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GUEST COLUMNIST: New SDHS President Frank Mitzel Talks to Himself (and Lets Us Listen)

Edited by Susan Starr and Lisa Marun.

Frank Mitzel begins his term as SDHS President in September 2017. Frank was born in Detroit, Michigan on November 5, 1958. Nine years after graduating from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture, he moved to San Diego in September of 1990. He now lives in a small North County community, Verranzzano, sandwiched between Fairbanks Ranch and Santaluz. A self-employed Landscape Designer for over 35 years, Frank has worked mostly in California, Michigan, and Florida.

Frank tells all in this two-part self-interview.

Part I: How It All Began

What made you interested in horticulture initially?

My mother allowed me to grow every houseplant known to man in a large east facing bay window in her living room in my childhood home in Harrison Township, north of Detroit. I grew everything from hanging ferns to cacti. I was successful in growing them all by the time I was a teen. My father loved fresh vegetables, and he had raised vegetable garden beds constructed out of 2x12 lumber that created about 430 square feet of growing space. I grew enough to feed our family of six, and most of our local friends and neighbors. We lived on a fresh water spring fed bay that provided the water for irrigating. I'm sure that contributed to the garden’s success.

SDHS President Frank Mitzel

What is one of your most unusual memories related to your work?

In the mid-1980s, I was asked by the wife of the president of Michigan Bell (a telephone company) to design the landscape plan for her estate home they were building on Lakeshore Road in Grosse Pointe Farms overlooking Lake St. Clair. I was given free rein to design the outdoor hardscaping (patios, walkways, driveway, etc.) and all the plantings with one caveat; everything that bloomed in the gardens had to be either mellow yellow or lavender. It seemed like an odd request until I noticed we were standing next to her mellow yellow Cadillac and she was wearing a lavender colored jump suit!

Aside from private residential designs, what type of landscape projects have you done?

City parks, funeral homes, office buildings, two columbariums (in different states), highway intersections, rooftop gardens, factories, complete subdivisions, industrial parks, condominium developments, churches, and horse stables.

What projects give you the most satisfaction—residential or commercial?

I would have to say residential. Many of my clients become lifelong friends.

Your work has been featured in many periodicals (Better Homes and Gardens, Sunset, Decor & Style, Horticulture, San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles), numerous newspaper articles, and several books. Have you authored any articles?

You really did your homework! I've written for Fine Gardening and have been interviewed by several publications. In addition, I've had multiple publications use photographs that I've taken in places all over the globe while touring gardens.

Are there any clients that you've had who we would know?

Too many to count in California, but I've done design work on two homes for Cynthia and Edsel Ford. I did a home for Billy Clay Ford, the current Chairman of Ford Motor Company, when his wife, Lisa, was pregnant with her first child and now they have four grown children. Also, Lee Iaccoca back in the mid 1980s when he was touted as a possible presidential candidate after he rescued Chrysler Motors; Al Taubman, the shopping mall magnet and former owner of Sotheby's Auction House before he was sent up the river for price fixing; Lord and Lady Easton; a billionaire’s heir to a clothing manufacturing company, whom I can't name since I had lunch at her jazz club restaurant just last month; Detroit Tigers baseball players Kirk Gibson and Darrell Evans; Aretha Franklin; Anita Baker; and my Aunt Edie, who was Jack Kerouac's first wife. She had a horticulture degree from Columbia University and taught me everything I know about forcing spring bulbs. I really miss her.

What kinds of bulbs?

Narcissus, tulips, hyacinths, and crocus. Every fall, I still force dozens of these bulbs in containers, except the crocus. I only buy bulbs after they go on sale at the nurseries. I like to pack them in for the maximum display of color, mass, and fragrance.

What do you like to do in your spare time when you're not gardening?

Every week, I try to read two to three books and several periodicals—mostly history, non-fiction, and biographies. I spend too much time researching fine and decorative arts that I want to bid on at upcoming auctions all over the world. Mostly Pop Art limited edition prints and multiples. It's a consuming passion. My two kitties keep me busy, too—brushing, playing with, and basically adoring them. Also, I collect first edition signed books by favorite authors.

Learn more about Frank, including his favorite gardens and plants, in next month’s Let’s Talk Plants!

Landscape photo: This inviting Mission Hills residential landscape, designed by Frank, is both colorful and water wise.

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