A high-end garden designer with political roots in South Africa – J.

The cultivated, aesthetic life of the landscape architect Stephen John Suzman from San Francisco always had another side: his passion for social justice.

From struggling to free his homeland South Africa from apartheid to creating dreamy gardens around the world, Suzman has tried to stand up for what is right – be it human freedom or the health of the environment.

In some cases he has even brought the distant worlds of politics and gardens together.

Suzman was born into a Jewish family in Johannesburg, with a holiday home on the Cape Town coast and a farm in the hilly east of Natal. He “knew three climatic zones,” he said in a recent interview. “I was very privileged and we had a full-time gardener who introduced me to plants at a young age. That influenced my later aesthetic. “

Although he called his affluent neighborhood “an Edwardian leap in time,” the family milieu was very political, he noted. For example, his aunt Helen, The daughter of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants was a Liberal MP for 36 years and consistently fought against racism, anti-Semitism and relentless misogyny. Helen Suzman (née Gavronsky) was an unwavering ally of anti-apartheid activist (and future South African President) Nelson Mandela and is believed to have helped keep him alive during his 27 years in prison by putting his cause in the spotlight World held. You supported the new progress party, was founded in 1959 and was the only MP for 13 years. During this time, she clearly defied all apartheid laws.

As a young man, Stephen helped his aunt with her campaigns and did so for other progressive candidates over the years. He even returned to South Africa from his studies in the United States after the violent repression of black students in Soweto attracted worldwide attention to the brutality of the existing regime.

Politics, however, was not his personal calling. Following his interests, Suzman studied economics, European arts and literature at home, in Europe and eventually at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

During the 1982 recession, events conspired to bring him back to his first love: gardening. With business opportunities sluggish, he took a summer course in landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, which he “absolutely loved,” he said. He continued his landscaping studies in England and then returned to San Francisco to start his own company, Suzman Design Associates.

A lush Suzman garden in Hillsborough.

As it grew and prospered, its connection with political issues continued.

He met some big political donors in the Bay Area, Democrats and (some) Republicans – “not the crazy kind,” he said – and fundraisers took place in many of the gardens he had designed in the Bay Area. He was introduced to Bill Clinton at one such meeting, although he had actually met him once at Oxford University, where he spoke to Clinton in his mid-twenties about the 1970 South African general election.

“I got involved in politics here through landscaping. And then it intensified, ”he said.

Former California State Controller Steve Westly was one of his clients and supported Kamala Harris’ first run for the San Francisco District Attorney in 2003 and then her 2010 campaign for the California Attorney General (she won both).

Socially liberal, but economically “moderate”, Suzman was able to design large-budget gardens while openly advocating his progressive concerns like LGBTQ rights and climate change.

“It’s a strange crossroads,” he admitted.

Suzman traveled widely and studied the various gardens of the world. He brought an expanded range of design ideas to clients in the Bay Area and beyond.

“I’m a bit of a chameleon. I can do Edwardian garden, English cottage garden, Mediterranean, Japanese garden, forest garden or low water. I can do very great or very easy, ”he said. “All of my designs are site-specific and architectural.”

Five years ago, Suzman closed his own company and became construction manager at SF-based company Zeterre Landscape Architecture. In addition to landscaping, Suzman is the company’s specialist in finding and sourcing specialty items such as antique statues or newly commissioned sculptures, decorative metalwork, custom tiles and paving stones, fountains and other special furnishings, as well as heirloom roses, exotic plants and hard-to-find specimens.

For example, a project in Tony Belvedere, Marin County, terraced a garden with retaining walls made of ancient Chinese limestone that were recovered from villages that were submerged after the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze.

For a recent Bay Area project on the peninsula, Suzman found seven full-size 19thPlace century stone muses along garden paths. “They’re doing the garden,” said Suzman.

While working on site, Suzman said he was always aware of water use and the problem of invasive species. Native California plants don’t always look good when confined to the small spaces of city gardens, he said, so he uses imported species.

“Many of the plants in the Bay Area come from South Africa, well over 100 species that are widespread. But I am very careful and always wary of plant invaders, which happens because they have no natural competition. “

Regarding water use, he has been known to advocate a piece of artificial grass if the customer insists on that green look.

Suzman’s last comment on landscaping in the Bay Area reads: “There is almost too much variety here: Every house and garden is a world of its own, individually selected by the client or owner. The problem is the lack of tradition and American individualism. It’s the same thing that has caused some problems with the country right now. We are all very individualistic and don’t want to get involved. “

And there you have it: politics, once again.

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