Despite Ruth Bancroft Garden celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, many still call the two-and-a-half succulent acres one of Walnut Creek’s hidden jewels.
It will be much easier to find the next six weeks. Just look for the multicolored glow over Bancroft Road.
It is the annual Garden of D’Lights, the fourth straight year the drought-tolerant landscape full of cacti, succulents and California native plants gets spiffed up with holidays lights, ornamentation, music and lit-up sculptures.
It is a bit like the Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade, only immobile and alive. Oh, and there are lasers.
“Floodlights, spotlights, lasers … we have lasers!” said Sarah Nelson, the garden’s marketing director. “The idea is people can come and it’s a self-guided tour. People can peruse the space how they want to.
“You could really get lost in here – there’s a lot of different ways to go.”
“You could really get lost in here — there’s a lot of different ways to go.”Sarah Nelson, Ruth Bancroft Garden
The site was part of the 400-acre fruit farm started in Ygnacio Valley by the Bancroft family in the 1880s (the same Bancroft family whose vast collection of books on the American West helped start UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library)
The land was eventually sold for housing, with the last part of the orchard cut down in 1971.
Ruth Bancroft started her garden the next year, which has grown into the nonprofit destination spot it is today (even if it is hidden by the soundwalls on the east side of Bancroft Road, between Ygnacio Valley Road and Treat Boulevard.) Ruth Bancroft died in 2017 at 109 years old. She worked in her garden into her late 90s.
Three days before the Nov. 25 opening night, there was a buzz around the garden just after sundown. There was a volunteer preview of the decor and artists were busily assembling their electrified pieces commissioned for the event.
“It’s all about curating an experience,” said Jacque Lesec, an architect and artist from Napa, as he put together an electrified dahlia flower near the entrance. “But the plants really do the talking. It’s pretty spectacular. Some of the plants here look prehistoric.”
Earl Ruby is on the Ruth Bancroft Garden Board of Directors. He is also the master planner of the Garden of D’Lights who had been planning most of the past year for last Friday’s big opening.
Ruby, who’s worked for months with 15 to 20 volunteers, says there are more than 1,000 strands of lights just on the pathways alone. “Just crates and crates of lights,” he said.
He also used between 700 and 800 spotlights. “I have a map that everyone uses. We had 4,000 people here last year. It’s our major fundraiser for the year. We started four years ago, because we couldn’t get people here in the winter.
“During COVID, we planned it and waited to find out if we could do it. Two months before, the county said outdoor events were OK, and boy did people come. Because no one had anything else to do.”
Some of the artwork is as present as the plants themselves, including a large lit dome near the back, underneath lines of traveling lights that Ruby invented. The paths are lined with lights, while rotating color spots use angles making the plants — some of them growing for decades — look spectacular. There is a narrow, covered area used during winter to shelter some plants from the cold. Now it’s a tunnel of lights.
Everything is meticulously planned, something that Ruth Bancroft herself probably would have appreciated, said volunteer Adrian D’Souza.
“I knew Ruth when she was still gardening at 99 years old,” said D’Souza, a neighbor who’s also been a volunteer for a dozen years. “At 104, I took her around the garden in her wheelchair. She would stop me and say ‘One second — what’s that? That plant, I planted it somewhere else.’ And she’d be right. It had been somewhere else.”
Garden D’Lights runs from Nov. 25 until Jan. 8. Capacity is 140 because of limited onsite parking. Guests are encouraged to purchase tickets ahead of time for one of three nightly sessions. Tickets for adults are $28, $16 for ages 5 to 17. People under 5 are free and members get $8 off per ticket.
Ruth Bancroft Garden is located at 1552 Bancroft Road, Walnut Creek.