Lisa Mattson, Designer
When life gave me lemons, I didn’t make lemonade. I made a succulent garden.
The hilltop garden my husband and I had built over the course of five years was reduced to ash by the Tubbs Fire in 2017. Fifty trees on our property were gone, along with the backside of our house and our detached garage. Once the smoke cleared and rebuild quotes started pouring in, we soon realized the only way we could afford to rebuild our garden was if we did the work ourselves. That’s how my succulents garden designer journey began.
Sometimes I say that I lost three years of my life rebuilding my drought tolerant garden, but looking back, I now see how much I gained beyond the torn rotator cuff. Every moment not working at my day job in wine marketing, I spent studying—plants, drainage, landscape design, defensible space in landscape, climate change gardening, and gardening for the environment and drought tolerant plants. I looked around at the treeless hills and accepted the fact that my entire environment had changed, so the plants needed to change. The only plants that survived the fire in my yard were a few aloe and chalksticks succulents native to South Africa and grass palms native to Australia.
Throughout my rebuild research, these hearty succulent survivors remained top of mind. Drought tolerant plants hold a lot of water, require less irrigation and they love the heat. Plus, they made it through the fire! I decided to go all-in on becoming a student of succulents and succulent garden design—and a mother of dragons (dragon toe agaves, that is)—and turn about a half acre of our land into experimental succulent gardens where I would grow more than 100 varieties of plants: 22 agaves, 11 aloes, 10 cacti, 8 euphorbia, 4 cotyledon and many more. The garden design process opened a new door in my creative mind. Companion plant selection and architecture came naturally to me, and I found a new calling.
I became a firm believer in designing resilient, drought tolerant gardens for the future reality of California homes—environments that can survive with more heat, more wind, more fires and less water. I listened to the advice of firefighters who battled the flames, and I rebuilt my garden only with plants and materials that could survive and thrive in this climate. At the time, it was very hard to find succulents at nurseries in northern California, so I had to do a lot of creative sourcing with nurseries in Southern California and Arizona. Those days are over.
By the end of the garden rebuild in 2021, I’d fallen hard for succulents and drought tolerant garden design. Like a crush on Uncle Jessie from “Full House” hard. I received press coverage for my succulent garden design, and neighbors began asking for help with their garden rebuilds. Designing succulent gardens was my side hustle before turning Sonoma Succulents Xeriscape Gardens Landscape Design into a business in 2022.
That’s the true story of how I became a succulent specialist and drought tolerant garden designer. It was a hellish road that I never want to travel again, but I am grateful for what I’ve learned on this journey. And I’m especially thankful for all of the fellow homeowners and business owners who entrust me to transform their yards into vibrant succulent gardens that attract pollinators, use less water, are fire-wise and are seriously low maintenance.
When I’m not designing succulent gardens, I work as a creative marketing and hospitality design consultant in the wine industry, where I’ve enjoyed a fruitful career for more than two decades.