Succulent Plant Maven and Author

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As the author of several lovely books on our favorite plants, Debra Lee Baldwin is a well known personality in the succulent plant world.

Her pictures of succulents and landscapes have been an inspiration to many budding and knowledgeable gardeners in many climates.

Debra Lee Baldwin

I’ve been fortunate to catch Debra between speaking engagements and book deadlines and have a chance to ask a few questions. I hope you’ll enjoy this revealing and inspiring Q&A with Debra.

Tell me something you feel is important about yourself.

My secret of success is basically this: I defined what I had a passion for, set goals, had a high level of commitment, and spent years working 12-hour days, sometimes seven days a week. I was also fortunate to have a supportive spouse and to be in the right place at the right time.

What words would you use to best describe yourself?

Garden photojournalist, bestselling author, watercolor artist, entrepreneur. At least that describes “Debra Lee Baldwin,” the brand I’ve created.

What was your most important time in your gardening life, have you always been a gardener or was it an epiphany?

I learned how to garden from my father. Early in my career, while I was living in a small apartment and writing articles about luxury homes with large gardens, I longed to grow flowers, the bigger the better. When my husband and I bought a house on a half-acre, the first thing I did was plant roses and cannas.

Every afternoon, sometimes until the streetlights came on, I was out in the garden. I did everything except pruning large trees.

Careerwise, I was interviewing innovative designers and homeowners, writing feature articles for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and scouting gardens for Sunset and other publications. Consequently, I was aware of trends, experimented with a wide

Kalanchoe 'Butterfly Wings'

variety of plants, and fine-tuned my own design sensibilities. Perhaps most importantly, I gained an aesthetic appreciation for foliage over flowers.

What defining moments have there been in your life, and what changes did you make because of them?

I have a degree in English Literature, love words and storytelling, and wanted to write fiction. But nonfiction is easier to sell, so I started out writing articles on general lifestyle topics.

Kalanchoe luciae variegated

I narrowed that to homes, gardens, architecture and interior design.

Then to gardens, dry-climate gardening, and finally to geometric, architectural plants that survive periods of drought by storing water in fleshy leaves and stems.

Five years ago, Kathy Brenzel at Sunset magazine suggested I write a book on succulents and their use in garden design.

She recommended Timber Press, the largest publisher of gardening books in the US.

Designing with succulents

The timing was perfect: There are more varieties of these easy-care plants now than ever before—dozens of genera and hundreds of species—and new hybrids continually are being introduced.

In mild climates, smooth-leaves succulents can be used to create lush and lovely gardens, large and small. The plants range from groundcovers with tiny leaves to trees that resemble something out of Dr. Seuss.

Designing with Succulents by Debra Lee Baldwin – one of the best books on succulents of all time.

My first book, Designing with Succulents, was about using the plants in landscapes—which is possible primarily in Southern California and along the California coast south of San Francisco.

As I gave presentations at major flower and garden shows, I realized the need for a sequel. Succulent Container Gardens makes it possible for anyone, anywhere to grow these marvelous plants, because pots are portable and can be moved indoors when the weather turns too hot, cold or wet.

What is your favorite plant or flower?

I continually have new favorites. Recently, I was over the moon about Kalanchoe ‘Butterfly Wings’. Before that, it was a variegated version of paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae). The first time I saw Agave victoria-reginae, I gasped. I still think it’s one of the loveliest plants. It was named after Queen Victoria—I hope she appreciated it.

What is your favorite memory related to gardening?

Visiting the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, at age 20.

That was the first time I realized that a well-tended garden is a reminder of Eden and a foreshadowing of heaven.

Btw, while at Butchart I saw a red-and-white striped ivy geranium that I vowed I’d have in my own garden someday. Eventually I did, but it was a spindly thing; I enjoyed it for a while and then gave up on it.

Where did you grow up, where do you live now?

I grew up on an avocado ranch in Escondido, CA, 40 miles north of San Diego.

My parents had a large garden of fruit trees, a grape arbor and a vegetable garden. In spring, I played amid the feathery plumes of asparagus plants and made water drops dance on nasturtium leaves.

In summer, neighbor kids and I played in the avocado grove. The trees are airy inside, with horizontal limbs and tentlike canopies. We earned money picking “cukes”—gherkin-sized avocados that result from improperly pollinated flowers, for which we were paid ten cents a pound.

Flowering plants in my parents’ garden were either annuals started from seed, or perennials from cuttings. Everything had to get by on minimal water (Southern California is basically an irrigated desert).

Sedum rubrotinctum

Along pathways and in terraces grew geraniums and non-cactus succulents such as jade, pork-and-beans (Sedum rubrotinctum) shrub aeoniums (Aeonium haworthii) and Aloe arborescens. I moved to San Diego while in college and lived there during my 20s. My husband and I now live in Escondido.

Where would your ideal habitat be if you could live anywhere in the world?

I really like the San Diego area, but Escondido, which is inland, gets too hot in the summer (upwards of 100 degrees) and too cold in the winter (a few degrees below freezing, just enough to be annoying).

I’d like to live closer to the ocean, where the temperature is more moderate. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of wholesale nurseries along the Southern California coast—or at least there used to be, before land became so expensive.

When is the best time of day for you? Do you find that you have the best ideas early in the morning, at midnight?

I do my best work mid- to late-morning.

When do you like to write, garden, cook, take photographs?

I like to write in the morning and have trained my friends and family accordingly. I wish I had more time for gardening. I don’t cook if I can avoid it. I like to take photos when the light is right, generally mid- to late-afternoon or beneath bright overcast.

How do you see yourself in 5 years?

As a consultant to large wholesale nurseries and as a presenter at major gardening and horticultural venues. Ideally these will be in highly desirable destinations worldwide, with all expenses paid!

In 10 years?

Living a fulfilling life centered around family, but also continuing to enjoy my niche as an expert in succulents, encouraging and mentoring gardeners worldwide.

Website: Debra Lee Baldwin

Books: Designing with Succulents, and Succulent Container Gardens

Blog (shared with other garden authors and photographers): Gardening Gone Wild Blog

Succulent container gardens