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Why Top Dressing is Essential for Succulents

In the ground or in containers, your succulent compositions will look and perform better if bare soil doesn’t show. Top dressing lends a finished look, and plants benefit from how it disperses water.

In the open garden, soil exposed to sunlight is likely to foster weed growth. Add a thick layer of crushed rock, and those few weeds that do sprout will be easier to pull. My preference is to use an inorganic top dressing, such as crushed rock or pebbles, rather than shredded bark, which can be too water-retentive and may harbor molds, insects, and snails.

Be sure to watch my YouTube video, “Why You Really Need Rocks” which features a newly installed succulent landscape by Steve McDearmon of Garden Rhythms, who top-dressed with several sizes of warm-hued rock, brought in by the truckload from Southwest Boulder & Stone.

By diffusing the impact of rain, gravel also helps prevent erosion. And by holding moisture in the soil, rock promotes root growth, thereby boosting the vitality of plants—especially important during dry spells. The darker the gravel, the more heat it absorbs from the sun’s rays. Aloe and agave expert Kelly Griffin, whose coastal garden is featured in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.), top-dresses with dark crushed rock because warm soil promotes rapid root growth—which is what he wanted, and to which his garden attests. However, such chocolate-brown gravel wouldn’t be a good choice for a desert garden.

Aesthetically, as I told my audience at the recent Succulent Extravaganza, top dressing is to a potted succulent as a mat is to a painting. The pot is the frame, the plant is the artwork, and the mat helps fill in and enhance the overall presentation. I also discussed showy topdressings, like crushed glass. Watch the video: Why Top Dressing is Essential for Succulent Gardens.

Members of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America see top dressings as backup singers and never as the star. They enhance their collectible, container-grown succulents by harmonizing pot, plant and top dressing, sometimes adding a choice rock or two to suggest how the plant might look in habitat. This approach, an art form in itself, is called “staging.” In competitive shows, judges apply strict standards to the way plants are staged.

Commercial rock suppliers sell neutral-toned gravels in bags too heavy to lift. Craft stores offer odd-colored criva and neon-bright sand in small bags at high prices. So thank goodness for John Matthews, the top-dressing guy. John sells at C&SS shows throughout Southern CA, and offers the ideal solution: pea-sized crushed rock in a variety of hues, packaged in affordable, 2-lb. bags. For more info, email John at jgmplants@aol.com or call him at 661-714-1052.

 

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Succulents at the Spring Home/Garden Show

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I zipped around San Diego’s Spring Home/Garden show right before the judging, cell in hand. (When in a hurry, I use my phone to take photos in dim light instead of my fancy-schmancy Canon.) I was delighted with what I saw. No question I’m biased, but the display garden (above) showcasing plants from Desert Theater nursery, and designed by Steve McDearmon of Garden Rhythms and Katie Christensen of Miss Katie’s Garden, was my favorite. You could plunk the whole shebang in your front yard for a great-looking, low-maintenance lawn-replacement landscape.

The show is the first Fri.-Sat.-Sun. of March every year. You’ll have to pay parking, but you needn’t pay the admission price of $9 at the door. Obtain a FREE PASS by going to the show’s Buy Tickets page and entering this special code for my fans and followers: DLBA.

Have fun!

Succulent display garden

Apologies for photos that lack credits. None of the display gardens had names on them because they were about to be judged. If you want to ID them in a comment below, please do!

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St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center (display garden above) helps adults with developmental disabilities. Gardening, propagating plants and selling them is a big part of it. I love the greenhouse in their display garden!

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Do I detect a trend brewing? This lovely display combines succulents (dudleyas) with red bromeliads and other low-water tropicals.

Succulent vertical display garden

Melissa Teisl and Jon Hawley design gardens as Chicweed Design & Landscaping. Although they sold their floral shop in Solana Beach, you can still see aspects of it in their gardens, like the lovely vertical display above. I’ll bet the sandbox behind it was inspired by their little boy.Potted aloe garden by Chicweed

This mosaic pot filled with succulents also is in Chicweed Design & Landscaping’s display garden.

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Speaking of lovely succulent container gardens, this one is by Katie Christensen for Desert Theater. The gorgeous purple plant is a dyckia, a type of bromeliad that’s succulent. Dyckias would doubtless be more popular if they didn’t have leaf edges as sharp as steak knives. (Katie, are you bleeding?)

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Also in the Desert Theater display is “Miss Katie’s potting bench.”

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Miss Katie brings a feminine aesthetic to succulents.

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Judges give bonus points for labeled plants. This is a charming way to do it, don’t you think?

IMG_4306The display garden above, which incorporates agaves and dasylirions, utilizes a lot of interesting hardscape and topdressings, which after all are THE ultimate way to have a waterwise garden.

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And isn’t this stunning? So simple! Pass the oil and vinegar. (Kidding.)

Don’t forget, you can get a free pass by going to the Show’s website and entering my special discount code: DLBA. If you missed it this year, subscribe to my newsletter (below), and I’ll give you a head’s up for next year.

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How To Design a Succulent Container Garden

“How to Plant a Succulent Container Garden,” the video that Timber Press commissioned when my book, Succulent Container Gardens, was released, has had nearly a quarter of a million views! For your entertainment and edification, below are annotated photos of the main steps involved. Be sure to visit my YouTube channel for more than 50 how-to videos of super design ideas featuring succulents!

Container How-To 1 Container how-to 2 Container How-To 3 

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Succulent Driftwood Designs

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It’s surprisingly easy to make a succulent driftwood planter that looks professionally designed. Each piece of driftwood has its own personality and suggests a different flow of succulents. The plants resemble undersea flora, and the wood hints at something you’d see in a forest. The two combine to make a special, almost fantasy-like composition that works well as a patio centerpiece or special gift for a friend. These photos are from a recent succulents-and-driftwood workshop. Be sure to also watch my video, Succulents in Driftwood (2:51).

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Driftwood pieces (from Sea Foam Driftwood) come with pre-drilled crevices for potting.

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Materials include small potted succulents, cuttings, sea shells, bits of tumbled glass, moss, rocks and sand. Tools are clippers, hot glue, and a chopstick for tucking-in plants and settling roots.

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Begin by filling the planting hole with potting soil.

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Add small rooted succulents and cuttings, envisioning them as undersea flora and fauna growing in and on submerged logs.

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Use a chopstick to tuck floral moss into remaining gaps. Moss will conceal any exposed soil and help hold cuttings in place until they root.

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Cuttings selected by Julie Levi include trailers (Ruschia perfoliata, Crassula lycopodioides), colorful rosettes (Sedum nussbaumerianum and Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’), and Crassula tetragona, among others. A sea urchin shell, attached with hot glue, is the perfect finishing touch.

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Connie Levi chose a slightly different assortment: Crassula lycopodioides (watch-chain crassula), a dwarf aloe, Aeonium haworthii, Crassula perforata ‘Variegata’ (a stacked crassula), and for upright interest (at right), Hatiora salicornioides.

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Linda Powell filled her piece of driftwood with pieces of jade, Kalanchoe pumila, variegated aeoniums, an echeveria, a dwarf aloe that resembles a sea star, and dainty cremnosedum rosettes. I like how she clustered smaller shells, too.

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Libbi Salvo’s long piece of driftwood, with several areas for planting, would make a good centerpiece for a rectangular outdoor table.

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Find out more in my YouTube video: Succulents in Driftwood (2:51)

 

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Katie’s Succulent Wreath Class

On a December Saturday that couldn’t have been more perfect weather-wise, a couple dozen ladies assembled at Buena Creek Gardens nursery north of San Diego to make succulent wreaths. Katie Christensen, a talented young designer from the Seattle area conducted the class. I had fun helping her, seeing old friends and making new ones, and recording the occasion with my camera.

For more about wreath-making, see my other blog posts: Make a Succulent Wreath and Succulent Wreath Tips and Ideas; go to my books Succulent Container Gardens pp. 176-178 and Designing with Succulents (1st ed.) pp. 113-117; sign up for my Craftsy class (get 50% off); and watch my YouTube video, Design and Plant a Succulent Wreath.

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For more wreath-making tips and ideas, view my other blog posts: Make a Succulent Wreath and Succulent Wreath Tips and Ideas; see my books Succulent Container Gardens pp. 176-178 and Designing with Succulents pp. 113-117; sign up for my Craftsy class (get 50% off); and watch my YouTube video, Design and Plant a Succulent Wreath.

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The Easy Way to Paint Watercolors

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When you dilute watercolor paint with liquid light (clear water), you can create an image that’s translucent. Because the white of the paper shines through, the result suggests a sunlit moment in the garden.

I learned this cool technique from San Diego watercolor artist Diane Palley McDonald.

  1. Select a photo that inspires you.
  2. Print the photo on 8-1/2 by 11 paper.
  3. Put the photo on a light table or against a sunny window, and tape a piece of watercolor paper over it.
  4. Using a pencil, lightly trace the photo’s main lines onto the watercolor paper.
  5. Tape the edges of the watercolor paper to a thick rectangle of cardboard.
  6. Mask any bright white lines. (optional)
  7. Have fun painting!

It’s a lot like painting a coloring book page. The worst that can happen is you’ll have to start over, but the hard part of any painting is the drawing, so you can skip that part. I often do two or three paintings of a subject before I’m satisfied.

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See more of my paintings in my succulent watercolor calendar…or paint your own! Most of them also are on my Pinterest page, Succulent Watercolors. I also have a YouTube video showing how I paint a watercolor. Enjoy!

 

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Succulent Wreath Tips and Ideas

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Do you like the succulent wreath that my friend Denise made during a wreath party at my home? To create a similar one, you’ll need about 100 cuttings, a wire wreath form, 24-gauge florist’s wire, a chopstick, and a bag of sphagnum moss. The form, moss and wire are available at any craft store. Cuttings will root right into the moss (no soil needed).

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Stuff the wire form with moistened moss, then wrap the form with wire to hold everything together tightly. Add wire loops to both top and bottom of the back of the wreath so you can rotate it, when finished, 180 degrees once a month or so for balanced growth. Poke holes in the moss and insert cuttings.

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Keep the wreath flat until cuttings root into the moss—about two weeks. To hang it sooner, secure the cuttings with U-shaped florist’s pins.

For more wreath-making tips and ideas, view my other blog posts: Make a Succulent Wreath and Katie’s Succulent Wreath Class; see my books Succulent Container Gardens pp. 176-178 and Designing with Succulents (1st ed.) pp. 113-117; sign up for my Craftsy class (get 50% off); and watch my YouTube video, Design and Plant a Succulent Wreath.

Succulent wreaths

Also view the 50+ pins on my Pinterest page, Succulent Wreaths and Topiaries.

 

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Four No-Water Succulents for Your Garden

 

Succulents that need little or no water other than rainfall, grow in nutrient-poor soil, and handle searing sun and frost are native to the Southwest and Mexico: dasylirions, agaves, cacti and yuccas (DACYs). These no-nonsense plants thrive from Mexico to the Bay Area, and in parts of Colorado, Texas and the Carolinas (Zones 7b and higher). The Laguna Beach garden shown here has all four.

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Above: Mark and Cindy Evans’ hilltop garden in Laguna Beach, CA has all sorts of DACYs. Also in their garden are euphorbias, crassulas (jades) and aloes.  Can you tell which is which?

Above: In the Evans garden are Yucca rostrata, Agave attenuata and Yucca aloifolia (Spanish Bayonet). A topdressing of golden decomposed granite lends a finished look.

Above: Two Dasylirion whipplei (which resemble pincushions) are 15 years old. The Yucca aloifolia at left was there when Mark and Cindy bought the house in 1999. “I think it’s pretty old; its base is huge,” Mark says. Four silvery blue Yucca rostrata also are 15 (the much larger one at right gets more sun). Mark planted the spineless paddle cactus along the wall from cuttings six years ago. Behind them, at right, is a 6-year-old blue Agave americana. Growing in the dry fountain are 8-year-old foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata).

How is it possible that yuccas and dasylirions, which have thin leaves, are succulents?  It’s because the store water in their trunks. A succulent is “any plant that stores water in fleshy leaves or stems in order to withstand periods of drought.” (Some succulents also store water in their roots, but we’ll delve into that another time.)

 

KPBS and NPR with Debra Lee Baldwin
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Debra Talks Succulents on KPBS News Radio

Debra’s interviews on KPBS radio news have been making the rounds on television and the Internet. Succulents are more popular than ever and—as Debra explains on-air—San Diego is taking the lead in championing their success.

 

 

Check out Debra’s YouTube channel and her three bestselling books for more expert info on succulents.

 


 


Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

Connect with Debra on Google+

 


 

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Got a Pot? Elevate it!

“Everything looks better elevated,” says San Diego succulent designer Diana Clark, who has wood stands custom-made to enhance her potted compositions. Diana, who calls her business “The Perfect Plant” because she pairs vessels found at antique stores or estate sales with a “perfect” succulent, created the plant-pot pairings shown here. As you look at them, ask yourself: Does the stand matter? Would the composition look just as good without it? And if you agree that the stand makes a difference, do you think you might you might try it?

It’s surprising how easy it is to find stands that will work for pots, at thrift stores. Learn more about Diana’s Asian-inspired design aesthetic in this YouTube video I created. And if you’re in the San Diego area, do come to a show-and-sale she’s having in Point Loma November 7-9. I’ll be there Saturday morning, Nov. 8, signing books, and would love to meet you!

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Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

Connect with Debra on Google+