Prescott garden shows off homeowner’s lifelong love of wildflowers
By Hilary Dartt • Photos by Larry Kantor
Wildflowers have always played a starring role in Sue Smith’s life.
Even now, as she pursues a new chapter of her life—earning her master’s degree in natural resource management and retirement from a career in Information Technology—wildflowers continue to take center stage.
They’re in the front garden, welcoming visitors and creating an “after-dark favorite spot” for Sue and her husband, Philip. They’re in the back garden, offering bursts of color, as well as shelter for rabbits and food for butterflies and birds.
And inside the home, portraits of wildflowers tell the stories of Sue’s adventures, hobbies, and work.
All of it, she said, “is a work of love.”
“I have a very personal attachment to this flower,” Sue said of the prairie coneflowers in her front garden. “I saw it for the first time when I was four years old.”
Her parents, she said, were farmers and they bought their first farm in the Nebraska prairie, just a half-mile from the Platte River.
“I remember running out in the evening, and running through a field of prairie coneflowers.”
When she was six, her mother gave her some radish seeds to plant.
“I thought that was just the best thing,” she said, and she remembers it as a defining moment.
Throughout her life she planted and grew vegetables. She participated in 4-H as a child, and as an adult, she’d take her plants to the County Fair and win ribbons.
Living so close to the river, the soil was rich and, Sue said, “Things just grew there.”
As an adult, she moved to San Jose, California, where she worked in Information Technology, a self-proclaimed “computer nerd.”
To escape the fast pace of the job, she’d venture out into the hills around the Bay Area. Those hikes turned Sue into a “plant nerd,” and as she photographed the wildflowers there, she also began to develop an interest in native plants.
“There were just so many [wildflowers] there,” she said, “and I took photos so I could identify them. I just wanted to know what they were. There was so much natural beauty, and while I hiked, I took snapshots.”
Meanwhile, she was becoming more aware of what she calls, “the water issue in the west”; specifically, that people “need to be more cautious” about how much water they use in their gardens.
She started a “little garden in the front” of her house, experimenting with native plants.
Sue met Philip during a wildflower photography class/tour put on by the California Academy of Science, San Francisco. They married in 1993, and their shared love of all things outdoors has driven the things they do together and the way they enjoy each other. Vacations typically involve backpacking trips, hikes, rafting trips, or camping, and when they hike together, they leapfrog along, Philip watching birds while Sue photographs plants.
They bought their Piñon Oaks home in 2005 and moved in in 2006.
“I realized very quickly that I had to learn a new way of gardening,” Sue said.
One thing that did carry over from their life in California was the emphasis on native and regionally adapted plants (low-water-use plants that aren’t likely to “escape into the wild”).
Sue immediately sought all the information she could get her hands on about gardening in Central Arizona: books that outlined timing, sizes, and shapes of different plants; classes at the Highlands Center for Natural History; and a certification as an Arizona Master Gardener.
About that same time, she worked with a group of people to launch the Yavapai County Native and Naturalized Plants database, an online collection of the various flora in the county. New species are added every year.
The database, Sue said, combines her love of Information Technology with her love of plants.
As Sue pursues her Master’s degree—which entails completing a baseline study of the composition of the grasses in the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah—she also enjoys working on and in her own garden with Philip, utilizing the knowledge she’s gained.
The Smiths planned the front garden to include a variety of plants, so there’s almost always something in bloom. It features the Prairie Coneflowers, which bloom in June, as well as Cholla cacti that bloom in spring. The white and pink flowers on a Butterfly Plant (Gaura) attract butterflies, and yuccas add a bright splash of color. They’ve incorporated lots of grasses, too.
The back garden, Sue said, is a continuation of the front, and “a pretty luxurious garden for Prescott,” even as they keep the water use as low as possible. Still, “it’s not a formal garden. It’s simple and relaxed.”
It’s split into two levels: the bottom level, which incorporates flowers and shrubs and whimsical metal sculptures of insects; and the top level, on which Sue and Philip have built their vegetable garden in raised beds made of stock tanks and metal containers.
They love watching the birds, snakes, lizards, and rabbits enjoy the plants they’ve included—with the exception of the cherry trees (in three different varieties), which are for human consumption only, and are protected with netting.
Penstemon, Milkweed, and Salvia attract hummingbirds, bees, and monarchs, and various grasses provide shelter for other critters. The Smiths generally leave the seeds on the plants until spring so the birds have something to eat in the winter. Coreopsis, Goldenrod, Sunflowers, Blue Flax, Tulips, and Daffodils bloom throughout the season, which keeps the color going.
Native shrubs like Coffeeberry and Cliff Rose soften the rock wall that separates the garden’s two levels.
The Smiths grow peas, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cilantro, and grapes, as well as apricots, plums, peaches and cherries.
“Having grown up with fresh food,” Sue said, “I’m motivated to do it.”
Although Sue worries that the high water cost of certain vegetables may eventually make them unfeasible to grow, the Smiths are doing what they can to minimize their water use: a water catchment system has the capacity to harvest more than 3300 gallons of rainwater.
Sue said she is enjoying the community of plant-lovers and botanists in Prescott. She reactivated the Prescott Chapter of the Native Plant Society, along with a dedicated “village” of locals. She’s now the president. She’s in the process of becoming a naturalist at the Highland Center for Natural History, and she was on the committee for the Discovery Garden there. This past May, she helped organize the Annual Arizona Botany Meeting, which was hosted by Prescott College.
All in all, she said, she’s taking advantage of the opportunity to dig deeper into a special love that has played a starring role in her life since childhood.
“In my wildest planning of retirement, I never could have planned this.”