Susanna Dadd has soil in her blood. She began gardening when she was a tender four years old living in the English countryside during the austere years following World War II. Her father’s doctoral work in botany at London University was interrupted by the war and the family relocated.
“We had this garden next to an old mansion that had burnt down in 1916,” she recalls, seated at the table in the simple, cozy kitchen of her Altadena home, which overlooks the front portion of the property. Two resident cats monitor our conversation. “So he just took the fence out. There was nobody about, you know. It was farmland and then these ruined buildings and our little coach house. We ended up enclosing two acres, and he built a really beautiful garden there. They gave me a plot. I went into the forest and I came back with all these colored mushrooms that were deadly poisonous—but I’ve always gardened. Always. Later, when I had a flat in London, I always made sure that I had a bit outside that I could plant.”
Eventually, after working for the chief executive at Cambridge University Press, Susanna and her then-husband came to the United States where she worked at Institute for the Future, a not-for-profit think tank that is a RAND Corporation spinoff. They eventually went their separate ways, he to Calgary, Canada, and she to Southern California and ArtCenter College of Design. There, she explored landscaping in paint for a few years. This led to a mural business, which is what she was doing when she and husband James Griffith purchased their Altadena property and began working on the Folly Bowl.
Dadd’s gardens are both pleasing to the senses and mindful—not conceptual, but engaging in a way that invites exploration and contemplation.
Her guiding principle is to create sustainable beauty without waste. “When I look at a garden, I look at all the materials that have to be demolished and figure out how to reuse them,” she explains. “Broken up driveways are wonderful for building raised beds, low retention walls, and patios. If there is a lot of ugly rubble, bricks, or concrete, I usually will dig a big drainage pit and throw all the unwanted rubble in it. Often, I will lead a little arroyo from a downspout to this location. Then I redirect water from the drainage pit back into low spots in gardens by altering levels into berms and swales, or walls if the budget permits. I try to keep all debris except vegetation on the property. Interesting roots or branches are upended to use as points of interest, sometimes logs can be set in low areas to absorb water. Recently, I had to take down a grove of timber bamboo that was out of control and I was able to use it to make a patio canopy, which will be covered with transplanted ‘Cecile Brunner’ roses as they grow in.
“I like to use at least 50 percent native plants mixed with desert shrubs such as purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), lantana, and milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) for butterflies, plus succulents and fruit trees if possible. I go for diversity and insect/bird habitat over minimalism. My other intention is to get people outside in their gardens by making them usable, interesting, and comfortable—front yards especially—in order to get people chatting.”
The Folly Bowl, a garden amphitheater that evolved in Dadd’s front yard, is a prototype for all these garden values. Dadd and Griffith began work on the space in 1999 when they purchased the property. At first, they tried hiring help. But they found that the idiosyncratic nature of the task required more specialized skills than they could find at hand, and so they decided to do it themselves.
“We didn’t plan to have an amphitheater. We didn’t plan to have a stage. We just wanted to make a garden sculpture,” Dadd explains. “To make a circle come into being and then plant it as a series of terraces. We filled in the lowest level and then we put a spike in the ground with a load of telephone wire on it and pulled circles. That’s how we laid out our walls. It was only while we were working on it that we began to cut in bench seats using the pool coping because we found it would work for that. After four years we started to think, ‘OK we’ve got something here. We should use it.’ So we built the stage and started having concerts.” The first was in 2005 featuring the improvisational music/sound ensemble, the Philobosians.
But the amphitheater is only part of the opulent landscape.
The garden is almost completely sloped with a different microclimate than their neighbors down the hill who can grow a different palette of plants. Shade trees are imperative and drainage is vital. Steps made from repurposed concrete in some places, railroad ties in others, lead circuitously around the hillside. With so much topography, there are countless crevices and nooks, interesting artifacts, and delightful details—a tiny ceramic face peers out of a planter bed and new railings made by Griffith are cast concrete and vaguely bone-like—sort of a cross between Antoni Gaudí and Tim Burton. Even the swimming pool, which was there when they purchased the property, has been absorbed into the landscape and seems perfectly natural on the hillside. Rest spots abound with seats and tables made from repurposed objects. A cycad that was a gift from Loren Whitelock waves in the breeze near a rest spot. Wending through the gardens, Dadd takes change in stride, both the good—datura seedlings and other spontaneous sprouts activated by recent rains, and the not so good—dying trees in the adjacent yard will mean planting new trees to compensate for lost shade.
“Things grow so fast here, you have to be on your toes,” she says. “You have full sun and you plant all these sun plants. The next thing you know, you have shade and they all have to come out and get moved and you have to find other plants to put in there, which is the fun part. It’s not a done deal. It’s a process; it’s never a product.”
California natives nestle next to drought-tolerant, California-friendly plants including many succulents and fruiting cacti. Dadd explains how to make cactus fruit martinis, and it is easy to imagine enjoying one in this restful enclave.
“Location, location, location.” The mantra of real estate everywhere is no less true of this garden. The house was most assuredly a fixer-upper, but Dadd and Griffith immediately knew the value of the property; not just the unique potential of their home but also the community, because for them, gardening is a social endeavor. “Here in Altadena I have fabulous clients—a lot of artists and scientists and they want the kind of garden I want to build. I always bring them here and tell them I’m not going to do a Zen garden or an ego garden or anything like that. It’s going to be a natural garden filled with birds and creatures.”
A short drive from the Folly Bowl is a neighbor’s garden that Dadd designed. The pool has transformed into an enticing conversation pit with a hearth and interesting organic textures embossed into the concrete, along with plants, comfy seating, and an amazing view—the ideal setting for enjoying a cactus martini or two. The perimeter fencing is rough-hewn eucalyptus planks made from a tree that had to be taken out and the lovely organic forms again evoke Gaudí.
Although she has designed and built gardens to incorporate many challenges—slope, erosion, clay soil, arid conditions—and is unfazed at the prospect of repurposing small mountains of concrete and planning tree deployment that will take years to complete, Dadd finds the greatest challenge of landscaping to be a psychological one.
“The hardest gardens for me are the ones on a street in a row of houses with little lawns in the front, and then here they want a sustainable garden,” she says. “It’s a challenge. Those [projects] have to look better than any other garden I do because we’re going to try and get these other people to change their ways. Generally, I grade the ground entirely by hand. I don’t use big machinery and bobcats. It goes very fast when it’s wintery and wet. I dig a lot of swales and mounds and put pathways between them so it begins to look more romantic. I always leave an open area so the garden doesn’t look overcrowded, and put down decomposed granite so that people can imagine being there, walking through it, and putting a chair out. For me, these gardens are the hardest to create because I have to make sure that I do everything absolutely right. I can’t make mistakes. It’s got to look beautiful and it’s got to be seductive.”
The suggestion that she is offering landscaping as therapy prompts laughter. “If you put it like that. It’s funny because I say to them, ‘We’re going to put an open area here in your front yard. You can’t just have plants everywhere. It can be an area where you put chairs out.’ And they say, ‘I’ll never sit in the front yard.’ So I say, ‘Well, we’ll see. I’ll just put it here and you’ll have the choice.’ Well, the minute it’s done, chairs appear. They’re out in the front yard. Then they’re talking to the neighbors and it’s nice. An important part of gardening is connecting people to the land and to each other, too. To get them discussing their plants and so forth—it’s catching. It’s the fabric of society, and that’s important because it keeps us together.”
For information on this summer’s performance schedule, check out the Folly Bowl Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TheFollyBowl.