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Landscape Design

Succulent Talk with Debra Lee Baldwin

The Queen of Succulents shares valuable insights and tips

Debra Lee Baldwin

A peach-colored wall serves as a backdrop for a potted garden. Dracaena marginata, at right, adds height. Cobalt blue contrasts with the wall and unifies the composition. A few pots are elevated, so the viewer feels surrounded by the garden. Design by Jim Bishop, Bishop Garden Design, San Diego, CA.

Aloe vanbalenii reddens when grown in full sun.

Peter Bailey's barrel cactus checkerboard.

Two kinds of Kalanchoe tomentosa (the species and 'Golden Boy') share a pot with teal echeverias. Courtyard Pottery, Solana Beach, CA.

Some call her the Queen of Succulents, but for having such a status Debra Lee Baldwin is quite down-to-earth. Debra is a passionate, knowledgeable and incredibly busy woman who is also approachable and witty. Over the past five years Debra has carved out a niche for herself as the nation's expert on succulents from a design perspective. She graciously admits that at the recent San Diego and San Francisco garden shows she was treated like a celebrity.

The Succulent Craze - Not Just a Fad With her bestselling books, Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, a number of widely read articles and speaking engagements lined up throughout the West, Debra finds herself in the center of the succulent craze. "Orignally I wondered if the popularity of succulents would peak and taper off," she confesses, "but it is clear now that they aren't a fad." The acceptance, appreciation and practical application of succulents have surpassed what Debra expected when her first book was published in 2007. "My publisher thought of Designing with Succulents as a B-list book that filled a void. We didn't predict that it would spend 18 weeks as one of Amazon's Top Ten Bestselling Gardening Books," she states. Now when Debra is out driving she is pleased to see design ideas from her books in people's yards.

Why are Succulents so Popular?

  • Drought-tolerant
  • Easy care
  • Fire-retardant
  • Marvelous rosettes & geometric shapes
  • Striking array of colors

After attending both the 2011 San Diego and San Francisco garden shows, Debra noted that succulents are being used more appropriately and creatively than ever before. Many designers used succulents as well-integrated parts of their displays, which for Debra indicated that people are becoming more comfortable and confident with using succulents. "I saw wonderful use of succulents," says Debra. "One designer at the San Diego show, Laura Dalton, made a topiary alligator with moss and sedum cuttings, while another designer at the San Francisco show, Robin Stockwell, covered the exterior walls of a dovecote with a mosaic of succulents."

Debra's Tips for Successfully Growing Succulents

  • Understand the plant's specific requirements
  • Smooth-leaved succulents prefer full morning sun and partial shade in the afternoon
  • Desert succulents such as cacti can handle direct sun
  • Good air circulation is a must for succulents
  • Over watering may cause the roots to rot
  • Succulents prefer fast draining soil

Caring for Succulents Succulents are survivors - so much so that Debra calls them "the closest thing to plastic in the plant kingdom". By definition, they store water in their leaves or stems in order to survive periods of drought. Generally speaking succulents will survive even when neglected; but, as evidenced in her books and presentations, Debra doesn't want your succulents to merely survive, she wants them to thrive.

Get more succulent care tips from Debra on

Succulents hate sitting in wet soil. "For quickly draining soil I use pumice mixed with basic potting soil. Pumice is available at tack and feed stores under the name 'Dry Stall'. A mixture of half pumice, half soil works well for a majority of succulents. A good ratio for fatter, fleshier succulents such as cacti is 75% pumice to 25% soil and a good ratio for thinner-leaved succulents such as sedums is 25% pumice to 75% soil," explains Debra.

Growing Succulents in Cold Climates The California coastline and the Southwest have the ideal climate for growing succulents, but if you live in an area that experiences freezing temperatures don't be dismayed. "There are hardy succulents that can survive temperatures below 0°F. It was 17 degrees at the end of January when I visited Denver and saw a gorgeous snow-covered Agave parryi that was doing fine," Debra says. She suggests closely studying your garden's micro-climates and siting succulents where they will have the most success (consider sun exposure, circulation and soil conditions). Another one of her suggestions is to grow succulents in containers. This way the plants can be brought inside, or at least under the eaves of your home, during the cold, wet winter months. Debra recommends trying these cold hardy succulents: sempervivums, sedums, delospermas, and yuccas. For more information on growing succulents in cold climates consult Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate (written by Gwen Kelaidis with photography by Saxon Holt).

A Succulent worth Noticing

Pink Butterflies, a kalanchoe cultivar, has gorgeous rosy tones with little pink plantlets lining its leaves. Because its plantlets aren't viable, it won't reproduce and become a weed like Mother of Thousands.

Debra's Next Step Debra's plans for 2011 include giving her popular Designing with Succulents presentation throughout the West, as well as teaching hands-on succulent container classes at Oasis Water Efficient Gardens in Escondido, CA. At the San Diego Botanic Garden in June, she will be giving a new presentation called Succulent Reproduction (PDF), which focuses on rejuvenating old plants and starting new ones from cuttings. Debra is also interested in exploring how she can go beyond print and share her knowledge in the audio-visual realm. Her first foray into this arena is a video titled How to Plant a Succulent Container Garden, produced by Timber Press, that can be viewed above.

Debra Lee Baldwin
Escondido, CA

Contributing Author:

Sarah Hutchinson, contributing writer for Landscaping Network

Related:Landscaping Plants

Read an article by Debra Lee Baldwin on about designing succulent containers.

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