Text by Rebecca Christian
Photographs by John Granen
Produced by Andrea Caughey
Suzy Schaefer has always loved the versatile and colorful succulents that make her San Diego-area garden so arresting--but never more so than in October 2007. That's when the Witch Creek Fire, riding on wild Santa Ana winds, raged down a canyon full of eucalyptus and palm trees, forced residents to evacuate, and was finally foiled just six feet short of the handsome Southwestern-style home Suzy and husband Rob had built in 1999. The house across the street was consumed by flames, but Suzy credits the moisture-filled succulents and ground cover she began using instead of grass years ago as nature's fire-fighting heroes. The plants resist drought, too.
Not that the property--with its meandering flagstone pathways, courtyard gardens, fireplace-accented veranda, and rooftop deck ideal for stargazing--escaped unscathed. The awe in her voice as she describes the aftermath reflects Suzy's love of nature, even at its cruelest: "It looked like a moonscape. The house didn't burn, but we had smoke damage and tons of ash. Some plants just melted. And some of our palm trees went up like sparklers--fires love them!" While many of the property's beautiful, slow-growing Canary Island palms were burned by the fire and had to be bulldozed, those the couple had moved close to the house when they were building it survived.
Having built three homes in the community, Suzy has learned to give palm trees and larger vegetation a head start as long as they are not in the way of construction. Putting them in later can be expensive, time-consuming, and tricky. "In the framing stage, I had our landscape architect, Robert Dean, walk through the house with me and look through all of the window openings to make sure the gardens could be seen from the inside; he'd never been asked to do that before and he thought that it was very strange!"
An artist whose approach to the garden is painterly, Suzy loves the view from her studio window--a long vista with meandering paths and plants weaving in and out. "I like to make cool and warm colors complement each other--a blue plant next to a red or yellow. I love mounding, and I arrange my garden so it undulates. Sometimes I create scenes within gigantic pots five feet across, which kids love. The plants are the Lilliputians and I'm Gulliver."
Suzy gardened traditionally until the shapes and blossoms of succulents began intriguing her during visits to exotic-plant nurseries. She loves the look of plants of the same type massed together. "When I went to Lotusland [a public garden] in Santa Barbara, I was fascinated to see that they do the same thing."
Suzy opens her garden for tours so that people who have only seen succulents in pots--not in the ground--will see how beautiful, water-conserving, and erosion-controlling they are.
"They're almost embarrassingly easy," she admits. She only waters her two-acre yard for a short time twice a week except at the height of summer. To propagate, she cuts off a piece of a plant, dabs the end in Root Tone, pokes her finger in the ground, and sticks the plant inside. Can it be that easy? She and her gorgeous fire-fighting succulents make it look that way.