Debra Lee Baldwin’s Designing with Succulents

A Juicy Topic

It’s fun to read books written by people who are recently converted to a subject. Their enthusiasm is palpable-it tends to leap off the page. Designing with Succulents is one such book. During the first week of June, Santa Barbarans have two opportunities to meet the book’s author, Debra Lee Baldwin, and possibly to catch some of her infectious enthusiasm for her topic.

Baldwin has clearly fallen in love with growing species from this large and varied group of plants. Less than 10 years ago, in mid winter, she visited a garden in Fallbrook, California, that changed her way of gardening. This garden was “lush and colorful, despite its decomposed granite soil and lack of automatic irrigation,” while hers “consisted of pruned, leafless rosebushes; brown-leafed cannas; and perennials that had been cut to the ground.” Baldwin went in search of succulents to transform her garden. Designing with Succulents is her guide to doing the same in yours. Her thorough coverage of the subject and loads of luscious photographs are sure to inspire.

Succulents are perfect plants for Southern California gardens. They store water in their leaves, stems, and/or roots for months at time if need be to tide them over until the next rains. This adaptation occurs in many different plant families, which means that there is a great diversity of different forms to choose from. Most people will think of the cactus family right off the bat, but there are succulent plants in the geranium, cucumber, sweet potato, and grape families, to name just a few others. From tree-like aloes and euphorbias to the large, leafy rosettes of aeoniums and diminutive groundcovers like sedums with leaves as small as grains of rice, there are succulents for every situation.

Because of their thick stems and succulent leaves, many succulents are very sculptural. Examples include the swollen bases of Beaucarnea species, which resemble boulders but are topped with a pom-pom of thin leaves; some Agave species may have stiff, pointed leaves with impressive spines or softer, spineless ones in bold rosettes; Lithops look like the stones they grow among; and Senecio mandraliscae resembles blue sticks of chalk.

Succulents also come in many shades. There are greens of every hue, reds from the palest pink to the deepest rust, purples so dark they are nearly black, ghostly whites and silvery blues. Many are splashed or striped with contrasting colors; black on green, pink on gray, or yellow on emerald. Such stunning specimens work well alone or in combination with each other and with other drought-tolerant plants, and they can serve as either backdrop or stars of the show.

In Designing with Succulents, Baldwin concentrates on how to design with and cultivate succulents in a variety of situations. The book covers everything, with chapters ranging from “Planning and Designing Your Garden,” which details soil and sun considerations, basics of garden design, and water needs, to “Plant Care and Propagation,” which has information on weed control (Baldwin advocates organic pre-emergent treatment before planting), propagating plants, and pests to watch for. Of use for many homeowners in our area is a section on “Landscaping for Fire Safety” in a chapter on “Themed and Specialty Gardens.” “Pots, Wreaths and Container Gardens” has ideas for containers of all types, and even shows how to create a succulent-stuffed topiary in any shape. And that is only in Part One. Part Two has three chapters containing detailed descriptions of hundreds of succulent plants, plus a chapter that does the same for 90 companion plants that require only the same easy care as succulents.

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The Santa Barbara Horticultural Society hosts Debra Lee Baldwin on Wednesday, June 4, at 7 p.m. in the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery. Admission is free. On Saturday, June 7, at 2 p.m., she will showcase many of the succulent plants available for our gardens at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Registration is required and admission is $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers. Baldwin will be signing her books at both events.

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