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The Garden Keeper: How One Woman Transformed a Basketball Court into a Garden

By Mary Karish
Contributing Writer

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.

Susan liked 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.”

When 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 man.

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.”

After 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 said.

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.”

At the 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 not like.”

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 wrist.

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.

Susan has 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.

In the 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.

In looking 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 reality.

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