth Bancroft Garden & Nursery in Walnut Creek, CA. A new leader has just taken the helm and a museum-quality archive exhibit has plumbed the riches of the written, visual and artifactual history of the garden and its legendary founder. As the inspiration for the formation of the Garden Conservancy, both events mark important chapters the continued relationship between the two organizations.
Tracy Fletcher, Executive Director
For a self-described “hands-in-the-dirt kind of person,” a seat in the executive director’s chair might not seem the most logical place to wind up—except in the metaphorical sense. Tracy Fletcher, who was initially drawn in because of the genuineness and sincerity of the staff and the beauty of the garden, now has her hands in everything.
Tracy isn’t new to the garden. For two years, she managed the office of the increasingly busy organization. For another two, she was chief operating officer and responsible for its day-to-day performance. At some point in between, she acted as events manager and sales director. It is no surprise that she also helped the horticultural staff put plants in the ground, giving her a literal claim to having “hands-in-the-dirt.”
With Tracy’s new role come capital projects requiring more of her attention than ever before, including the renovation of the iconic, “Ruth’s Folly,” installing new gravel on the extensive pathway system, redoing the back parking lot to accommodate increasing visitation, and creating “The Nook,” an area of the garden to be used for children’s activities and outdoor education.
Tracy is particularly proud of the Ruth Bancroft Garden’s 30% conversion rate of new visitors to members, which has escalated during her tenure, including during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Lots of best practices have come from this pandemic period,” she says. Online educational offerings and other “pandemic discoveries” have resulted in new ways for the garden to engage its growing and passionate following.
One of the growth secrets of the garden is the “drop everything” philosophy, which originated with Ruth. Motivated staff, encouraged to “drop everything” and engage with the visitors, are a driver for their return. “Without our visitors, we wouldn’t be,” Tracy says. “We have people walking in who have dreamed of coming here for years and years. We have to treat everyone like that person.”
Archival Exhibit: The Legacy of Ruth Bancroft
Of course, this enterprise did not just drop, fully formed, into Fletcher’s lap. Its story is as enduring as its long history. That story— and that history—have just been celebrated in a lovingly curated exhibit, arranged by Susan Van Dyne, archivist and director of the Ruth Bancroft Garden’s docent program. “It’s a very intimate archive,” she says, “and as close to forever as I can make it.”
“The biggest trigger for the exhibit was probably the passing of Ruth,” says Fletcher. “Thank goodness for Susan and her attention to detail. There was so much information.”
For Van Dyne, who in the last ten years of a long career as a professor at Smith College developed their archives concentration, the discovery of unsorted plastic storage tubs full of unsorted treasure piqued her interest. “Everything Ruth could possibly record about her daily life, she did. We can re-experience her heartbreaks and achievements on a daily basis,” Susan says.
Ruth’s lists and paper records are remarkably informative and are featured prominently in the exhibit. According to Van Dyne, every scrap of paper associated with the garden was kept. There is a deep cache of photographs and hand-drawn bed maps. Media coverage, books from Ruth’s library, and “realia” (objects included in a collection that consists mostly of documentary material), are also included and everything is
being recorded in a finding aid.
Written correspondence is especially poignant, including exchanges with Frank Cabot, founder of the Garden Conservancy, whose visit in 1988 and subsequent letters led to the founding of the Conservancy and its adoption of the Ruth Bancroft Garden as its first preservation project.
The exhibit ran from September 1–9. There are currently no plans for it to travel or to find a permanent location for it. “If we could leave it out and make it a museum, it would be awesome,” says Fletcher. "Realistically, we can't. The limited space we have is a huge revenue generator. So the exhibit will be returned to the larger archive.”
Van Dyne points out the importance of efforts like the archive and the Garden Conservancy’s documentation project. “The garden is constantly evolving,” she says.
Ruth Bancroft and her dog, Ginger, standing in the iconic Folly, built by Ruth's husband, Phillip, in 1973. Photo courtesy of Ruth Bancroft Garden.