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Meet Debra Lee Baldwin: Author, Designing with Succulents

San Diego Voyager: Today we’d like to introduce you to Debra Lee Baldwin. Thanks for sharing your story with us Debra. So, let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

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.

ACHIEVEMENTS:
— 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.”

AWARDS:
— 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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Gardening Books I Recommend

My books’ publisher, Timber Press, is the leading publisher of gardening books in the US. Among the Timber gardening books I recommend are:Garden Books I Recommend

When it comes to garden plants, cacti are anything but standard issue. The bulk of home gardens contain exactly zero species of cactus, and the thought of growing them makes gardeners think, “Ouch!” In The Gardener’s Guide to Cactus: The 100 Best Paddles, Barrels, Columns, and Globes, Scott Calhoun is out to change that perception, and bring the beauty and ease of cactus home. It’s high time that cacti took their place alongside the trendy succulent.

Garden Books I Recommend

Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates: There are many reasons to grow cacti and other succulents—they’re drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, and they look great. But what about hardiness? For those who thought that these spectacular plants were only for gardens in California and the Southwest, guess again—hundreds are fully cold-hardy and can be grown outdoors from New England to British Columbia, Wisconsin to Texas.

Garden Books I Recommend

Ruth Bancroft is a dry gardening pioneer. Her lifelong love of plants led to the creation of one of the most acclaimed public gardens, The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California. The Bold Dry Garden offers unparalleled access to the garden and the extraordinary woman responsible for it. In its stunningly photographed pages, you’ll discover the history of the garden and the design principles and plant palette that make it unique. Packed with growing and maintenance tips, profiles of signature plants for a dry garden, and innovative design techniques, The Bold Dry Garden has everything you need to create a garden that is lush, waterwise, and welcoming. Garden Books I Recommend

Gardeners and garden designers are having a love affair with agaves. It’s easy to see why—they’re low maintenance, drought-tolerant, and strikingly sculptural, with an astounding range of form and color. Many species are strikingly variegated, and some have contrasting ornamental spines on the edges of their leaves. Fabulous for container gardening or in-the-ground culture, they combine versatility with easy growability. In Agaves, plant expert Greg Starr profiles 75 species, with additional cultivars and hybrids, best suited to gardens and landscapes.

Garden Books I Recommend

Outdoor style often comes at a high price, but it doesn’t have to. This lushly designed guide empowers you to create your own show-stopping containers made from everyday materials such as concrete, plastic, metal, terracotta, rope, driftwood, and fabric. The 23 step-by-step projects are affordable, made from accessible materials, and most importantly, gorgeous.

In recent years California has been facing extreme drought, and in 2015 they passed state-wide water restrictions that affect home owners. Unfortunately the drought is only going to get worse, and gardeners who aren’t willing to abandon their beloved pastime entirely are going to have to learn how to garden with the absolute minimum of water. The Drought-Defying California Garden highlights the best 230 plants to grow, shares advice on how to get them established, and offers tips on how to maintain them with the minimum amount of water. All of the plants are native to California—making them uniquely adept at managing the harsh climate—and include perennials, annuals, shrubs, trees, and succulents.

https://amzn.to/2KMRyj2

In The Timber Press Guide to Succulent Plants of the World by Fred Dortort, the plants are organized into 28 intuitively logical groups, such as succulent euphorbias, mesembryanthemums, bulbs, succulent trees, aloes, agaves, and haworthias. Each entry includes information on the plant’s native habitat, its cultivation requirements, and its horticultural potential. As useful to novice growers as to collectors and those with an existing interest in succulents, this will be the standard reference for years to come.

 More Gardening Books I Recommend (of course!)

 

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Tools and Products for Succulent Gardeners 

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How to Propagate Succulents

How to propagate succulents: Aaron Ryan shows how to take a cutting from a stacked crassula

Ever wondered how to propagate a certain succulent? For example, lithops (living stones)…is it possible to take cuttings from those thick, molar-shaped leaves? How about ruffled echeverias…can a solitary rosette be made to offset? And stacked crassulas…what do you do when stems are tightly lined with leaves? 

Most succulents can be propagated vegetatively—via stem cuttings, pulling apart offsets, or rooting leaves. To the novice, of course, such tasks are mystifying. How deep, for example, does one plant a leaf? 

Even more challenging are succulents that make propagators pull out a power drill, coffee grinder, or tub of roofing gravel—all tools routinely used by nurseryman-grower Aaron Ryan of Petaluma, CA. 

Aaron is down-to-earth in more ways than one. At past Succulent Extravaganzas at Succulent Gardens Nursery, he graciously showed standing-room-only audiences a half dozen ways to propagate a variety of succulents. 

Somehow watching Aaron grind seed pods, guillotine a frilly echeveria, or snip a stacked crassula is soothing. You know those babies are gonna make it. You also know that with Aaron’s methods, you’ll soon have plenty of new plants to play with. 

Impressed by his teaching skills, I’ve made several videos that feature Aaron. They’re short (4 to 6 min.), fun to watch, and easy to follow. You’ll find them on my YouTube channelplaylist “Succulent Propagation.” Or click below.

To be notified when I release a new video, subscribe to my YouTube channel. 

Find “How to Propagate Succulents” in my books ~

Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed., pp. 148-154

Succulent Container Gardens, pp. 232-235

Succulents Simplified, pp. 58-61

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Succulent Basics, How-To and FAQs

Below are succulent basics, must-do’s and answers to FAQs—the essentials for growing succulents successfully. If all this is new to you, you’ll want to refer to this page often. And even if you’re experienced [Continue reading]


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I’m Horticulturist of the Year!

 

Above: I react to learning that a pair of Felco pruners is a traditional gift for honorees. San Diego Horticultural Society past president Susi Torre-Bueno, center, gave the introduction, and SDHS president Jim Bishop is at right. The event took place at the Flower & Garden Show of the San Diego County Fair. Photo: Hannah Eubanks

Recently I was honored by the San Diego Horticultural Society (SDHS) as their Horticulturist of the Year—a lifetime achievement award.  I knew the evening would be a blur, so I asked Laura Eubanks’ daughter Hannah to take photos and videorecord the speeches. I’m so glad I did!

I’ve since released two YouTube videos for those of you who would like to share (or re-experience) the festivities.

PART ONE is SDHS past-president Susi Torre-Bueno’s gracious introduction and informed perspective on the popularity of succulents.

PART TWO is my acceptance speech, in which I say a couple of times, “You may not know this, but…”

So, are you curious? Then settle in and be entertained and perhaps a little surprised. (Hint: My husband certainly was!)