Sept./Oct. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos courtesy of Debra Lee Baldwin
Gardens save work and water
More online: See a succulent slideshow or find a succulent garden in your area
Garden expert Debra Lee Baldwin says succulents offer home gardeners many options for creating ornamental landscapes that are lush and inviting. They also can be water efficient and fire retardant.
It wasn't exactly love at first sight—what with the thorns and wild sea-monster shapes—but garden writer Debra Lee Baldwin said she quickly succumbed to the charms of succulent gardens. The range of shapes and colors offered by these easy-to-grow plants won her heart.
Since her initial encounter with a well-designed succulent garden more than 15 years ago, she has become a succulent gardening expert, with three books on growing and designing with the eye-catching plants, including "Designing with Succulents."
Baldwin wants to make one thing clear as she rattles off facts and design ideas faster than a trowel through sandy soil: A succulent garden is not a cactus garden. Take a look, she urges, because the options are surprising.
Succulents provide numerous choices when establishing or transitioning to a low-maintenance and low-water-use garden, she said.
They grow slowly, thrive in "lean" soils and do especially well in Mediterranean climates such as California, where drought cycles are common. And they require little care.
Best of all, Baldwin said, "They're cool to look at and collect. They grow well in containers and add year-round color and interest in any garden."
With more than 400 varieties, succulents offer a ranch of sizes, colors and shapes for creating "compositions," such as the faux lily pond above, which includes flowering succulents, rocks and decorative glass pebbles to mimic the look of water.
Whether fashion trend or survival tactic, there's a growing interest in succulents across the U.S., Baldwin said, "because when people replace lawns, it's often in front of their house and what goes in there needs to be attractive from the street."
Her own garden in the foothills outside San Diego—the site of workshops, photo shoots and an endless parade of admiring guests—offers dozens of succulent varieties in composed plantings, with traditional ornamental plants and shrubs interspersed. Baldwin's award-winning garden has been featured in a number of publications, including "Sunset" and "Better Homes & Gardens."
"It's a blessing of the 21st century—and one we take for granted—that beautiful garden plants from around the world can be so easily incorporated into California gardens," she said. "Nearly all succulents are non-invasive, but there are a few, some ice plant varieties, for example, that can invade native landscapes. Check with local garden experts to avoid problems."
To meet increasing demand, a growing number of California commercial plant nurseries specialize in popular and exotic succulents for ornamental gardens and public landscapes. Baldwin works closely with local commercial growers to select plants for her own garden and to spot the latest varieties and trends.
But what is a succulent? Baldwin explains it's a plant that survives drought by storing water in its leaves, stems or roots. In California, they grow best in areas that enjoy marine influences, but can be grown successfully in most of the state's microclimates—with a little know-how.
Many people think of succulents as desert plants, but Ernesto Sandoval, director of the University of California, Davis, Botanical Conservatory, says they have a much broader range.
Photo courtesy of Ernesto Sandoval, University of California, Davis, Botanical Conservatory director
"There are a number of succulents that can handle colder temperatures, and overall they definitely have a place in California," he said. "Southern California has advantages when it comes to the succulent palette, but many do well in Northern California."
Succulents are proving their hardiness, he said, noting many of those collected and planted at the university's conservatory have survived a number of hard freezes. There also are succulent varieties native to California and more than 50 varieties that grow well in areas where temperatures drop below zero.
Neglect them, and chances are they'll be fine, Baldwin said, adding that succulents—like any garden plant—fare better with regular watering, good soil and sunshine. But even with minimal care, succulents are hardy.
She outlines the basics for designing succulent gardens: Match plants to the scale and proportion of the garden space; use repetition to create visual continuity; consider shape and color contrasts; provide areas of emphasis to attract the eye; and add texture with variation of rough, smooth and shiny plant surfaces.
Baldwin and Sandoval are big fans of succulent display gardens that show mature plants in creative and established combinations. The gardens can provide beginners and experienced gardeners with design ideas and indicate how plants will fill out over time.
Sandoval also emphasizes the importance of the soil: Heavy soils that retain water aren't good for shallow-rooted succulents that require good drainage. He recommends staying away from adding organic matter to soil because it breaks down and adds soil weight.
"If possible, it's best to amend soil with fine-ground rock; lava rock is the best," he said.
The majority of succulents are winter dormant and require less water during the cooler months—maybe every few weeks, Sandoval said. In summer months, the plants should be watered every couple of weeks, depending on heat and humidity.
"My advice is, don't be afraid to get started with succulents," he said. "They're excellent for decreasing the watering needs of gardens and they offer real beauty.
"On top of that, the flowers are a bonus," Sandoval continued. "They attract pollinators and hummingbirds, while adding spectacular splashes of color."
Baldwin, whose garden is at 1,500 feet elevation with temperatures ranging from freezing to 110 degrees, points out that in hot, dry climates, succulents thrive with in-ground, automatic irrigation systems, particularly when integrating succulents into existing plantings.
Droughts are cyclical, she said, "and I don't think we're going to see a time when we have an overabundance of water. In the West, we'll always have to think about conserving."
In places that experience drenching rainstorms or frost, containers may be the solution, she said, because "containers are portable. Even large plants can be wheeled away and sheltered."
When rethinking a garden—not just because of drought, but because gardens need facelifts from time to time—it's important to be creative and practical, Baldwin said.
"One intriguing way to design with succulents is to work with themes: Create a garden that resembles a coral reef, or build streams between plantings with decorative glass, weave a tapestry of color, build a labyrinth," she suggested.
Baldwin's own garden offers cacti with leaves sculpted to look like dancers and shooting stars, and artistic displays of miniature villages nestled in plant beds and pots. A stroll through her succulent garden makes it clear: It's designed to delight the visitor and gardener alike.