Blood, Mud and Joy: Debra’s Succulent Garden Redo

– Posted in: Succulents

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As I sailed past him one mild January day, trowel in hand, I announced to my husband Jeff my intent to stay home this spring instead of going on tour. “I’m done with delayed flights and sleeping in airports,” I said. “I’m going to have people come here instead.”

I quickly realized the garden needed a LOT of work. It reflected every plant flirtation I’d ever had, and not in a good way. Strappy-leaved perennials blocked views of statuesque agaves. Unpruned roses rambled into aloes. Ivy, Mexican evening primrose, centranthus and babiana (a South African bulb) had gone feral. The auto irrigation system insisted on overwatering certain areas and leaving others bone dry. Day after day I dove into the garden, often spending hours on a few square feet.

My gardener, accustomed to working solo during his biweekly visits, was clearly puzzled at how nit-pickey I’d become. Suddenly La  Señora hovered like an angry helicopter. “No lineas direchas!” (no straight lines) I snarled, catching him arranging nursery plants in tidy rows. When traps he set came up empty, I sighed with exasperation and caught three gophers myself. “Don’t do anything I can do,” I explained in imperfect Spanish. “You’re stronger than I am, so no weeding and sweeping. Por favor, place those boulders for me.” When I didn’t like how they looked, he moved them to a different location without complaint. (The man’s a saint. As is Jeff, who had gone into hiding.)

The thing is, I’m a garden photojournalist, not a landscape designer. Words, camera and computer are my primary tools. I understand the inner workings of great succulent gardens because I’ve researched, described and photographed many. I never doubted I could transform my half-acre into a succulent showplace. However, I lack speed. I contemplate how something might be improved, then I experiment, stand back, and tweak or redo it. Did I mention that the garden had to be perfect? People hold authors to a higher standard. But I wanted more than perfection. I wanted innovation.

Innovation means you reach deep inside and pull out creativity you didn’t know you had. It’s risky. Sometimes your guts come with it. Yet more and more (at least for me), so does a pleasure so visceral it defies description. Pretty soon, all I wanted was to be outdoors. By sunset I was mud-smeared, with catkins in my hair and bloody scratches from a cactus so astonishingly purple I had to have it, even though it’s a mean little thing.

Oaks that arch over an expanse of flagstone—a newly installed gathering area—seemed intent on concealing it. Consequently, I was devastated when my grown son came down with a cold and postponed adding electricity to the lower garden (his Christmas gift to me). I needed it for my new leaf blower—a sopladora de hojas. When at last I plugged it in, leaves flew upward like locusts and descended on a new succulent tapestry. I thought about the literal translation of sopladora—“that which blows, incites or inflames”– as I attempted to harness the 150 mile-per-hour blast.

Late every afternoon I observed with dismay the slow goldening of surrounding hills. For once, I welcomed Daylight Savings Time. When the faint clink of neighbors’ silverware made me realize I was hungry, I pulled sweet-tart tangerines from my tree. The streetlight’s awakening was the definitive signal to quit, yet there was always something essential still to do. My night vision improved. I lost weight, gained muscle tone and acquired mysterious bruises. I rediscovered how marvelous a mosquito bite feels when scratched. I looked in the mirror and saw my mother, who seemed older than I remembered. Jeff noticed it too and asked, “Are you sure this is less stressful than traveling?”

Admittedly, I was ambivalent. I was having a ball, but also worried I wouldn’t finish in time. Offering tours and workshops had shoved me out of my comfort zone, yet had served as a catalyst. Nothing motivates a journalist like deadlines.

And people indeed were coming. Three months after the process had begun, on the eve of the spiffed-up garden’s debut, the streetlight revealed La Señora shoveling desert-hued decomposed granite onto remaining bare spots. The moon was full (and no doubt the neighbors relieved) when the leaf blower’s intense purr gave way to the distant, maniacal yips of coyotes. As I left my shoes at the back door, it dawned on me that I, too, am a sopladora. I fling things, make noise, incite, inflame and, despite missteps, eventually make a clean sweep. Most importantly, I had transformed my garden into three-dimensional art and another form of communication: Whether in books, photos, articles or presentations—and now my own garden—my goal always has been to entertain and enlighten in equal measure.

I guess it’s how I define joy.

I’ll share more about my garden’s transformation in future posts. Modesty aside, I think you’ll find it succulent. ;+)

Debra's garden

Interested in attending an event in my garden (near San Diego)? Find more info on my website. Or email me:


Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
8 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Fran sorin April 7, 2015, 5:31 am

i was so excited – and happy for you- while reading your post. Welcome to the world of being a hands-on passionate, crazy gardener. No doubt that the garden I saw (and thought was pretty darn good) a year and a half ago has been transformed into a succulent showplace. Can’t wait to see more photos.

Lisa at Greenbow April 7, 2015, 6:16 am

Nothing like a garden tour to kick a gardener into gear. I am sure your garden is fabulous just like your writing. I hope you get to enjoy it some.

Kate kruesi April 7, 2015, 8:50 am

great description of transformation: yours, your garden’s and your home team. Sopladora. I like this concept, too!

Sandra Dixon April 8, 2015, 1:11 pm

Absolutely beautiful garden and your article was very descriptive. I could feel the leaves falling all around me. And a walk on the garden was delightful.

megan nygren April 9, 2015, 10:03 am

Thank you for sharing this! What a well-written article. You continue to inspire!

Candice Suter April 9, 2015, 10:37 pm

Your article made me laugh. There is so much joy in your description of events. I can’t wait to see the garden and take a million photos (if ok) and do a blog post.

Noreen Fenton April 15, 2015, 4:32 am

I am soooo looking forward to seeing the results of your hard work. I know the feeling when you just want to keep going. It’s almost like you are at war with your garden….”the battle of the Garden redo”. You fight until you can’t fight any longer, then rest and go to battle again! It sure feels great to stand back and admire the reconstructed war zone when peace is at hand!

Matt April 15, 2015, 7:33 pm

What an inspiring article and beautiful job. Thanks

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