Debra Lee Baldwin, a North County photojournalist, bestselling author and San Diego Horticultural Society’s 2017 Horticulturist of the Year, has spent the last 10 years whipping the world into a succulent frenzy.
When Baldwin’s seminal book, “Designing with Succulents,” came out in 2007, few people knew much about the dry-climate plants capable of storing moisture in their tissues. Now some enthusiasts go so far as to refer to themselves as “Succulent Fanatics” (there’s a Facebook group with 15,000 members).
Once considered mere low-care curiosities, succulents seem to be, well, everywhere.
“An online search for ‘succulents’ in 2006 yielded a mere 100,000 hits,” Baldwin says. “Many varieties we now take for granted, such as echeverias, were nearly unknown at the time.” She adds that the gardening public thought of succulents as cactus or jade and dismissed the entire category as “too spiny or common.” (Incidentally, an online search for “succulents” now yields 43 million hits).
Baldwin’s passion for plump plants is evident in all she does, including speaking engagements, workshops, videos — even a calendar of her watercolors — and especially in her books. Following the success of “Designing with Succulents” came two more Timber Press bestsellers, “Succulent Container Gardens” and “Succulents Simplified;” and in 2016, came her adult coloring book, “Sensational Succulents.”
Baldwin is a North County native who refers to her own extensively landscaped hillside property as “an inhospitable half-acre.” She grew up on an avocado ranch overlooking the San Pasqual Valley and as a child, helped her father garden.
“He grew common succulents, such as Crassula ovata (jade), Aloe arborescens, Drosanthemum floribundum (rosea iceplant) and Aeonium haworthii, because they don’t require much water or work,” she recalls. “I sometimes wonder what he’d think of the exotic varieties now available.”
San Diego County’s Mediterranean climate is perfect for growing succulents, Baldwin adds, and North County is home to numerous succulent nurseries, each with its own distinct character. (She offers a list of “San Diego Succulent Sources and Destinations” on her website).
“Most people who are into gardening are aware of the many commercial nurseries in our area, but few realize how vast the wholesale growers are,” she said. “Vista, for example, is home to Altman Plants, the largest grower of cacti and succulents in the country.” Look for their label on succulents sold at major garden centers, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot.
It was while scouting and writing for Sunset magazine that Baldwin began to recognize and promote succulents as low-water alternatives for lawns and landscapes. “The plants are simple to cultivate, propagate, acquire and maintain, and because they come in an incredible variety of sizes, shapes and colors, they also have significant aesthetic appeal,” she said. “Floral and garden designers, as well as succulent aficionados, are using echeverias and other rosette varieties to create eye-catching in-ground vignettes, container arrangements and long-lasting bouquets.”
Based on the emails she receives, Baldwin says that there are still some misconceptions about succulents.
“People seem to think that it’s OK to hang onto a diseased plant and hope it gets better,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that they risk spreading pests like mealy bugs to the rest of their collection. Also, people assume that since succulents are famously low-water (God forbid you overwater one!) that it’s OK not to water them at all. Hey, these are living things and they need water.”
Another misconception is that succulents are desert plants and should be given full, all-day sun.
“Only those succulents native to the Southwest, such as cacti, yuccas and agaves, can tolerate hot afternoon sun in summer east of (Interstate) 15,” Baldwin said. Other succulents — which she calls “the pretty little ones,” (mainly from South Africa and Madagascar), do best with half-day sun or dappled shade.
For people who want to switch to a drought-tolerant landscape, Baldwin suggests working with a designer well versed in succulents.
If you’re doing it on your own, you might want to wait until the tenth anniversary, celebratory second edition of “Designing with Succulents” comes out this fall. “So much has happened in the world of succulent design during the past decade, the second edition is basically a brand-new book,” Baldwin said. “Just wait until you see the photos! Luscious.”
In the meantime, if you’re new to succulents or would like to refresh your knowledge, Baldwin’s “Succulents Simplified” gives a good overview of the plants’ care and uses, as well as her top 100 favorite succulents — all of which thrive in North County gardens.
While these plants may like it dry, Baldwin’s writing style is anything but.
“My goal is to share words and images that are as entertaining as they are enlightening,” she said. Not one to let grass grow under her feet (pun intended), she’s continually writing articles, updating her website, and creating videos dedicated to succulent varieties, cultivation and design.
“I’m primarily a communicator, and I believe the most efficient (certainly the most popular) way to convey information is by video,” she said. Evidently the public agrees — her YouTube channel has had more than 2 million views.
Baldwin also recommends books by long-time succulent expert and designer Jeff Moore, available at his nursery, Solana Succulents, in Solana Beach.
Learn more about succulents and Baldwin at debraleebaldwin.com.