Suza White finds hers own secret garden

Posted 8/2/19

PITTSBORO — Suzanne “Suza” White gardened from coast to coast before finding a “personal secret garden” in her modest home on Old Graham Road in Pittsboro.

White has lived all over the …

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Suza White finds hers own secret garden

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PITTSBORO — Suzanne “Suza” White gardened from coast to coast before finding a “personal secret garden” in her modest home on Old Graham Road in Pittsboro.

White has lived all over the country, teaching art to junior high students in California, living in Sante Fe, and working as a professional, award-winning gardener in Philadelphia, before making her way to Pittsboro.

“I’m a bi-coastal gardener,” she says. “I’m a typical little old lady that gardens like our grandmas did.”

She gardens, she says, for very specific reasons — exercise, learning, challenge, process, aesthetics, and her photography.

“It beats going to the gym,” she says. “It’s like liquid yoga.”

White was always surrounded by gardens. Her mother was an avid gardener who had could “have a cactus and an orchid right next to each other in the greenhouse” and kept a “Victory Garden” during World War II.

“I’ve always gardened and over the years I learn more,” she said.

While in Philadelphia, she attended classes in horticulture at the Barnes Foundation and Temple University.

“The arboretum at Barnes is a great place to learn,” White said. “I learned a lot at Barnes — soils, weather, plants, insects.”

She and her sister Lis Braun worked together in Philadelphia, calling themselves “the gardening girls” and together in their ‘55 Chevy pick-up, they would perform garden design and maintenance for clients in “all the huge mansions.”

The pair also participated in the Philadelphia Flower Show, one of the largest of its kind, winning multiple blue ribbons for their displays. One year, all the contestants had to create their displays using the theme “sentimental journey.” The sisters took on the challenge and decided to “push the envelope” creating a ‘scent’-imental journey using found objects from a dump and used the notorious amorphophallus rivieri, also known as the devil’s tongue or the voodoo lily, as their centerpiece.

As time progressed, White began to feel the weight of time.

“I was a little older and it was getting harder to carry,” she said. “And the winters were awful [in Philadelphia].”

So she decided to move to Pittsboro where her friend and artist Katherine “Kate” Ladd had moved. She found her home with the help of local agent Elizabeth Anderson and began the process of creating her personal secret garden. She enlisted the help of J.V. Yates and his son, Chris, of Yates Maintenance who assisted her with building fences, moving piles of debris, and pretty much any of the heavy lifting she is no longer able to do herself.

“There isn’t anything they can’t do,” White says. “They’re like husbands you don’t have to be married to. I love them and I couldn’t be in this house without them.”

Her backyard oasis is filled with beautiful, colorful plants she’s collected — some from her mother’s garden and some from Big Bloomers in Sanford. She warns against using the big box stores for plants since they are often mislabeled or are root-bound. Her compost “bin” rests on cardboard that she can move to any spot in the garden, calling it the “heart” of the garden.

She has found creative ways to collect rain water from canvas tarps and umbrellas that shade her deck. And she uses found objects — balls, broken pottery, local art — to accent the landscape. Submerged ponds create habitats for bull frogs and dragonflies.

“No true garden is ever done,” she says. “For me a garden is morphing, changing, pulsing, it’s becoming what it will be next.”

When the weather’s good, she’s out in the garden — watering, weeding, pruning.

“Pushing and pulling and stooping and stretching and sometimes I do a yoga stretch,” she continued. “It’s exercise without the stress.”

White is constantly learning, she notes, such as finding this year that mosquitoes don’t breed in a copper pot that fills with rainwater in the garden. She likes the challenge of the garden and “adores solving problems.” In the process, she says, things happen that are always a surprise. And the aesthetics, the colors, are “the icing on the cake.”

Her experience in art, design, and art history are evident in her garden. And her garden inspires her to create her art — photography.

“I grow it to shoot it,” she says. “When I take my pictures, I go beyond the capture, beyond the click. I alter things and reveal maybe what a bee sees. It’s sort of ephemeral more like what happens when you’re not looking — something you have to study.

White takes her photos on her phone using different applications to edit and morph them into art pieces. She calls the apps her “paint brushes.”

“It gives you a whole new appreciation for the plants,” she said.

Her photos are often extreme close-ups of the flower, painted using the apps to create images that are vibrant and sharp, some feeling electric. She says she loves contrast, texture, and color and both her garden and her art reflect that.

“Gardeners — we are a dying breed.” she says. “I’m just the stewardess for this little plot of land on the planet — an eco-system of its own.”

Reporter Casey Mann can be reached at


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