Garden Designers Roundtable: The Suggestion of Water

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

These vignettes suggest water—flowing, tumbling, cascading, splashing or dripping water—yet there is none. Each illustrates the ingenuity of a garden designer in the dry, hot Southwest, where water is scarce. Yet the same concept, of creating the look of water, might apply to any garden.

In this composition, by Akana Designs for the San Diego County Fair, dry-climate plants look like wet ones. Aeonium canariense—which like all succulents stores moisture in fleshy leaves in order to survive drought—appears to float downstream like water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes).

Also at the Fair, rattail cactus (Aporocactus flagelliformis) cascades over the edge of a dry fountain.  This composition and the one below are by Jim Bishop of Bishop Garden Design, San Diego.

String-of-pearls (Senecio rowleyanus) simulates water droplets.

A birdbath at California Cactus Center in Pasadena has Aeonium tabuliforme lily pads and Echeveria ‘Perle von Nurnberg’ water lilies.

Not only are dry creek beds easier to maintain than water features, during a rainstorm, such arroyos can channel water into the garden. Here, Schnetz Landscape of Escondido, CA, used several sizes of rock spaced unevenly, to give the creek bed a natural look. Note, too, how rounded rock (which looks like it has been tumbled by water) lines the meandering course. Along the banks grow dwarf agaves, aloes and the tough-as-nails groundcover, dymondia.

In this whimsical composition, Michael Buckner of San Diego’s Plant Man Nursery used yuccas that resemble tropical palms. Originally positioned sideways, the yuccas have turned upward, thereby lending character and a sense of motion. Their highly textural, shingled bark is a result of pruning downward-pointing leaves.

And in a dry stream bed at the San Diego Botanic Garden, drought-tolerant ornamental grasses spray skyward as they collide with boulder-like barrel cacti.

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified. 

Please leave a comment, if you like, then follow the links below to find out what other design-oriented garden bloggers have to say and show on the topic of water.

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold : Atlanta, GA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Jenny Peterson : J Peterson Garden Design : Austin TX

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA



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
18 comments… add one

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Susan in the Pink Hat July 25, 2011, 12:37 pm

The problem with all the dry gardening suggestions made here is that they are suited to one type of climate, namely the desert southwest. There is a large portion of the country where it is just as dry but has to contend with subzero winters. Yet sophisticated design for this region is constantly overlooked. Where are the suggestions for the desert steppes?

Hi, Susan — Indeed, we do need a blogger who is an expert in desert gardening. Are you familiar with landscape designer Scott Calhoun? He’s a wonderful writer and his books and website offer great ideas for gardening in extreme conditions. — Debra

Freda Cameron July 25, 2011, 2:45 pm

Your book, Succulent Container Gardens (I reviewed has been such a game-changer for me. Since reviewing your books, I’ve been changing out my containers with permanent plantings of succulents and other drought-tolerant plants (juniper, lavender, rosemary) and even converted our gravel guest parking and the surrounding garden and dry stream into one contiguous gravel garden. In our 100 degree days with little rain, the plants in my gravel garden and the containers have not required additional watering like the rest of my plantings. My hollies, crepe myrtles, buddleia, etc. are all happier being mulched with gravel. THANK YOU!

Hi, Freda — I’m blushing. Thank YOU for letting me know that all the effort I put into my books was worthwhile. I’m so pleased you found them useful. Btw, I love the phrase “gravel garden.” Hm. Sounds like a great topic for a blog post ;+) — Debra

Jenny Peterson July 26, 2011, 8:16 am

Debra, that blue birdbath with the “water lilies” has long been a favorite of mine since I fist saw it in your book. It’s just stunning. And I’m with you! River rock beds that suggest water are a feature I use in many of my designs. Gorgeous!

Thanks, Jenny! I love the suggestions on your excellent GDR post on water, too. The disappearing pond is fabulous! — Debra

Christina Salwitz July 26, 2011, 12:00 pm

Debra- that blue birdbath is to die for! Lovely post of course. 🙂

Thanks, Christina! You did a fabulous job on your “water” post, too! — Debra

Ivette Soler (GERMI) July 26, 2011, 12:46 pm

Oh DEBRA!!! Thank you SO MUCH for this posting! I was stuck on a client’s design, and you have just given me the inspiration to take it over the top! You are always so chock full of the real deal – I swear, the garden world is so lucky to have you as our Succulent Empress! (and of course, the double entendre is very intended)

Hi, Germi — Are you saying I’m juicy? Good to hear—as I get older, I seem to get more desiccated, glad it isn’t showing (ha). Thank you, dear one, for your over-the-top enthusiasm. Hugs, Debra

tara dillard July 26, 2011, 3:00 pm

DEBRA !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Not only do you suggest you contrast. Subtle & sublime.

A shout with silence.

And the pics are magic.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

Hi, Tara — And you speak volumes in snippets of poetry. It’s a pleasure to hear from you. — Debra

Alice's Garden Travel Buzz July 26, 2011, 3:18 pm

What fun to make the rounds of the ‘Roundtable’…

I’m particularly taken with succulents that rain down,

and love the look of a beautifully planted dry creek bed!

Hi, Alice — Yes, dripping succulents. Who would have thought? I love the irony. — Debra

Robert Webber July 26, 2011, 3:18 pm

Yes, love the suggestion idea. The dry stream especially. Sumthing very appealing about the idea of a watercourse changing volume so dramatically – room for the imagination i guess!
thanks so much for this
best wishes

Hi, Robert — It’s amazing how our imaginations fill in the gaps, isn’t it? Very glad you liked the post! — Debra

Jocelyn/the art garden July 26, 2011, 4:48 pm

Wonderful idea to focus on water illusions!! (And, of course, the ideas presented here can be adapted to other climates with the appropriate plant material.) The “yucca as palm tree” is a new one for me, and the older I get the more I appreciate whimsy in the garden.
Thank you so much for participating today, Debra!

Thanks, Jocelyn. I love whimsy, which defies defining. I think of it as something that makes a garden a place of discovery, delight and adventure. It makes adults children again, intrigued by what they’re seeing. I’m glad you like those bizarre yuccas, too! — Debra

Rebecca Sweet July 26, 2011, 5:39 pm

What a delightful, delightful post! The very first photo is probably my favorite – so simple, yet thirst quenching at the same time! Brilliant photos and writing to boot. Thanks, Debra!!

Rebecca, you always make me feel so special and appreciated. Thank YOU! — Debra

Debbie/GardenofPossibilities July 26, 2011, 5:51 pm

Debra, Thanks for joining us on the Roundtable this month, we are so honored you accepted our invite. Like so many others, I am in love with the little blue birdbath and the water lilies. It is so easily transferable to basically any zone someone gardens in. Who wouldn’t love having a little ‘water’ garden, even if just for the summer?

Hi, Debbie — Everyone has made me feel so welcome! It’s an honor to participate in GDR. I do love the birdbath/lily pond, so much in fact, different versions of it made it into both my books! Thanks for stopping by. — Debra

Candy Suter July 26, 2011, 9:56 pm

Hi Debra!

At one point I tried to make a bed next to a fence by my gazebo into a ocean scene. It looked pretty good with all kinds of beautiful succulents. Crassula’s that looked like coral and firestick for example. I even potted some large shells with small succulents. But here in Roseville, CA we definitely get some freezing weather in the winter. Even with cover I lost the giant firestick and different crassulas. So I’m trying again and looking for more sturdier succulents. I have already planted two birdbaths and I just love them. They are new this year. They are filling in so great. I need to do a post on them.

Thanks for the super duper ideas Debra!

Hi, Candy — Thanks for checking in with us! Unfortunately, crassulas and euphorbias (i.e. Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’) are easily damaged by frost. I’ve lost them myself, here in the foothills north of San Diego at 1,500 feet elevation. The key is to know your garden’s microclimates. What won’t make it out in the open may be perfectly safe up against a south-facing wall, for example, or beneath the eaves alongside your house. And just about anything should be fine on a protected patio or deck. That said, the two kinds of succulents that DO do fine where temps drop well below freezing are sempervivums (hens-and-chicks) and sedums (stonecrops), both of which would be lovely in your birdbaths! — Debra

Linda Lehmusvirta July 27, 2011, 12:15 pm

Oh, I needed this one! Since rain no longer comes to Austin, creating the look of water is beautiful through your words and images.

Thanks, Linda. These are good fall-back designs for areas experiencing drought. But in your area, be sure to shelter succulents from temperature extremes, or substitute plants that can handle them. — Debra

Scott Hokunson July 28, 2011, 8:27 am

Debra, wonderful approach on the topic of water. Each vignette captures the essence of the water scenes that are so common in our part of the country. We have created several dry stream beds for clients, I wish our climate was dry enough to enjoy the beautiful array of succulents you have highlighted here.

I have to second the comments on your books. I am a novice to the succulent world, and have found them to be a great resource.

Thank you for joining us this month!

Wow, thanks Scott! And thank you for expediting the Garden Designers Roundtable. — Debra

Susan in the Pink Hat July 28, 2011, 10:36 am

Yeah, Scott Calhoun is still for places like the desert Southwest. I’m thinking more of people like Lauren Springer-Ogden and Scott Ogden and the inroads they make for cold-climate desert gardening.

Yes! I’d forgotten about the Ogdens. Their books and presentations are indeed a great resource. — Debra

Hoover Boo July 28, 2011, 8:59 pm

Gorgeous designs and plants! The Pistia stratiotes is very cool.

However, the suggestion of water is not–water. A dry stream bed is just that: dry.

There is no substitute for a water feature, however small, most especially in a dry climate. Framed as a centerpiece, even a thin rivulet is magical, firmly focuses the visitor’s attention, and emphasizes the precious nature of water.

It’s also a way to attract birds and butterflies to the garden. One clever way that doesn’t use much water is to extend a drip tube along the branch of a shrub or small tree. Place a basin underneath to catch the water. It forms a pool that serves as a birdbath, and overflows to water the shrub and any plants that might be farther down the slope. Incidentally, I have an overflowing water garden in my yard, in a pot that holds about 5 gallons of water. It fills and overflows whenever the automatic irrigation comes on. — Debra

Dixie July 29, 2011, 2:31 am

Great post! Echeveria “Perle von Nurnburg” is so lovely. One of these days I have to get one.

Hi, Dixie. Florists love it, too. It’s a purple-pink “rose” that lasts a long time when combined with, say, cream-colored roses in a bridal bouquet. — Debra

Laura Thomas August 1, 2011, 3:33 pm

Just had the most marvelous idea all thanks to you Debra. A drainage ditch that is no longer used for drainage will now be a dry river bed filled with zone 3 natives. Imagining Wild Stonecrop, Junegrass, Prickly Pear Cactus, Rattle snakemaster …. . Thank-you!

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