Susi has been our newsletter editor since 1996 and served as president from 2003 to 2010. She has worked tirelessly to build and promote SDHS and has become synonymous with the word "horticulture" in San Diego.
Susi served as a board member of the San Diego Botanic Garden from 2000-2003 and received the “Paul Ecke Junior Award of Excellence” in 2008 from the SDBG. She also has a strong connection with the Pacific Horticulture Society, serving as a board member and organizing three Gardening Symposiums for them.
Ask Susi Torre-Bueno about her horticultural roots and she laughs. “I’m from a long line of apartment dwellers,” the native New Yorker says. “I’m probably the first gardener in my family in 100 years.”
Susi is the daughter of Bill Kramer and Hannah Kirschenbaum, who were the children of immigrants from Poland and Germany. Her father, who trained as an architect, learned photography when he enlisted in the Army and made a living doing portraits and photographing weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events. Her mom was a bookkeeper, who wisely saved her husband’s military paychecks for a down payment on a house in the Bronx.
Susi was 3 ½ and her brother David was 1 when the family moved. “We were way off the beaten path,” she says of the location, “and I think our house was the first one on the street.” Typical of post-war housing, there was a patch of front lawn and a small backyard with a lilac and fruiting mulberry. Her parents added a dwarf apple tree and a neighbor contributed hostas and a grapevine. “The apple tree was beautiful,” she recalls. “No one but my nutty Aunt Belle would eat the very sour mulberries. For a time my mom was determined to find some way to make it stop fruiting.”
The neighborhood kids were Susi’s playmates outdoors as they built snow forts and played games. Her ambitions at the time were simple: “Buy a Mustang, go to Mars and kiss Marlon Brando.” “I still want to go to Mars,” she admits. Soon a second grade science project would add a new goal to the list – gardening.
“We planted radish seeds,” she says. “Once they sprouted, every day I’d pull one up and put it back, just to see how they were doing. Finally, they were ready. I washed one off, took a bite and spit it out. I still hate radishes, but I was hooked on the process.”
Lord of the Rings to a Wedding Ring
From that time on, Susi became the gardener in the family, annually planting seeds at home and later branching out into bulbs. “I remember forcing daffodils in crushed oyster shells,” she says. In junior high, she made a mini-dinosaur habitat, clipping off carrot tops to stand in for ferns. But when high school graduation came around and college beckoned, Susi turned from land to sea, with a major in marine biology at the newly opened Stony Brook campus of the State University of New York.
Dorm life at the 1,000-student college suited her. “It was the most exciting day of my life when I first saw the campus,” she says. When she realized math and chemistry were needed for her major, she switched to sociology and anthropology, eventually earning a dual degree. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I get seasick, so it was the right move,” she adds.
It was the late 1960s, a like many college students, Susi was hooked on the fantastical Lord of the Rings trilogy. Eager to meet fellow fans, she decided to found a campus Tolkien Club – a decision that would change her life. Among the two dozen who turned out was a handsome freshman science major named Jose Rollin de la Torre-Bueno IV. Three years later, instead of attending her own college graduation, the two were married in New York. “We were so young,” she says. “Because Jose wasn’t 21 yet, his parents had to give him permission to marry. They signed him over to me and we’ve been together ever since.”
Stitching Together a Business
After earning his BS degree, Jose enrolled in the Ph.D. program in physiology at Rockefeller University. His bride got a job with the University as a radar operator tracking migrating birds (with Korean War-surplus equipment) and analyzing the data the old-fashioned way with a slide rule. “I had taken a Navy aptitude test in high school that said it would be a good job for me because I was good with details. And I was. It was lots of fun with many adventures,” she says looking back.
Typical of the 1970s, she satisfied her yen to garden with houseplants – hundreds of them hung by home-made macramé hangers in their New York apartment and a rental house in upstate New York. But her commanding interest at the time was needlepoint. When Jose’s post-doctoral studies took them to Durham, North Carolina, for “nine long years,” that hobby became her first home-grown business - designing counted cross stitch needlework patterns.
In “hot, humid, racist, sexist Durham,” Susi couldn’t find work – or garden. A year after their arrival there, the couple welcomed a son, Theodore. Now a stay-at-home mom, she turned to needlework, first selling some pieces and then counted cross stitch designs. “It was like printing money,” she says of the design sales. “It cost a penny to copy one and I sold it for a dollar to shops all over the state.” As her knowledge of the largely mom-and-pop business grew, she saw the need for a trade directory of counted cross stitch designs. “The first one was about 75 or 100 pages and I sent it to 10,000 stores,” she said. “Pretty soon I was doing a new directory every 6 months and had two people working for me, all out of a room in our house.”
In 1981, the family got a respite from North Carolina when Jose used a sabbatical from Duke University to take a one-year appointment at UCSD. The couple picked San Diego because Jose’s sister Ava was here, having graduated from SDSU and gone into social work. Three years after they went back to Durham, on their 15th wedding anniversary, the couple left North Carolina behind to move here.
Shortly afterwards, Susi sold her needlework enterprises. Since then, she has never done another piece of stitchery. “I completely burned out,” she says. “And I learned not to make a hobby into a business. I will never do that again.”
A Gardening Demon Unleashed
Though she was an administrator for American Innovision, a bio-tech company Jose founded and ran until it was sold in 1992, Susi finally was able to “unleash my gardening demon” at the family’s new home in the College area. The former owner had “gardened with concrete,” she says, leaving only a patch of lawn and a couple of planting spots around the backyard pool. Undeterred, Susi started gardening in pots, while beginning a crash course in horticulture, San Diego style. “I bought a Sunset Western Garden Book and kept it by the bed. Every night I’d read a couple of pages,” she said. “I joined the San Diego Floral Association and bought lots of other books. It was a real education…but I felt that this was what I was meant to do.”
During this time, Susi says she “spent half of every weekend at Simpson’s [Nursery in Jamul]. I think the car could get there by itself after a while.” She eliminated her front lawn and planted a veggie garden there. And she kept adding to her container garden. “By the time we moved in 1996, I had 800 pots.”
In 1994, Susi attended her first meeting of the then nascent San Diego Horticultural Society. “I’m not sure how I heard about it. Everyone was so friendly and nice, even though they all referred to plants by their Latin names, which made me roll my eyes. I joined on the spot.”
Two years later, when she and Jose were living in a mobile home while building a custom home on two acres in Encinitas, she was asked to become editor of the SDHS newsletter, a post she accepted and still holds today. As newsletter editor, she automatically took a seat on the board of directors too and has served on the board ever since.
Beside her volunteer activities, Susi worked part time at Buena Creek Gardens, owned then by fellow SDHS board member Steve Brigham. The remaining time was divided among work on her new house and garden. “The lot was 100 percent mustard weed so we had it clear cut,” she says. “The soil was clay and rock, so we brought in lots of mulch and compost and very quickly the soil got a whole lot better. Meanwhile, I went to every plant sale anywhere.”
Using a CAD program, she spent many hours designing the new garden, giving it a Mediterranean-style entry and tropical look in the back. “I had so much fun,” she says. “The garden came out the way I wanted it. It was great.” Among her plant “obsessions” then were cannas. Eventually she had more than 70 varieties in the garden, accumulated in part by trading with other plant lovers online.
Leading SDHS Forward
In 1998, Susi was elected second vice president of the SDHS board. Four years later, when founding President Don Walker resigned to move out of state, she was named president to fill out his term. Later that year, she was elected to her first three year term as president. She would serve two subsequent terms, stepping down from that office in 2011.
Susi presided over the organization during times of rapid growth in membership and programs. “I really wanted to reach out to the gardening community, to spread the word. The whole point of the organization is education and outreach,” she explains. New efforts included “ambassadors” to garden clubs and information booths at major events like the San Diego County Fair. When Susi took the reins, SDHS counted 889 members; two years later that number swelled to 1,400. While membership ebbed some in subsequent years, it currently has returned to nearly 1,400.
The newsletter, which published its 200th edition last year, also prospered during Susi’s presidency. The number of pages increased and a color cover was added. An electronic version was developed to be delivered by email, saving paper, printing and postage costs. Plus, a Web site and later a facebook page were created and updated to reach the growing number of internet users. Also, a second edition of the SDHS book, Ornamental Trees for Mediterranean Climates, was published.
SDHS’s role at the county fair expanded to include annual awards for accurate nomenclature, creative use of unusual plant material, best youth garden and best expression of garden education. In 2004, the organization created the first of many award-winning fair display gardens and two years later the Don and Dorothy Walker Award for Most Outstanding Exhibit was added. Last year, an award for best planted container was presented for the first time. To help fairgoers with gardening questions, SDHS volunteers staff the gardens for the run of the fair as Horticulturists of the Day.
Since 1999, SDHS has been a co-sponsor for the Spring Home/Garden show also held at the fairgrounds. This event was the setting for many years for presentation of another award, Horticulturist of the Year. Three years ago, building on a history of local and out-of-town tours dating back to the mid-1990s, SDHS began organizing a garden tour that traditionally kicks off the garden tour season here.
Member benefits added during Susi’s presidency include the annual Volunteer Appreciation Party, free monthly Coffees in the Garden that visit outstanding landscapes and nurseries, new member orientation events, discounted subscriptions to Pacific Horticulture magazine, and garden tours to cities around the country. Programs increasingly touted water-wise gardening and sustainability. “Initially the thinking was ‘you can grow anything here,’” she says. “But our emphasis turned to water conservation and plants that don’t need much water.”
In Praise of SDHS Members
In addition to her work with SDHS, Susi organized local garden tours for three years as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program. As SDHS president, she served nine years on the board of the Pacific Horticulture Society and put together three symposia for them. All the while, she was a familiar face at a host of gardening events around the county - staffing an SDHS information booth, speaking on a variety of topics or filling any number of SDHS volunteer jobs.
Two years after Susi became SDHS president, she and her husband decided to downsize and sell their home. “We still had a half-acre of the garden to develop and what was planted took a full time gardener and all my free time to maintain. We were watering much of the garden by hand. It was too much,” she says. Before moving into a temporary home in Carlsbad while they built the new house themselves, the couple hosted a party and invited friends to take cuttings, hoping they would offer cuttings in return for their new garden.
Today the couple lives in a “green” fire-safe house designed by Jose and gardens on the 1-plus acre that surrounds it in Vista. “There’s almost no wood in the house’s construction, mostly concrete blocks and steel studs. There are sprinklers on the roof and in every room,” she explains. “Solar helps heat the water and the rest of house is heated by two gas-burning fireplaces.” A built-in gray-water system is about to be implemented.
The home’s courtyard is filled with aloes. Outside, it is ringed with succulents and other low-water plants from around the state and the world, including South Africa, South America and Mexico. A new orchard will soon be joined by a “dry tropics” demonstration garden, being planned on the same CAD system used previously.
“I’m enjoying my retirement,” she says of the months since she stepped down as president. “I’m actually gardening again and really enjoying spending time with plants.” She also works with her son and husband on their new venture, Empowered Energy Solutions, a contracting company that conducts home and business energy audits and provides customized solutions to significantly reduce energy costs.
Looking back over her tenure, Susi is especially complementary of SDHS’s dedicated members. “Without members who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get jobs done, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she says. “Members keep our group alive and growing. I can’t thank them enough.”