Debra Lee Baldwin in her garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

To Tree or Not to Tree? Ask Your Succulents

Do consider the need for shade when installing a succulent garden, especially if you---like me---live in a hot, dry region of the Southwest where winter frost is also a concern. Tree canopies moderate temperature extremes and create the dappled sunshine succulents love.

Debra Lee Baldwin's garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Dappled shade enhances my garden's succulent sitting area

Of course, not all succulents are the same. Twenty or more miles inland from the ocean, graptopetalums, echeverias, kalanchoes, small aloes, and aeoniums do best as understory plants. Same goes for succulents that are crested or variegated. Others---especially those native to the Americas (cacti, dasylirions, beaucarneas, yuccas, and agaves)---are usually fine out in the open.

Debra Lee Baldwin's garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Aeoniums thrive beneath Texas privets trimmed to show their branching structure

You and your family, guests and pets benefit from dappled shade, too. Trees create a sense of sanctuary, make sitting areas inviting, and frame views. Because they take years to mature, it's smart to get trees in the ground ASAP.

Can't plant trees or don't want to wait?

Alternatives include sun sails, patio umbrellas, pergolas and other free-standing shade structures. (Affiliate links). Also keep in mind that trees that you can see from your yard serve as "borrowed landscape." They provide greenery and focal points that can beautifully extend your garden beyond its boundaries.

Unfortunately no tree is perfect

All trees have pros and cons. Consider: every leaf and flower eventually dies and falls to the ground. The plus side is mulch; the downside, mess and maintenance. Mature trees need trimming every three to six years to remove dead, crossed or downward limbs; to enhance air circulation; and to show off their branching structure. This last is "lacing."

Debra Lee Baldwin's garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Those shadows! At upper right is a recently laced Acacia baileyana. The oak at center is borrowed landscaping.

"Topping" a tree---a quick way to gain a view---is unnatural and (ironically) can cause denser regrowth. It makes me crazy how, in a matter of seconds, a chainsaw-wielding chimpanzee can transform a tree from overgrown to awful. But really, isn't it we homeowners who should know better?

Your personal park

One joy of getting older is that trees you planted decades ago now tower overhead. During the past year, I had the largest ones on my half-acre professionally pruned: two acacias, two oaks and a podocarpus.

Debra Lee Baldwin's garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

View from the deck: coast live oak on right, podocarpus on right. The oak was about a third that size when we moved here 33 years ago. It had survived a wildfire, and had a large scar that slowly healed over the ensuing decade. 

Pleased with how the garden looks, I took the photos above to show you. Compare them to others of my garden here on my site and on my YouTube channel, and I think you'll agree the difference is striking. Trees lend a sense of grandeur and lots of green. Having a personal park makes me wonder: Exactly why do I need succulents? (Don't quote me.)

My "tree guy"

Tree trimming specialist Jesus Leon

Tree trimming specialist Jesus Leon

If you live in San Diego's North County, do call Leon Tree Service. I've known the family for decades. When he was 7, I asked Jesus Jr. (above) to climb my live oak to retrieve a toy airplane...and he climbs trees for a living! (Should I take credit?) Jesus ("Hay-soos") laces like an artist, keeping trees' health and potential in mind. He doesn't trim if the time of year isn't right, and he knows how a pruned tree will look months---even years---afterwards. No disclaimer needed; I'm not compensated for this. It simply makes me happy to share Jesus with you.

Considering queen palms? Uh...

In my recent video about Arizona gardens, I mention that palms are good around pools and water features. I should have known better than to recommend trees I don't grow myself and have only a passing acquaintance with. A Phoenix viewer set me straight:

>I am no palm expert, but I can tell you from sad experience that Queen Palms are "low litter" only when properly maintained (that is, trimmed annually to remove the seed pods before they open and flower).  If they are not properly managed, they will DUMP flowers (which the wind carries everywhere!), tiny baby seeds (that get into your mulch, top dressing and potted plants and are a right pain in the behind to pick out!)  hard, green, grape-sized older seeds (that smart when they fall and hit you on the head, grr!), and ripe orange "berries"(which draw rats, ick!) all over the place.  If you don't stay on top of sweeping or vacuuming them up promptly, they will burrow into the soil (even through a lawn!) and sprout!  Seriously, if you can't keep up with the annual maintenance, I do NOT recommend planting these anywhere near a water feature, or anyplace else you want to keep clean and tidy!<<

My reply:

>Hi Janet -- Thank you for your valuable perspective. It goes to show, any plant---especially a tree---is potentially a nuisance in the wrong spot. It's also my observation, having lived for 3+ decades with over a dozen different kinds of trees---ranging from edible (citrus) to native (oaks) to ornamental (acacias, palo verdes, yuccas)---that each has benefits and drawbacks. Sometimes so much so that removal is the best option. Btw, I don't have queen palms, but I'm grateful for neighbors who do, because orioles that nest in the tall palms frequent my feeders. I placed pots of yellow jade nearby, and the color repetition is breathtaking. (I digress.)>>

What do you think?

Do you have a favorite landscape tree, or one you wish you'd never planted? Please tell us in the Comments!



Debra Lee Baldwin garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

See Debra’s Idea-Filled Garden

Welcome to my site’s “Debra’s Garden” page. This is where you’ll find photos of plants in my half-acre succulent garden, as shown in my recently released, 15-min. video:” See My Idea-Filled Succulent Spring Garden.” The video came about as a result of my garden looking amazingly beautiful after a rainy April here

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Enjoyed this article? Please share it!


  1. Ray Burge on May 6, 2023 at 12:40 am

    Hi Debra!
    Here are my favorite trees for consideration here:
    • Erythrina coralloides (Naked Coral Tree)
    This is a spectacular deciduous tree that flowers before leaves appear in spring time. The unusual flower appears “succulent like.” In 1975, when I myself installed the complete landscaping and irrigation system for my newly purchased home on a barren lot in San Dimas, CA, I planted a 24″ box of this multi-trunk tree in my front yard with succulents below on the front slope. This tree without leaves is a strikingly beautiful sculpture and a show stopper for my neighbors and people who drive by when flowers next appear. Closer to my house, I planted a small grove of 5 Melaleuca quinquenervia trees for their beautiful white flowers and unusual paper bark trunks; years later, I had to pull all of them out due to their very aggressive roots that penetrated and clogged my sewer line. Hard lesson learned.

    • Tabebuia heterophylla (also rosea)
    A real show stopper, perfect for any residential yard. So why show Disneyland? When I (now retired) worked at Walt Disney Imagineering with landscape design (one of several departments) under my directorship, in the early 1990s I had to address and resolve a visual intrusion problem created by mature olive trees in the Hub (originally planted back in 1955 before Disneyland opened) that blocked the view of the Sleeping Beauty Castle for guests on Main Street. Since pruning was no longer effective, finding an acceptable replacement tree was going to be significantly problematic since these olive trees were near and dear to Morgan “Bill” Evans, the horticultural guru hired by Walt Disney to design the first overall Disneyland landscape plan. Fortunately, one of my landscape architects, who was close to Bill Evans, found exceptional beautiful pink (not the common yellow) blooming Tabebuia specimen trees available at Monrovia Nursery that was closing and moving its large operation to another California location. With Bill’s stamp of approval, the pink Tabebuia trees replaced the olive trees and put on a spectacular show the following Spring.

    Best regards, Ray

    • Debra on May 6, 2023 at 8:40 am

      Great recommendations, thanks Ray! Very much appreciate the details you provided.

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