Plant(ing) Empowerment: Lessons from Ruth Bancroft

For a time, I was ‘wintering‘ through the month-long stay-at-home order and rainy weather just fine. But when the sun came out again, I took advantage of the opportunity to socialize outside with a close friend. We visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden & Nursery for a self-guided tour of an impressive display of drought-tolerant plants. If you’ve not been, it’s well worth the trek!

Touring Ruth Bancroft Garden reinforced some of my guiding principles as a gardener: go for low-impact, low-maintenance, and high-reward (which can be said about picking friends as well). I’ve visited dozens of botanical gardens and living museums before, but something about this visit was different. Not only is the history of the garden remarkable–it was first conceived of and designed by a woman in her 60s, who lived to be 109!–but it also reawakened me to the importance of plant(ing) empowered women.

Plants are models for empowerment.

We learn in elementary school that plants are amazing because they use energy from the sun to make (photosynthesize) their own food. We also learn that no matter how high up on the food chain they are, all organisms depend on plants. However, we rarely learn to think about plants from a “plants-eye view.” This is exactly what Michael Pollan describes in his book, The Botany of Desire, turning on its head the role people play (or do not play) in plant survival. Ruth Bancroft encapsulated this idea in the 1970s by showcasing plants that thrive in dry places, never reliant on the watering habits of fickle humans. Her connection with plants helped her establish a thriving legacy planted in empowerment.

Plants teach us to care for living things, including ourselves.

I can’t remember the very first plant I raised, but I do remember the joy and triumph associated with starting seeds for vegetable crops. The idea that a tiny package that signals both the beginning and end of a life cycle of many plants is just incredible to me. I’ve been equally crushed when my seedlings don’t make it. Nevertheless, I learn a lot about taking care of myself from tending a garden. Whether it’s engaging in physical activity, connecting with soil microbes, or making careful observations, gardening continues to be the best mental health reward I’ve found for wrestling with the weight of world. On our recent visit to Ruth’s garden oasis, my friend and I marveled at the unique capabilities of different plants as we meandered along the curving paths sharing our love of plants.

Plants inspire us to pay attention to needs when designing our surroundings.

One of the reasons I like visiting other gardens is because it inspires me to rethink the design of my own. Taking advantage of the warm weather and forecasted precipitation, I rearranged some neglected plants in my yard so they would thrive. I moved several clumps of scented geranium (Pelargonium x fragrans ‘Nutmeg’)  to complement three White Crown chaste trees (Vitex agnus-castus ‘Silver Spires’) and provide an attractive and fragrant ground cover on the deck. I also divided a large clump of bee balm (Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’) to expand its proximity to other hummingbird-friendly plants.

Plants remind us to foster resilience.

Hummingbird nest constructed on top of a string light bulb in my friend’s backyard.

Finding hummingbird-friendly plants was actually what initially prompted my friend and I to visit the Ruth Bancroft garden. She was looking for flowering plants that bloom in winter to support the energy needs of a backyard resident. Last year, when she had just moved into a new home, she found a hummingbird nest on her patio. It is still a complete mystery to me why the mama bird built her nest where she did, precariously balanced on a bulb of a set of string lights, but it survived, reared an offspring, and is now preparing the nest for this coming spring. My friend named the mama-daughter Penelope and Esperanza. Just like the mama bird, the plants in Ruth Bancroft Garden highlight nature’s resilience. When we surround ourselves with examples of resilience, we are empowered to foster our own.

Plants invite us to play in the dirt.

My friend and I first connected while walking the UC Davis Arboretum. She’s a bona fide plant nerd (with a degree in plant pathology) who is not afraid to get her hands dirty. She is feminist scholar and award-winning teacher. She is also an inaugural Board Member of The School Garden Doctor and an ardent supporter of the Dirt Girls, a program that invites young women to explore their science identities by playing in the dirt. She is easy and fun to be with, while also being incredibly knowledgeable and committed to the concept of plant(ing) empowered women. Our visit was barrels of cactus fun!

Published by The School Garden Doctor

Established in 2018 to sustain school gardens in the 21st century.

3 thoughts on “Plant(ing) Empowerment: Lessons from Ruth Bancroft

  1. HI Carrie,

    This was a beautiful piece of writing, inspiring, heart warming and encouraging in these hard times. I so appreciate you and the way you see and empower all of us in this world of our. Thank you for being a powerful leader for our minds as well as our practices!




  2. A heartfelt thank you, Carol! I’ve so appreciated you kind support you’ve provided over these many years and still credit you with my introduction to school gardens as a tool for learning! That experience, back in 2010, opened my eyes to the complexities of combining my love of plants and nature with my love of children and education.


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