Carolyn Schaer garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Carolyn’s Dragon Tree Garden, Before-and-After

When she and husband Herb moved from New Jersey to Southern CA, Carolyn Schaer couldn't wait to install a succulent garden. "I knew I had to have dragon trees," she says, recalling the impressive specimens she saw in San Diego's Mount Soledad neighborhood.

In my new video, "Carolyn's Dragon Tree Garden," you'll see the result: a professionally designed residential landscape of low-water, regionally appropriate plants. Some are unusual, many are large, and all thrive today, seven years after installation.


Succulent garden, before and after (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

View of neighbor's house, before and after

I've followed Carolyn's garden since its inception in 2015, and my recent video includes before-and-after photos. I also interviewed the designer, Michael Buckner, a lifelong succulent expert, collector and former nursery owner. In the video, he shares tips on creating an aesthetically pleasing, low-water landscape...and one that meets Carolyn's expectation that "succulents are the stars."

Scroll down for a gallery of succulents and companion plants that not only look great in Carolyn's garden, they'll perform well for you, too, if you're in coastal CA from the Bay Area south.

Firewise Dragons

Do dragon trees breathe fire? No, but when a limb is cut, the sap oozes what looks like blood.

Btw, this landscape had to be approved by the Schaer's homeowner's association and the local fire department, because it's a "shelter-in-place" community---meaning, homeowners stay put when wildfire threatens.

Night lighting on dragon trees (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Carolyn's dragon trees are lit at night

It takes a Dracaena draco several decades to reach maturity. Young trees have a single stem, and don't branch until after they flower. When a dragon tree blooms at 10 to 15 years of age, panicles of white flowers turn into sprays of orange berries.

Dragon tree in bloom, with berries (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Dragon tree in bloom with berries (lower right)

After subsequent flowering-and-branching, trees attain their characteristic umbrella shape. Btw, the dragon tree is the logo of the San Diego Botanic Garden, where you can see many fine specimens, as well as in the gardens of the San Diego Zoo.*

Carolyn's dragon trees serve as garden focal points. They came in 48-inch nursery boxes, and were craned into place.

And those bottle trees!

Along one side of the Schaer garden, forming a privacy screen, are succulent trees that deserve greater use in residential gardens: Brachychiton rupestris (Queensland bottle tree). The trees' smooth green trunks are water-storing tanks that over time get nearly as wide as trees are tall.

Brachychiton 5 years growth (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Brachychiton rupestris in Carolyn's garden, two years after planting and (at right) five years later

According to San Marcos Growers (a Santa Barbara succulent wholesale nursery): "Plant brachychiton in full sun in most any soil type and give moderate to little irrigation. Trees will grow better and trunk will develop when plant is well watered, but it can also tolerate very dry conditions. Hardy to 18-20° F for short durations."

Color and texture

Another of Carolyn's requirements was color. The designer combined succulents with red, blue and yellow foliage, and/or variegated leaves. He also saw to it some plants (notably aloes) are in bloom year-round.

Blue agave, yellow jade (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Golden jade packs a color punch. It's as easy to grow as the common green variety

Eye-popping combos include red Aloe cameronii with yellow Crassula 'Hummel's Sunset' (golden jade), blue Senecio serpens with white-striped Agave americana 'Mediopicta Alba', and blue Agave macroacantha with orange Sedum nussbaumerianum (coppertone stonecrop).

Agave titanota, before and after (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave titanota at two years, and today five years later

In the video, Michael mentions his love of "cerulean blue" agaves. He combined several of these bold rosette succulents with airy, similarly hued Dasylirion wheeleri--a fountain-shaped Southwest native with stiff, upright, slender leaves.

The garden's nitty gritty

Located in the hills above Rancho Santa Fe, the Schaer garden occupies just over half an acre. To borrow tips from it for your own landscape, these specs will help:

  • Slope: This steep planted area runs front-to-back, and can be seen from adjacent streets and homes. The slope is 150 feet long, 30 feet high, and 30 feet deep.
  • Soil: Typical of new home construction, the lot was scraped, which removed topsoil that plants need to thrive. Michael amended the remaining clay soil  60 to 70 percent with high-grade topsoil (approx. 50 yards total). Topsoil was mixed 20 to 30 percent with mid-grade pumice to enhance water percolation. Slopes and mounds also received a layer of mulch (total 30-40 yards).

Succulent garden, rocks and topdressing (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Boulders that match flagstone pathways, along with gravel topdressing, give newly planted beds a finished look.

  • Paths and open areas are covered in warm-toned decomposed granite. Golden-brown flagstone defines pathways.
  • Islands: Flowing through the landscape are mounded beds of succulents. These freeform, elevated areas lend interest to front, side and back yards.
  • Stone: Surrounding mounds, to retain the soil, is ledge stone. Beds are topdressed with 10 yards of crushed rock (gravel). Adding interest to mounds are boulders in the same rusty hues as the flagstone.
  • Fertilizer: In spring and fall, plants receive a 10-8-3 fertilizer which has sulfur, zinc and micronutrients. Every two years, in the fall before the rainy season, the garden also gets Ironite.

Bet you notice them

*If there happen to be noteworthy dragon trees in your area, do let us know their location, so others can see and enjoy them too. (Kindly leave the info in a comment below, thanks!)

Plant Gallery

Aloe petricola (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Aloes: Uses, Photos, IDs & Varieties

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Agaves: Uses, Photos, IDs and Varieties

With the exception of a few soft-leaved and variegated varieties, agaves want sun—the more the better in all but desert climates. Most are hardy to the mid- to high-20s F, and some go a lot lower. Sharp points at leaf tips and along leaf edges can make agaves treacherous. I snip about a quarter inch from leaves’ needlelike tips with garden shears.

Spherical succulent Euphorbia meloformis (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Succulent Euphorbias: Photos, IDs, Garden Uses, Cautions

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Succulent Kalanchoe mother of thousands (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Kalanchoe Details, Photos and Varieties

Kalanchoe: Details, Photos and Varieties Native to Madagascar, kalanchoes thrive outdoors in zone 9 (and higher if in dappled shade). Protect from frost. See All Succulent Types Aeonium Agaves Aloes Cactus Crassula Echeveria Euphorbias Ice Plants Kalanchoe Portulacaria Senecio >> Jump Down to the Gallery All the kalanchoes in the video are also in the…

Lampranthus aurantiacus, Drosanthemum speciosum (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Ice Plant Uses, Photos and IDs

Ice Plant Uses, Photos, and Varieties What you need to know to successfully select and grow ice plants. Gallery of warm-climate varieties, all ID’d See All Succulent Types Aeonium Agaves Aloes Cactus Crassula Echeveria Euphorbias Ice Plants Kalanchoe Portulacaria Senecio See the Video About Ice plants Succulent ice plants have in common shimmering, daisylike flowers.…

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  1. Sheryl Mekemson on February 7, 2022 at 10:01 am

    What an awesome show! How beautiful the flow was made.

    I have a few of your books and would love to drive by the next time I visit our children in San Diego…Is the address possible?

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