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By Susi Torre-Bueno.

Debra Lee Baldwin

Every year, the SDHS honors a local luminary of the horticulture community for their significant contribution to horticulture in the San Diego area. This year, we’re delighted to honor lifetime member Debra Lee Baldwin as our Horticulturist of the Year. Many members know Debra for her enormous contribution in popularizing the ecologically responsible (and beautiful) use of succulents in the garden. Multitalented Debra writes with an evocative and nuanced vocabulary, paints richly hued lifelike watercolors, takes vibrant photographs, gardens with enthusiasm, and shares all her passions through books, lectures, videos, and social media. Learn more about Debra from her website (, especially the “About Debra” section, which outlines her background and accomplishments.

I had the good fortune to join Debra in her Escondido garden in early April, where we shared the scrumptious and colorful lunch she had prepared before strolling through her vibrant garden. Debra has recently finished work on the completely revised second edition of “Designing with Succulents,” which she’ll have available when she speaks at our October meeting. We discussed:

How did the love of plants you got as a child set the seeds that grew into your ongoing wish to share and educate people about plants and nature?

My father, an accountant, also was a rancher and naturalist. We often discussed insects, birds, reptiles, plants, the seasons, and the stars. But it wasn’t until the ‘80s when working with Peter Jensen, then editor of San Diego Home/Garden magazine, that I realized the positive difference a garden journalist can make.

If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what can you imagine yourself involved in?

I’m intrigued by what motivates people and how they interact, so I might become trained as a therapist or Marriage and Family Counselor.

What do you look for when adding a new plant to your garden, and why?

I’ve gardened on a half-acre in the foothills north of Escondido for a quarter century, continually adding plants. At first it was all about “Where will it do well?” which resulted in a visual mish-mash. Now, a new plant has to be practical, beautiful, and enhance sight lines.

For the last ten years, you have been enormously successful at sharing your love of succulents and promoting their use in the garden. If you weren’t living in San Diego County, with its wealth of succulent growers and hobbyists, do you think you’d still be so enamored with this plant group?

In a less hospitable region, I probably wouldn’t grow many succulents in my garden. I do think, though, that I’ll always have succulents as potted plants—wonderful specimens arrayed in one-of-a-kind, art pots.

Is there another group of plants (besides succulents) that you think has similar potential and that should be used more in gardens, particularly here in San Diego County?

I think bromeliads and furcraeas are underutilized in coastal landscapes, and most gardens would benefit from the addition of natives.

Does the fact that most succulents are so incredibly easy to propagate (for yourself or to share with others) make it harder for nurseries to sell these plants?

Not significantly.

Do nurseries have to keep a large inventory of many different species and cultivars in stock to satisfy the demand?

It depends on their target market. A large nursery’s most lucrative customers are commercial properties and landscapers shopping for clients’ gardens. For both, tried-and-true plants tend to be the norm.

We keep seeing new cultivars introduced nearly every month – do you think that pace will continue?


Do you see some older varieties declining in use as newer choices come along?

I hope so, because certain common older varieties can be poor choices. (See my video What You MUST Know About Century Plants at

Which succulent species or cultivars of would you encourage people to use more of, and why?

Consider using large agaves that don’t pup (like A. ovatifolia and A. guiengola); aeoniums that stay compact and don’t form tall, ungainly trunks (shrub-forming A. haworthia, for example, and A. ‘Kiwi’); echeverias that withstand the rigors of the open garden (like E. agavoides, E. imbricata, and E. ‘Sahara’); spineless or near-spineless opuntias (which make a great backdrop, hedge and/or firebreak, are edible, and get by on rainfall alone); large aloes with tall, glorious flower spikes (such as A. speciosa, A. vanbalenii, and A. ferox); small aloes that are mound-forming over time (such as A. nobilis and A. brevifolia); tree succulents (such as Beaucarnea recurvata, Dracaena draco, Aloe ‘Hercules’, Pachypodium lamerei, and yuccas); cacti that look gorgeous backlit (golden barrels, silver torches); jade cultivars with interesting leaves (‘Hobbit’, ‘Gollum’, ‘Tricolor’, ‘Hummel’s Sunset’); dasylirions and hesperaloes (desert plants with slender, upright leaves and fountainlike shapes); new ice plant cultivars in eye-popping colors; Othonna capensis (a good ground cover and cascader for terraces and containers); Peperomia graveolens ‘Ruby’ (a shade succulent that stays red); variegated elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’), and shrub sedums of all sorts.

What three things about succulents do you still find surprising?

Their longevity as cuttings or rootless plants, the exquisite symmetry of rotund cacti and euphorbias, and the intriguing bud imprints (scalloped patterns) on agave leaves.

If you could give a gardener new to succulents one piece of advice, what would it be?

Browse my website’s FAQs and articles; visit my YouTube channel, and obtain my book, “Succulents Simplified,” which was written with the novice in mind.

Plant enthusiasms change over time, and years ago every home seemed to have at least some roses. In the last decade or two magazines have been showcasing the meadow look, with grasses (and other plants) used in a naturalistic way. Southern California has seen the movement away from water-guzzling lawns in favor of less thirsty plantings. Any predictions for what comes next, and why?

OK! You heard it here first:

Lawns won’t return, except perhaps as no-mow meadows, and time-intensive poodled shrubs will disappear. The word “waterwise,” which currently defines the correct way to garden, will be replaced by a term that acknowledges the land and its potential, perhaps “naturewise.” It’ll still be OK to let a lawn die, but not to leave precious terrain barren. Productive yards will take precedence over the merely pretty, and small will be no exception. Milkweed will be a must-have, and the monarch butterfly, now facing extinction, will resurge.

Forward-thinking landscape designers will launch divisions of gardeners who understand how to maintain yards that lack hedges and lawns. (Succulent gardens need maintaining seasonally, or at least three times a year. Mow-and-blow gardeners prefer weekly or monthly clients, and therefore tend not to be interested.)

Visionary designers and creative gardeners will innovate a new, minimalist style of landscape, one that comes to define Southern California, and that will be hailed as “the ultimate no-water, no-maintenance garden.” Keynotes will be Southwest succulents with simple lines and sculptural shapes: yuccas, hesperaloes, dasylirions, dudleyas, agaves, and cacti.

Long a pariah plant, cacti will come into its own. Large varieties that are spherical, cylindrical, or spineless will be in demand. Focal-point gardens of cacti prized for their translucent spines will be showcased in rocky, elevated beds and positioned so the plants are haloed by early morning or late afternoon sun.

This New Southern California Garden will also incorporate low-water, Old World succulents such as Euphorbia ammak, Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’, blue senecio, colorful jades, ice plants, and shrub aeoniums. Rocks of every sort, from pea gravel to immense boulders, will occupy half or more of newly installed landscapes. No worries: These will look nothing like the cliché gravel gardens of midcentury tracts or desert gardens typical of Tucson!

Because flat gardens will be seen as boring and unnatural, yards will be sculpted with berms, swales, dry streambeds, and pathways paved with flagstone and stabilized DG.

People who have assumed they could plunk a few free succulents in the ground and topdress the rest with gravel will, over the next decade, be overwhelmed by enormous Agave americanas that are hazardous and expensive to remove and, if encroaching on streets and sidewalks, a liability. Agave snout weevil is a wild card---if uncontrolled, it could remove currently popular but susceptible species from our region’s gardens and nurseries.

Sun shades of technologically advanced, all-weather fabric will be in every new garden, especially east of I-15. (The shades provide an ideal microclimate by diffusing strong light and providing frost protection. Moreover, they don’t drop leaves.)

With many people erroneously believing that our water woes are over due to the recent rains, interest in more thirsty gardens may arise—those lush with roses, tropicals, and edibles. Regardless, demand will increase for every sort of food-producing plant because homeowners in their 30s and 40s no longer trust commercial suppliers and want to know exactly what they—and their children—are eating.

Dwarf and multi-grafted fruit trees and raised vegetable beds will be commonplace. Professional “home farmers” will create and tend the organic vegetable beds and chicken coops of the well-heeled. Growing unusual varieties from seed catalogs will be bragged about, recipes for such oddities shared on social media, and tasting parties held at harvest time.

Blending such trends will be increased awareness of edible and herbal succulents, such as Aloe vera, cacti grown for its fruit (including vining dragon fruit), nopales, yucca petals, chalk lettuce (Dudleya edulis), and possibly peyote (if voters approve it!).

Photo: Saxon Holt

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