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Debra Lee Baldwin

Sub-Region: Southern California Coastal, Inland
State: California
Business: Garden Photojournalist & Author

Biographical Information

Please tell us briefly about your favorite cause/business/product in which you are involved that you would like to share with the general public and why.
My desire is to awaken public awareness to the beauty and practicality of gardening with succulents. My two books are Designing with Succulents (2007) and Succulent Container Gardens (2010) both from Timber Press. Release. I also offer a Plant Palette CD through my website; it offers photos (all different from those in the book) of the best succulents for residential landscapes and containers, each labeled with their botanical and common name if available.

Where can members get more of your advice?
Visit my websites, read my books and blog, follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@DebraLBaldwin). Meet me in person when I give a presentation in your area.

Background Information

Briefly describe the climate where you garden now (climate zone, state, area) and any other areas where you have gardened in the past.
My garden is in Escondido, CA, USDA Zone 9, Sunset Zone 21.

How long have you been gardening?
20 years.

What triggered your interest?
Moving into a home with a 1/2 acre garden that needed a lot of work. It was a hobby at first, and then I decided to combine work and pleasure (I already was a writer, specializing in home-related topics).

What is your specialty, expertise or claim to fame?
My books, primarily. My niche is succulent plants and using them to create beautiful gardens and container compositions.

 Debra's Book Recommendations

Designing with Succulents
I wrote this book at the suggestion of my editor at Sunset magazine. It shows the plants in landscape and container applications, and is for home gardeners and designers as well as succulent enthusiasts.

Succulents Container Gardens
(Coming January 2010: Preorder Now!)This book is ideal for space-constrained gardeners who want to create lovely compositions for patios and balconies. Anyone, anywhere can grow and enjoy these remarkable plants in containers, which are portable and can be overwintered indoors.

Succulents for the Contemporary Garden
Author Yvonne Cave is a New Zealand horticulturist and photographer; her book shows the beauty of succulents.

Sunset Western Garden Book
This is the bible of Western gardening - easy to read and use. The 2007 edition is bigger and better than ever.

  Debra's Favorite Websites

Cactus and Succulent Society of America

The Cactus Mall
A compendium of succulent nurseries and information sources

Timber Press

What formal education do you have?
BA, English Literature

What formal horticultural training do you have?
I've interviewed experts and done extensive research on every topic I've written about, and have learned from hand's-on experience.

What is your favorite garden or plant-related topic? Tell us a little about them.
Succulents, because no other plants have such dynamic, architectural shapes, nor are so well suited to drought-prone regions.

What is your biggest gardening pet peeve? Tell us about it.
I'll never forget what Christopher Lloyd observed to me when he visited San Diego: "It's remarkable how little you do with what you've got." He was referring to the boring sameness of front yard landscapes, with tightly pruned shrubs, lawns and flowerbeds. Here in Southern California, we can grow anything from tropicals to desert plants...yet we blandly follow an East Coast aesthetic.

How much time per week do you spend gardening?
Three or four hours. I used to spend around 20, but the demands of my schedule are such that I've cut back.

How much time per week do you spend working at the business of gardening, such as consulting, reading, writing or talking about your gardening subject?
I work full time doing just that.

What gardening or horticultural clubs, societies, or organizations (or any other interest) do you belong to?
San Diego Horticultural Society, Garden Writers Association, Cactus & Succulent Society of America, San Diego Press Club

What other biographical information would you like to share?
I'm grateful to my husband Jeff, a systems analyst who provides an environment with endless creative opportunities, and invaluable technical support.

Gardening Questions

What do you like most about gardening?
The creative process of deciding what to plant where.

What do you dislike most about gardening?
The tedious stuff, like pulling weeds.

What individual has influenced your gardening interest the most? How?
Patrick Anderson, a Huntington Botanical Gardens volunteer who created a world-class succulent garden in Fallbrook, CA. When I interviewed him for the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1999, he opened my eyes to the landscape potential of succulents. Patrick since has advised me countless times -- and graciously helped with my books.

What is your favorite place or activity in the garden?
In spring, I invite friends to come and bring a vase. We walk through the garden and pick whichever flowers they like best, to take home. (I grow many roses and perennials in addition to succulents.) This is especially fun to do with children. It's an experience they remember, and I hope someday will inspire them to have their own gardens.

What is your favorite time in the garden?
Late in the day, in summer, when it cools off just right.

What is your favorite public or private garden in the world? Why?
Thanks to my work, I have been fortunate to visit many outstanding public and private gardens. It's hard to pick a favorite -- so many have such wonderful features. I'll never forget seeing Butchart for the first time, when I was 20. It was so beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes, and I exclaimed, "This is what Heaven must be like!" Lately, I've been delighted by succulent gardens designed by Michael Buckner (like the new one at the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon), because he juxtaposes brilliant leaf colors, and doesn't rely on flowers. Jeff Moore, owner of Solana Succulents, also is wonderfully talented; the undersea succulent garden he and landscaper Bill Teague created for Quail Botanical Gardens is world-class.

What is your favorite color in the garden?
I like hot colors -- red and orange -- but I'd have to say pale blue, as in blue-leaved Agave franzosinii and Senecio mandraliscae.

If you could grow only one plant, what would it be?
The ideal ornamental, which looks good in the ground as well as solo in pots, is Agave americana medio picta 'Alba' -- it's cream and blue-gray striped, and its shape resembles a fountain. Thomas Hobbs, author of The Jewel Box Garden calls them "the Tiffany of agaves...and my garden's crown jewels." My favorite edible is the 'Satsuma' mandarin. The fruit is sweet and delicious, and it produces so prolifically in mid-winter, I give it away in holiday gift bags. Mandarins also are good for juicing, and give you a Vitamin-C boost during cold and flu season. And the trees stay manageably small.

What plant have you tried to grow that has given you the most trouble? Or, what plant would you like to grow and can't, and why?
Fuchsias come to mind because they're miserable inland, where temperatures get too hot and too cold. But basically, I don't bother with plants that are difficult. Bougainvillea is another one, because I love its brilliant, mounding masses of color. But it gets too cold here.

What is your favorite gardening outfit or costume?
Cotton T-shirt, Levis, leather gloves and high-top Reeboks (which they don't make anymore) with minimal tread for mud to cake in.

Do you have a gardening philosophy you would like to share with other gardeners? What is it?
I believe gardens resonate with us so deeply because they are a reminder of Eden and a promise of Heaven.

Who is your own favorite gardening personality on TV, radio or in print? Why?
My editor at Sunset magazine, Kathleen Brenzel, has edited numerous Sunset books, including several editions of the Western Garden Book. She is brilliant and dedicated -- and will be remembered long after she retires for shaping the way we garden here in the West. Her eye for good design and her knowledge of plants are unsurpassed. And she's a lovely person, too!

What is the one question about gardening you would really like people to ask you?
Why succulents?

And what's the answer?
Succulents offer a sophisticated aesthetic, and gardening benefits that are both practical and ecological. Grow them with companion plants with similar needs, and the design possibilities are endless.

What is a garden myth you hear frequently which you know is untrue?
A succulent garden is the same as a dry desert garden.

And, what is the reality?
All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Dozens of varieties of soft-leaved succulents range from immense tree aloes to tiny-leaved groundcovers. These low-maintenance, waterwise plants can be used to create lush gardens, and unlike cacti, combine easily with perennials.

What group or kind of person do you think would benefit most from the advice you can give on gardening?
My book, Designing with Succulents, targets a readership similar to that of Sunset magazine -- new and experienced gardeners who want to move beyond traditional lawn-and-flowerbed landscapes. Moreover anyone, anywhere can grow succulents in pots; my book Succulent Container Gardens includes hundreds of appealing and creative design ideas.

Would you like to participate, or can you recommend someone who you think should? We're always looking for more expert gardeners to tell about their philosophies and give their plant recommendations contact us and we'll get started (it's easy and a great way to promote yourself).

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