Susan Portman wanted a
challenging career and an opportunity to make a
difference. She went to law school in the evenings while
maintaining a full-time job, and eventually she became a
successful attorney, earning handsome wages by working
long hours and protecting her clients’ rights. And then,
her firm decided to relocate to another state.
Susan’s husband Glen is also a lawyer. Moving to another
state and leaving him behind was not an option. Susan
decided to take advantage of a generous severance
package and then took time off to recharge her batteries
and consider what she would do next.
plants but did not know much about them. So, when her
friend, who owned a small nursery, was short-handed
during the busy spring season, Susan offered to help.
She told her friend, she would be the brawn while her
friend was the brain. Susan was happy shoveling sod, but
her friend would have none of it. She gave Susan a plant
encyclopedia and told her to learn about the plants the
nursery carried. The plan was to move forward with Susan
being in charge of labelling plants and answering
customers’ questions. The labels contained information
on plant size, light requirements, watering and
fertilization needs. The plant encyclopedia became
Susan’s new best friend.
At the time, Susan had
amassed about 150 potted plants. Her backyard was
bricked and the remaining space was taken up by a pool.
“It was an agonizing experience in the Texas summer heat
to keep potted plants hydrated,” Susan recalled. “It was
time to move to a house with lots of outdoor space that
allowed me to plant anything I wanted.”
Susan asked Glen his criteria for the ideal house, he
told her he wanted a rear-facing twin garage door and
for her to be happy. She laughed and called him a wise
The couple’s realtor believed the Portmans
needed a master bedroom downstairs, and he never
intended to show them the Coppell, Texas, home they
eventually purchased. It only made it onto the viewing
list because it had a lot of space. When they arrived at
the house, the realtor discouraged them from looking.
But Susan pointed to the lot next door, and asked, “What
is that?” It was a 2,700-square-foot concrete basketball
court that came with the house.
“Then I want to see it,” she said.
Although Susan wanted a big space to start her garden,
the size of that basketball court exceeded her
criterion. The Portmans were faced with two immediate
challenges. There was no direct access from the house to
the basketball court, and the subdivision had a Home
Owners Association (HOA), which meant any alterations
would require HOA approval.
The Portmans did not have
a plan, just ideas for accessing the lot and a vision of
the future garden. They presented the HOA with their
thoughts and were told the HOA did not care about the
garden, but did require building plans for any
modifications. Since the Portmans were not willing to
spend money on plans that might not materialize, they
bought the house on a “whim and a prayer.”
lengthy negotiations and several meetings, the HOA’s
only objection was the placement of the garden shed.
Members wanted it in the back of the lot. Susan
convinced them that placing it in the back of the garden
would make it more visible from the street, because
there were no tall trees to hide it. She “forgot” to
tell them she planned to plant tall trees in the back.
Susan hired a landscape designer to develop a plan for
removing the basketball court and replacing it with a
garden. In the meantime, she wanted to reassure Glen,
who was about to spend a “zillion dollars” building her
dream garden, that she knew what she was doing. Her
belief was quickly dispelled when she enrolled in the
Dallas Master Gardener Certification Program. She
discovered how little she knew, but realized the golden
opportunity it presented. “I was learning from Ph.D.s
the secret life of plants at a very little expense,” she
Two jackhammers and six guys dismantled 2,700
square feet of concrete in two days. The next challenge
was securing 25 cubic yards of dirt to bring the lot up
to ground level, without “breaking the bank.”
time, the city of Coppell was expanding a road near
Susan’s house and had big piles of dirt. She called the
company that was carrying out the expansion and asked
for the dirt. The company not only delivered the dirt,
but also levelled it in exchange for a case of beer. A
company representative told her that Coppell was very
generous to them and they wanted to repay the favor, so
they did this for her.
To make use of the most space,
Susan settled on a butterfly-shaped garden that allowed
her to stand in the garden but not see everything. The
areas between the body, the head and the wings of the
butterfly were made into walking paths. Treading them
almost feels like you are walking in a secret place.
Visitors cannot tell what is around the next bend until
they reach the end of one path only to find themselves
connected to another one.
Susan added yards of
composted cotton burr to amend the soil structure and
increase acidity level. She used green sand and lava
sand to enrich the soil with minerals. In the first
three years of building her garden, she planted more
than 3,000 plants, shrubs and trees. “I am a plant
floosy,” she admitted. “I have never met a plant I do
Susan is blessed with a three-season
garden. Her favorite spring plant is daffodils. When a
late freeze is forecasted and the daffodils are in
bloom, she snaps them off at the base. “Snapping,
instead of cutting the stems ensures that the daffodils
stay fresh for about a week,” Susan discovered. The
effect is stunning, with vases of daffodils occupying
every room in the house. When planting bulbs, Susan
advises, “Dig a hole that would accommodate 10 bulbs.
Growing them in clusters makes a better display.” She
does not use a bulb planter because it is tough on the
Summer brings hundreds of daylilies of every
possible color adorning her garden. In the fall, gulf
muhly grass steals the show as the sunrays sparkle
through the purple haze colored foliage.
had few pests. She believes that if you take care of
your soil and feed your plants healthy nutrients, most
diseases resolve themselves without much intervention.
“If a plant has a problem, it is the plant that has got
to go,” she said. “I will not poison my soil, the
critters and the tons of rabbits who live here if a
plant has an issue.”
When she applied to the Dallas
County Water-Wise Tour, the criteria required each yard
be free of diseased plants. A few days before the judges
were scheduled to visit her garden, Susan discovered
scale on one of her crapemyrtle trees. Armed with a pail
of warm soapy water and a toothbrush, she washed every
part of the tree. Susan laughingly recalled, “My
neighbor came over and expressed concern over my sanity,
but I got rid of the scale. Sadly, it got on my other
crapemyrtles, and I had to take out four trees.”
Susan considers bunnies her lucky charm. When the judges
came to inspect her garden, rabbits followed the judges,
running from one bed to another. The rabbits completely
charmed the judges. Consequently, they decided that
because rabbits enjoyed living in her garden, it was
good enough to be part of the tour.
Susan keeps her
garden heavily mulched to conserve watering needs. She
uses hardwood mulch because it composts over time.
Although cedar mulch lasts a long time, she does not
recommend it. “The pieces will interlock and may deny
oxygen to the soil.”
Last summer, she ran the
garden’s irrigation system three times. Her weather
station is the black-eyed Susan plants located
throughout the garden. When the flowers start to wilt,
she knows it is time to water the garden. She also
eliminated weeds in the walking paths by adding two tons
of crushed pecan shells. However, Susan cautioned
against kneeling on them or walking barefoot.
fall, Susan’s garden is included in the Coppell
Smartscape Tour. She considers it a community service as
she answers visitors’ questions and gives advice on
growing and maintaining various varieties of plants,
shrubs and trees.
Her community involvement has its
perks. Susan carries out three major cleanups a year,
each one generating a lot of garden debris. In Coppell,
residents are required to place garden debris in trash
cans and cut branches into a manageable size and then
wrap them with twine. Considering the size of her
garden, Susan often ends up with a big pile of debris
and does not have the time and energy to comply with the
city’s guidelines. However, the trash company
representative told her they will always pick up her
garden debris because she’s famous. He had seen the tour
signs placed at the front of her property.
back at her accomplishments, Susan credits her law
training for teaching her how to do the right thing the
first time. If she is looking at an area of the garden
that is perplexing, she will figure out a solution
instead of sticking in some random plant and hoping it
works. “I do not believe in wasting time or money for a
stopgap solution,” she said.
When advising new
gardeners, Susan tells them: “Healthy soils lead to
successful gardens, and always start with small plants.”
She also stresses that garden soil requires yearly
nourishment of compost and minerals. She spreads these
on top of the soil and lets insects and earthworms
transport them into the soil layers.
“Start small. If
a plant is in the wrong spot, it is easy to move,” she
said. “As it grows, you learn about the plant’s
personality and what makes it happy. If you kill it,
then you would not regret the money spent.” Susan
believes that plants need to do their thing or get out.
If a plant does not like the garden, then “adios.”
Susan did not originally set out to convert a basketball
court into a sprawling garden that attracts many
visitors each year. Nor did she envision that her garden
would become a haven for bunnies. She just wanted enough
space to plant her favorite shrubs, flowers and trees.
Her vision, ingenuity and determination made her dream a