A garden of his own: Landscape designer Stephen John Suzman’s own rose garden in San Francisco.
A garden of his own: Landscape designer Stephen John Suzman’s own rose garden in San Francisco.

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

The cultivated, aesthetically driven life of San Francisco landscape designer Stephen John Suzman has always had another side: his passion for social justice.

From the struggle to rid his native South Africa of apartheid to the creation of 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.

Born into a Jewish family in Johannesburg, with a holiday home in coastal Capetown and a farm in hilly eastern Natal, Suzman “knew three climates,” he told J. in a recent interview. ”I was very privileged, and we had a full-time gardener who introduced me to  plants at an early age. That had an influence on some of my later aesthetics.”

Though he described his wealthy neighborhood as “an Edwardian time warp,” the family milieu was intensely political, he noted. For example, his Aunt Helen, the daughter of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, was a liberal member of Parliament for 36 years, fighting racism, antisemitism and relentless misogyny throughout. Helen Suzman (née Gavronsky) was a steadfast ally of anti-apartheid activist (and future South African president) Nelson Mandela, and is credited with helping to keep him alive during his 27 years in prison by keeping his cause in the world spotlight. She supported the new Progressive Party, formed in 1959, and was its only MP for 13 years, during which time she unequivocally opposed all apartheid legislation.

As a young man, Stephen helped his aunt in her campaigns, and did the same for other progressive candidates over the years, even returning to South Africa from his studies in the United States after the violent repression of Black students in Soweto brought global attention to the brutality of the existing regime. 

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

It was during the 1982 recession that events conspired to bring him back to his first love: gardening. With business opportunities lagging, he took a summer course in landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, which he “absolutely loved,” he said. He continued with garden design studies in England, then returned to San Francisco to start his own business, Suzman Design Associates.

A lush Suzman garden in Hillsborough.
A lush Suzman garden in Hillsborough.

As it grew and prospered, his connection to political causes continued.

He met some big Bay Area political donors, Democrats and (some) Republicans — “not the crazy kind,” he said — and fundraisers were held in many of the gardens he designed around the Bay Area. He was introduced to Bill Clinton at such a gathering, although he actually had met him once before, at Oxford University, where he spoke with Clinton, then in his mid-20s, about the South African general elections in 1970.

“I became involved in politics here through landscape design. And then it intensified,” he said.

Former California State Controller Steve Westly was one of his clients, and he supported Kamala Harris’ first run for San Francisco district attorney in 2003 and then her 2010 campaign for California attorney general (she won both).

Socially liberal but economically “moderate,” Suzman was able to design big-budget gardens while openly advocating for his progressive causes, such as LGBTQ rights and climate change.

“It is a strange intersection,” he admitted.

Suzman traveled widely, studying the diverse gardens of the world. He brought a broadened pallet of design ideas to clients around the Bay Area and beyond.

“I’m a bit of a chameleon. I can do Edwardian garden, English cottage garden, Mediterranean, Japanese garden, woodland garden or low water. I can do very grand or very simple,” he said. “All my designs are site-specific and architecture-appropriate.”

Five years ago, Suzman closed his own company and became a design principal at the S.F.-based firm Zeterre Landscape Architecture. In addition to garden design, Suzman is the company’s specialist in locating and obtaining specialty items such as antique statuary or newly commissioned sculpture, ornamental metalwork, custom tiles and paving, fountains and other special site furnishings, as well as heirloom roses, exotic plants and hard-to-find specimen trees. 

In one project in tony Belvedere in Marin County, for example, a garden was terraced with retaining walls made of old Chinese limestone salvaged from villages that would be submerged after the building of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

For a recent Bay Area project on the Peninsula, Suzman located seven full-size, 19th-century stone muses to place along garden pathways. “They make the garden,” Suzman pronounced.

When working locally, Suzman said he is always mindful of water-usage issues and the problem of invasive species. California native plants don’t always look their best when restricted to the small spaces of city gardens, he said, so he does use imported species.

“Many plants in the Bay Area come from South Africa, well over 100 species that are quite widely used. But I’m very cautious and always wary of plant invaders, which happens because they have no natural competition.”

As for water use, he has been known to advocate for a piece of artificial lawn if the client insists on that green look.

Suzman’s final observation about Bay Area landscaping is, “There’s almost too much variety here: Each house and garden is a world unto itself, individually chosen by the home builder or owner. The problem is the lack of tradition, plus American individualism. It’s the same thing that has caused some of the problems with the country right now. We’re all very individualistic and don’t want to kowtow to anything.”

And there you have it: politics, again.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.