Standing in the backyard of Dr. Otto and Jayne Susec’s home, one easily could forget they are in southern Indiana. Surrounded by hibiscus, oleander, elephant ears, banana trees, various palm trees, and other tropical plants, the Susecs’ property is more like a lush paradise than a typical Midwestern backyard.
Otto, the medical director, chairman, and staff president for the department of emergency medicine at St. Vincent, fell in love with the hobby when his family was living in South Carolina for 17 years. When they moved to their current property in Chandler, Indiana, in 2009, he loaded up two entire U-Haul trucks with plants excavated from their southern property to transport to the new home.
While the area’s hot and humid summers help tropical plants thrive, the cold winters are not as conducive for jungle growth. Each fall, nearly every plant in the backyard is dug up and placed in a greenhouse connected to the garage to survive the winter. Everything is replanted in the spring, with a lush garden in full bloom by summer.
“We start digging everything up the Monday after Halloween, which takes about a week,” says Otto. “We use a tractor called a dingo to do the heavy lifting. Then in the spring, it takes two and a half months to replant, groom, and finish.”
Otto says a lot of the plants are put in the ground in their landscape pots to make the process easier when digging them back up in the fall. It’s just one of the many tricks the Susecs have learned throughout the process. The couple added on the garage and greenhouse after purchasing the property and uses it not only to keep the plants healthy during the winter months but also to rehabilitate greenery if they are struggling.
“We added the greenhouse garage on three or four years ago, and we designed and sub-contracted it ourselves,” says Otto. “So the challenge was to make the style and façade match the existing house.”
Inside the greenhouse is an irrigation system, as Otto says the plants need to be watered every day with sprinklers that run along the ceiling of the building. Around the house proper is an irrigation system for the plants when they are in the ground outside, with another system running around the property using a pump in one of the Susecs’ three lakes to get water to the landscaping.
The three lakes that dot the 17 acres of land (with about 2 acres devoted to the garden spaces) were put in by the couple, and the land dug up to create them was then used to build mounds along the side of the property and by the entrance with ornamental grass, wild flowers, and trees planted to provide more privacy. As guests pull onto the property, they are greeted with an allée of honey locust trees that line the drive and the bubbling of a waterfall into a small pond tucked away in the manmade berms.
Much of the land was used for farming and as an orchard when the Susecs purchased the home, with a lot of work needed to make it suitable for the couple’s landscaping projects. When Otto and Jayne first moved onto the property, the soil was mostly a clay surface, says Otto, with no topsoil. Trees and underbrush across a few acres also had to be cleared out to make room for a green space now speckled only with mature timber, offering tranquility and respite from the sun.
The layout of the landscaping in its entirety is the product of Otto’s vision and imagination.
While Jayne says she always is pleased with the outcome, there have been moments of doubt during the planning and installation process. For example, she says she had hesitations when it came to Otto’s vision of building the mounds and planting ornamental grass.
“I loved the idea,” she says. “I like it now, but when it was growing in I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
While Jayne is not as much of a horticulture enthusiast as her husband, she does keep her own garden behind the house where she grows vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers. She even has started growing grapes, though that is a newer project.
“One of these days I’ll have something nice,” says Jayne. “This is learn as I go.”
Much of the design and maintaining process for the Susecs has been a learn-on-the-job, do-it-yourself process, but it’s the planning, planting, and maintaining that gives them a sense of fulfillment.
“It’s really become a predictable system now after all these years,” says Otto. “There used to be a time when I did this all by myself.”
The true enjoyment of the work, however, comes during the summer when the fruits of their labor are in full bloom. Each year, typically toward the end of summer, the Susecs have one final tropical bash in their outdoor garden. Groups like Sister Hazel and Red Wanting Blue have even made musical appearances at the Susec family’s annual party.
“That is when I think it is the most beautiful — at night,” says Jayne. “By mid-August, this place is really grown in. That is usually when the yard is at its best. It just pops.”
For many, building a tropical garden would be a test in delayed gratification — wiping the slate clean and starting over season after season. For Otto, however, the gratification comes throughout the entire process in the work itself. With a high-stress career in emergency medicine, the added responsibility of yard work isn’t work. It is his oasis.
“Overcoming adversity is how I generate my happiness,” he says. “To me, I think, it’s a creativity outlet. Some people have music or art. I have this. I see something a lot of people can’t visualize. I appreciate the beauty in the details of the finished canvas I can proudly call my own.”