Debra Lee Baldwin
Succulent Plant Maven and Author
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.
Are you a Gardener and Plant Person?
You need these downloadable guides in your library:
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.
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?
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?
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 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?
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.
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.
recommended Timber Press, the largest publisher of gardening books in
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
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?
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?
a fulfilling life centered around family, but also continuing to enjoy
my niche as an expert in succulents, encouraging and mentoring gardeners