Succulent designer Laura Eubanks of Design for Serenity (DFS) is no stranger to crises. The challenges she's had to overcome---including a horrific childhood---have given her wisdom, compassion and a keen desire to mentor and inspire.
On her journey to becoming a garden celebrity specializing in high-end succulent landscapes, Laura repeatedly battled insecurity and uncertainty. Years ago she told me her goals...which I thought were ambitious, to say the least. Amazingly, she has accomplished all and more, due to passion, determination, necessity, smart timing, a bit of luck, and supportive husband Greg.
This Q&A illustrates Laura's character, personality, wit and love of mentoring. She tells how, in less than a decade, she went from earning $15/hour to $350; and from doing succulent-topped pumpkins to high-end landscapes.
Q&A With Laura Eubanks
DLB: Laura, how would you describe yourself and Design for Serenity?
LE: It's all about bringing joy to people's lives. That's powerful and leaves a beautiful fragrance behind. I have no storefront or franchising brand. It's me, it's what I love, and I do it with assistance. Relationships with clients are important. As a designer, I'm continuing to evolve. I'm completely open to new ideas.
DLB: How do you mentor others?
LE: Anyone is welcome to copy or emulate what I do. I love mentoring young designers. I don't feel I have any competition. There are plenty of yards for all of us. So much goes into the succulent design business. There's a lot to learn and figure out. So many stars have to align. You can't just be good at one thing, like design. It's a business, and you have to be good with clients. New designers tend to lack confidence, resources and support.
DLB: Where are you at with your business right now?
LE: We're shifting toward gardens that showcase larger specimen plants. Succulent tapestries are a side dish. It's exciting to have clients who let me tell them what I want to do. We're using more cactus and fewer long-term annual succulents. The ratio of plants to rock has shifted: More rock and bigger plants, as opposed to 5-gallon.
DLB: What projects are you currently working on?
LE: The cactus garden in Tustin is in phase three. It's a five-year project. The Pasadena project is in phase two. We're booked through the end of the year and are about to start an installation in Rancho Santa Fe.
DLB: Where do you obtain big succulents and cacti?
LE: A lot of plants come from from Brandon Bullard's Desert Theater in Escondido. He's got the big stuff---specimen plants at competitive prices.
DLB: What hasn't changed?
LE: Ribbon work is still my thing. We still use a lot of rock, and we mix varieties. The difference is we're doing larger boulders and ribbons of rubble, and less of the fussy stuff. Also adding lighting---wells, pathways and spotlights.
DLB: How do you manage out-of-town jobs?
LE: We stay in a hotel, or Greg and I stay with the client, and the crew's in a hotel nearby. But that's at the client's expense. In the future we hope to use locals. We've already built a nice core of people that I can call on in Orange County, Los Angeles and Ventura.
DLB: How did you find them?
LE: It started when I got the word out on social media that people who wanted to learn my techniques could come and help with installations. Volunteers also receive a free Design for Serenity T-shirt.
Before the phone rings
DLB: What do you tell people who want to be designers?
LE: Do something different. Find your niche and build on that. I fell into it. There are so many variables. You can't just "be a landscaper" in San Diego, the Mecca for succulents, where it's highly competitive.
DLB: What's it like to be mentored by you?
LE: I let people try on my shoes and walk around in them. I encourage them to find their own spin. I tell them, "I'm open to sharing and am transparent. Here's how I make money. Learn to establish credibility, a portfolio, and what sets you apart. Otherwise you're just a contractor or installer. Build a reputation, a desire, a hunger for what you offer. You want clients to call because they want YOU and are willing to wait."
DLB: How do you work with clients?
LE: I don't draw and I don't sketch, but that's just me. No plant list. I can't even follow a road map. My clients are people who have watched my videos, who hold their breaths hoping I'll take them. Clients have to trust my vision. Sometimes I need to tell them, "That's not how I work." For example a client told me her husband wasn't sure. I don't work well with parameters. They backed down.
DLB: How do you determine when a client is a good match?
LE: People talk about their favorite videos of mine. I do my homework. I want to see photos via email. I now refuse to work under trees. The space has to be cleared and ready for me. There's rarely a bad vibe or conflict, but if there is, then I'm not available until a year from September, or I may refund the consult fee.
DLB: How do you estimate a job?
LE: I'm very specific and detailed. How far I have to drive factors in. How many days, how large the crew, how many rocks and plants, plus irrigation. We're not licensed to do hardscape, so it has to be great to begin with. Greg does wonderful waterfalls and stream beds. We throw down decomposed granite and move stones into place. Greg retrofits the existing irrigation system, adds valves, and does repairs.
DLB: How long does an installation take?
LE: We want to get in and out. I charge per day, and we don't spend more than six days on any installation.
DLB: What else does the client need to do?
LE: Rip out lawns and maybe trees, bring in soil, so I can come in and it's ready to go. I want a blank slate with soil on top, flags on pop-up sprinklers, caps on irrigation. The further I have to go, the more I rely on the client.
DLB: What do you do when you get there?
LE: I move dirt around, creating undulations and mounds. That's the art. I get asked a lot of questions on how to do it. It looks like freshly buried bodies. We may move 25 yards of soil one wheelbarrow at a time. We roll boulders around. Greg has a background using heavy equipment, so he'll rent and drive a tractor or skiploader. I supervise the delivery and placement of rocks, plants and topdressings.
DLB: What else do you do?
LE: I navigate, micro-manage, figure out how to capitalize the project, negotiate, arrange deliveries, make sure the client is ready, and decide how many people are in the crew. I evaluate the terrain, accessibility, and distances we'll have to move rocks and soil.
DLB: What makes you unique?
LE: What I do is a gift I was born with that I've developed through experience. I didn't have a mentor. Starting out, I felt alone and insecure. I had no advisors, I was making it up as I went. Confidence comes with trial by fire, by being under pressure. When someone says,"OK, here's $25K," you make it work. When 25 people are all looking at me and asking "OK, boss, what next?" I'm able to keep them busy. It's my way.
DLB: Aren't you overloaded?
LE: We're spinning a lot of plates. Greg and I have four kids, a grand-baby, and two properties. We also have a huge maintenance clientele.
DLB: What's the best thing you offer young designers?
LE: My time, the ability to work with me, and to use what they learn to build their own unique sense of design. It takes a lifetime to get where I am. I'm not a teacher in the traditional sense. I've created a brand.
DLB: How did it all begin?
LE: I started ten years ago with complete insecurity. We lost our house to foreclosure in '08. We lived in it a year longer, until they threatened us with a shotgun. I love working with plants and needed to share my blossoming passion for succulents. For a craft fair near my home, I made succulent moss-and-glue arrangements. Nothing sold, and I brought it all home. When you [Debra] spoke at the Coronado Garden Club, I brought a succulent-topped pumpkin and wore succulent-decorated earrings. I was so happy you wanted to photograph them.
DLB: You pioneered attaching succulents to objects with moss and glue. Succulent-topped pumpkins are now as much a part of the holidays as succulent wreaths. So, how did you build your brand?
LE: I went on Facebook and stole all your friends [laughs], and I built my influence through comments and reposts. I presented at Roger's Gardens, and helped at the landscapers' booth at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. I brought along a life-sized topiary alligator planted with succulents, and enthusiasm for "Roberto" elevated my confidence. My succulent-topped pumpkin project came out in your book, Succulents Simplified. I was compelled to spread the net wider. Things snowballed. It was life-changing.
DLB: Isn't your business dependent on the economy? Landscaping is a luxury.
LE: No matter what's going on with the economy, there are always people with money. So even in lean years, business keeps rolling in.
DLB: What did you charge when you started out?
LE: I charged $15/hour ten years ago. You can't live on what you think you're worth. When I got more confident, I charged $25. On a bad hair day I was back to $20. It's hard to estimate a rate. But underselling myself was self-indulgent. I no longer believe in giving friends-and-family discounts. When you give someone a gift, they owe you. It's cowardly to vacillate and to do the right thing. I needed to have a standard---to estimate a rate and stick with it.
DLB: What do you charge now?
LE: Of all the questions in my inbox, I hate "What do you charge?" the most. I don't answer directly, instead I ask, "What do you pay?" I'm now $350/hour, but it depends on what I'm doing---maintenance is less. Installations are typically by day, and it depends how far, plus hotels for crew. It can be from $750 to $2,500 a day plus $250 to $350, depending on the crew. The next plateau may be a flat rate for designs up to six days. Maybe $25K for me to do them.
DLB: Do you pass along professional discounts to your clients?
LE: I charge for time spent shopping then pass along the discount. I also do consulting. For example, someone may ask me to go with them to Waterwise Botanicals to help pick out plants.
DLB: What else is ahead for you and Team DFS?
LE: I'm working with a production company to come up with a master's class---a succulent tapestry, start-to-finish.
Laura's background and childhood abuse
What follows is a newsletter I sent out a year ago, before the Succulent Extravaganza at Succulent Gardens in Castroville, CA, where Laura debuted to a Northern CA audience and did a hand's-on installation. She's scheduled to be at the event again, Fri-Sat Sept 27-28, 2019.
Sept., 2018: Laura Eubanks makes assembling a succulent pocket garden in front of an audience look easy...and she can do it while jet-lagged and with minimal prior knowledge of a location's resources or challenges. Add to that her seemingly effortless ability to lift and carry 75-lb. bags of rocks, and you have one amazing lady.
But what I admire most about Laura---besides her generosity in sharing her ideas and techniques ("I'm happy if others profit from them, besides, there are more where those came from”)—is her goal of inspiring others to succeed despite what they may have endured in the past.
Laura then and now
I met Laura in October, 2011 at a garden club where I was speaking. She wore succulent-decorated earrings and brought a succulent-topped pumpkin. Nowadays those are fairly commonplace, but back then---mind you---they had never been done before.
Next I ran across Laura at the 2012 San Diego Spring Home/Garden Show, where she had a 4-foot topiary alligator on display: a wire form planted with tiny succulent rosettes. "How did you attach them?" I asked. "With a glue gun," she replied. Really? If you touch hot glue, it burns your fingers. "Doesn't seem to hurt the succulents," Laura said matter-of-factly. "They root into the moss right through the dried glue." This may not be a revelation now, but back then it was unthinkable...and ingenious.
Over the next few years, Laura's succulent-topped pumpkin business became so successful, it paid for a family trip to Europe and a new car (the “Pumpkinmobile”). I featured her "moss-and-glue method" in my second book, Succulents Simplified. She and I also made a how-to design video (her first) and I wrote an article about her succulent pumpkins for BH&G’s Country Gardens magazine.
Laura's fresh, creative, photogenic approach to garden design led to more articles in national magazines and merited inclusion in the completely revised and updated second edition of Designing with Succulents.
Fast becoming one of Southern California's most celebrated succulent specialists, Laura has a strong presence on social media (including her own fan club) and millions of views on YouTube. Much of this is thanks to daughter Hannah, an ace videographer and photographer, who "gets" what her mom is all about and what her ever-enlarging fan base wants to see. A natural on camera, Laura talks to her audience as pals, shares professional design and cultivation tips, and conveys info with wit and clarity.
Laura's healing journey
Before she installs a garden, Laura pauses, gazes briefly at plants and materials, and then positions them with the assurance of someone who seldom second-guesses herself. When asked if clients’ lofty expectations ever make her anxious, she replies, “Gosh no. My miserable childhood taught me to keep moving forward, even when I’m terrified.”
Her signature style is to interweave rivulets of colorful succulents and crushed rock. She's known for snipping apart succulents in nursery pots and then planting the cuttings, famously saying, "if a cutting stands up, you've done your job." She enjoys travel, and has given presentations on using succulents in gardens large and small (and done installations) in Brazil, Florida, Texas and Northern CA---to name a few far-flung destinations.
Laura has no formal landscape training, nor does she draw garden plans. “For me, design mirrors life,” she says. You never know what’ll happen next.” In all her gardens, including those in containers, she starts with a focal point from which the rest of the design flows.
The back yard of her childhood home served as a refuge from her abusive father---a place where she immersed herself in making “paths that led to little communities that were safe and happy places.” Her past also has made her philosophical. She believes that everyone has an innate talent waiting to be discovered and developed, and she feels fortunate to have had the opportunities and courage to use hers. “I don’t know how I do this. It’s a gift. Besides, it’s not like I’m trying to cure cancer. I’m just putting plants in the ground and playing around with rocks.”
Her design work, she adds, "makes me a kid again, playing in the dirt.”
Laura Earns Recognition from "Leap to Success"
Leap to Success, a nonprofit organization that helps women overcome abusive pasts, gave Laura Eubanks an award and created a video interview that you simply must see. The depth of her wisdom will inspire you, and you'll gain a greater appreciation for your own childhood (believe me, yours was better than hers). From the Leap to Success website:
"Laura Eubanks grew up in a state of near constant abuse and describes her childhood as a “blur,” which led her to dissociate from her situation as a mechanism to survive. She married Greg Eubanks when she was 20, and he continues to be a tremendous pillar of support who strongly aided her in her healing process. When her father passed away years later, she suffered a major breakdown, and was admitted to a mental facility. With the tools she gained there, she began to rediscover herself, and started to turn to gardening as a way to find peace and serenity.
As her passion and talents for gardening grew, she turned her hobby into a business, planting flowers for neighbors and friends. By word of mouth, she gained more clients, and began working when her children were in school. Laura now applies her green thumb worldwide. She recently returned from San Paulo, Brazil, where she installed two demonstration gardens – now visited by more than 350,000 people. She also has a strong social media following on Facebook, and her YouTube videos on succulent planting and design get thousands of views.
Laura suffered years of abuse and hardship that many of us could not even imagine. Her openness to sharing her story, and how her pain evolved into her passion for gardening and eventually her business, shows us all that it is possible to move past hardship and create the life that we want for ourselves."
Coming Up: Meet Laura
Laura Eubanks of Design for Serenity is a celebrity succulent garden designer in Southern California. Her “Succulent Tip of the Day” sent her popularity skyrocketing on social media, and her YouTube channel recently exceeded 4,000,000 views. Here, Laura shares her Top Ten Tips for Succulent Garden Design. The photos are from two videos I made…