I grew up on an avocado ranch in south Escondido on a hilltop overlooking San Pasqual Valley. As a child, I helped my father tend the hillside garden surrounding our home. Whenever I smell ripe plums or wet cement, I’m back in that garden. He explained fascinating things, like why nasturtium leaves repel water, what black-and-orange tarantula wasps are up to, and how to grow long-stemmed roses.
He also grew many succulents because cuttings were free from friends, and succulents need much less water than other ornamental plants. But I didn’t see these fleshy-leaved, water-storing plants as special. For one thing, there were not nearly as many varieties available then as now.
I fell in love with succulents while photographing cacti, aloes, agave and other varieties as a scout for Sunset Magazine, because of the plants’ sculptural geometry. I transformed my own hard-to-garden yard with these resilient plants, and through books, public speaking, YouTube videos, social media, and articles online and in print, I now advise others how to cultivate low-water landscapes with “plants that drink responsibly.”
My three bestselling books are Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens and Succulents Simplified, all from the nation’s leading publisher of gardening books, Timber Press.
— Author of the Timber Press bestsellers Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens and Succulents Simplified.
— Magazine contributor to Sunset, Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design and more.
— Succulent expert quoted by the Associated Press, Huffington Post, Bloomberg News, KPBS TV, Garden America, Garden Design, and others.
— Producer of 100+ YouTube videos with over 3,000,000 views.
— Presenter at venues that include Epcot Center; the Cactus and Succulent Society of America convention; flower-and-garden shows in Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco; and botanical gardens, universities and horticultural groups nationwide.
— Profiled in Garden Design as the publication’s Spring, 2016 “Ground Breaker.”
— Instructor at Craftsy, the leading online purveyor of how-to videos in the US. Debra’s popular 7-lesson class is “Stunning Succulent Arrangements.”
— Literary: Nineteen first-place awards from the Garden Writers Association of America, the Society of Professional Journalists and Authors, and the San Diego Press Club.
— Lifetime achievement: San Diego Horticultural Society “2017 Horticulturist of the Year.”
Has it been a smooth road?
I was a single mom when my son was ages 7 to 11. That instilled in me the desire to make a living at what I’m good at and love doing. It wasn’t easy, but it was essential to developing the person I was meant to be.
From 2000 to 2010 I suffered from a chemical imbalance that caused an anxiety disorder. I didn’t take medication because of the side effects. So to avoid being miserable, I stayed focused on the present moment via research, writing and photography. The result was a book that launched a worldwide gardening trend: Designing with Succulents (Timber Press, 2007). My therapist at the time told me, “You’re the highest achieving person with an anxiety disorder that I’ve ever seen.” I’m fortunate that I was able to handle it in a positive and productive way.
So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Debra Lee Baldwin story. Tell us more about the business.
I’m proud and honored to have played a unique role in the history of horticulture and landscape design and to have been able to develop my skills in creative ways that help others, not only to use yards more sensibly, but also to enjoy them more fully.
You might describe me as an award-winning garden photojournalist who launched worldwide interest in succulents in 2007 with her first book, Designing with Succulents. I’m widely known as the “Queen of Succulents.” I’m especially proud of the book’s completely revised and updated second edition, released in 2017.
My mission is to increase awareness and appreciation of “plants that drink responsibly” through my books, articles, photos, videos, social media and more. During my 25-year career as a garden communicator, I have discovered and shared cutting-edge design ideas and interviewed renowned experts. To an ever-increasing fan base, I present information with the goal of “entertaining and enlightening in equal measure.”
How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
It’s becoming politically incorrect to have a water-thirsty front yard and a lawn that isn’t used for anything but greenery. Yards are subject to fashion just like clothing, and furniture, and now we’re seeing more and more succulent landscapes replacing the turf.
But succulent gardens are not always done well. There’s a learning curve, and doubtless we’ll see smarter plant choices as homeowners and landscapers gain knowledge. For example, century plants (Agave americana) may be free for the asking, but they’re a poor choice unless you have a lot of land. All too often people put these plants, when small, alongside their driveways or in curb strips, little realizing that century plants eventually get as big as Volkswagens, and are extremely difficult to remove. Not only are they huge and heavy, the plants have sharply toothed, inflexible leaves. But this isn’t to say you shouldn’t plant agaves. There are numerous other kinds that make excellent garden plants.
I think we’ll see the trend toward low-water plants arrive at its inevitable conclusion: cactus. All cacti are succulents, but people haven’t wanted cacti in their gardens. That’s changing. The plants are supremely low-water—they get by on rainfall alone—and are beautiful when backlit. (Spines of many varieties are translucent and glow when low sun illuminates them.) Again, there’s a learning curve. People have yet to learn which cacti to stay away from because they’re too treacherous and to realize that there exist wonderful spineless varieties.
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