Interview with Debra Lee Baldwin, Queen of Succulents

On August 23, 2017, Timber Press will release the completely revised second edition of Designing with Succulents by Debra Lee Baldwin. The first edition sold over 180,000 copies and has become a classic. The second edition is even bigger and better. In addition to delighting fans of the first edition, it will appeal to a whole new audience interested in incorporating succulents into their own landscaping. Click here to read my review of the new edition.

Debra Lee Balwin holding her "new baby" (photo © Debra Lee Baldwin; used with permission)

As I was reading Designing with Succulents I started to compile a list of random questions that popped into my head. Being the good sport that she is, Debra Lee Baldwin graciously agreed to answer them. Read on to find out more about the second edition of Designing with Succulents, new succulent trends, and what Debra's favorite succulents are.

Debra, congratulations on the second edition of Designing with Succulents. Any gardening book with such impressive sales numbers (over 180,000 copies in print according to Timber Press) and such longevity is a major achievement by any publishing standard. My review described the overall organization of the book so readers know what to look forward to. I’d like to ask you some questions about the book, the latest succulent trends, and what’s next for you personally.

Q: Do you see social media as a driving force behind the success of the first edition of Designing with Succulents? As I mentioned in my review, the rise of Facebook, Pinterest, etc. dovetailed with the exploding popularity of succulents.

A: Absolutely. Social media is a significant news source, enabling trends to gain momentum faster than ever before.

Debra Lee Baldwin's YouTube channel

Q: At what point did you realize that Designing with Succulents needed an overhaul? Relatively soon after publication? Or not until much later?

A: The day it arrived. I was leafing through the pages and found a typo. When I called my editor at Timber Press, she said every author finds at least one and phones her, distraught.

I sort of expected Timber to want a second edition in ten years if the book did well, so I never thought of the first edition as cast in concrete. (By the way, minor errors are fixed in subsequent "printings" which are different from "editions.") But when did I realize the first edition was outdated? Probably a year or so after it came out, when a homeowner told me she had planted Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) in her garden because it was in the book's Companion Plants chapter, and it had subsequently reseeded invasively. Sure enough, not long after the book's release, the California Landscape Contractors Association had added it to their "do not plant" list.

Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), pretty but invasive under ideal conditions

Q: Was it always your goal to completely rewrite the first edition? Or did it just end up that way? Can you describe the process?

A: I knew it was inevitable, but I wasn't keen on it because of the time commitment. I asked my publisher, "Do you want me to disappear for a year, or continue to do public speaking, blogging, article writing and social media?" They realized my dilemma and assigned me a wonderful developmental editor who helped expedite the process. She took all the new content I'd written online and in print and edited it into the previous manuscript, so theoretically all I had to do was OK the results. Yet the deeper I got into it, the more I realized the book needed nearly all new photos and completely rewritten text. To do it right, I'd have to get rid of 85 percent of the original manuscript and add 100 more photos. My contractual deadlines, however, were based on my breezy expectation that the book would come together with minimal effort. Consequently, for nearly a year, I worked 12-hour days, six days a week, often in my pajamas—no time to get dressed—during which time I saw little of my husband, family, friends and garden. And as with all my books, I gained a pound per chapter.

Spread from the second edition of Designing with Succulents

Q: How long did the second edition take to finish, seeing how much you changed?

A: This is my fourth book with Timber Press, and all have taken a year of research and writing, and year of editing, layout and production.

Q: The second edition of Designing with Succulents seems quite complete to me. However, succulent design will continue to evolve, possibly even in directions we can’t anticipate yet. Are you up for doing a third edition when the time comes?

A: Good Lord, no.

Q: What is the next major project you’re working on? Any teasers?

A: Well, it takes as much time and effort to get the word out about a new book as it does to write it.

Debra at the 2016 Succulent Extravaganza at Succulent Gardens in Castroville, CA. She will be a featured speaker at the 2017 Succulent Extravaganza on September 29 -30.

Q: In the book you say that “women, who now constitute the majority of succulent aficionados, have become captivated by rosette varieties.” Do your observations suggest that women prefer soft-leaved succulents while men gravitate more towards plants with teeth, spines or thorns, like agaves and cactus? Making such general statements is always fraught with danger, but there may be some truth to it.

A: OK, you asked! It's an inside joke among vendors at Cactus and Succulent Society of America shows that women want echeverias and other succulents that resemble flowers; and men prefer cacti and euphorbias that are wickedly spined and reptilian—especially if phallic-shaped.

For men only?

Q: In your opinion, what is the next big thing in succulents? Any major trends you’re seeing?

A: You bet. Cactus is really taking off. What was once appreciated by only a few grizzled collectors is going mainstream. (See this blog post on the topic.)

Cacti are finally getting the attention they deserve

Q: Are there specific succulent genera where you’re seeing particularly exciting work being done by growers?

A: Yes, in particular echeverias, haworthias, agaves and aloes. Hybrids are selected for color (both flowers and leaves) and variegation, toughness, disease resistance, symmetry, texture, size and form.

Echerveria 'Compton's Carousel', one of the most sought-after recent introductions

Q: The one factor limiting the suitability of succulents as landscape plants is cold tolerance. Are you seeing any promising developments that might push the cold tolerance further, if that is even possible botanically?

A: No question, a succulent's ability to withstand extremes and adverse conditions is highly desirable and commercial. Within a species you'll find those individuals with greater tolerance to cold, heat and dampthree things that, in excess, are death to succulents. One recent introduction is a fancy ruffled echeveria that can serve as a landscape plant where summers are scorching hot (like my garden and yours): Echeveria 'Sahara', patented by Altman Plants. There's a lot going on with Sedum hybrids, too, but the challenge with cold-climate succulents is to get them to thrive where summer temps soar past 90.

Sedum 'Lime Zinger', a SunSparkler introduction hardy to zone 4

Q: Which are you favorite succulents of them all? I know this is a seemingly impossible question to answer. But if push came to shove, which would you pick? Size doesn’t matter.

A: I like those with intriguing shapes, textures and personality. Like faucarias with leaves like fanged, rubbery jaws. And Agave utahensis 'Albispina', which has long white spines that are paradoxically delicate and wavy. I'd be heartbroken if I lost my Mammillaria bocasana 'Fred'. It consists of a lot of little chubby cylinders that appear to have collapsed on themselves. It's slow growing and sun-sensitive, and not common. I saw it offered by a vendor at the San Francisco Flower and Garden show for $17, which I thought was pricey so I didn't get it. But like love at first sight, I couldn't forget it. The next year I splurged on a 'Fred', which I carried home on the plane on my lap.

Faucaria tigrina

Q: And finally, let’s play the deserted-island game: If you were stranded on a deserted island, which succulents would you want to have with you? Let’s focus on portable plants that would fit on a shelf in your island cave.

A: Never mind decorating the cave, I'd rather not starve! Spineless opuntia (nopales) is not especially tasty (unless you like sour green beans), but it is very high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, nutrients and antioxidants. It grows from pads and needs no irrigation other than rainfall. So when the rescue ship finally arrives, I'll be in great shape!

Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia)

Debra Lee Baldwin's website is a rich resource for all things succulent. From there you can also click through to her pages on Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube, and Instagram, all of which offer a wealth of photos and videos.


  1. As to the last question, I would add roasted agave hearts and also dragon fruit! Maybe tequila from blue agave wouldn't be a bad idea either!!!

  2. This has been a treat, Gerhard, and doing interviews is something I've been wanting to do for a while, so you've given me courage. I have to say I don't own any of these books yet, and I think I've been holding out for this second edition. And I suppose admiring all kinds makes me "genderfluid" when it comes to cactus and succulents!

  3. This was a nice addition to your review of Baldwin's new eddition. Thanks!

  4. Fun and informative! I was hoping for a more positive answer about the temperature extremes though -- we cold-winter/hot-summer gardeners want taller cactus! :)

  5. I love it! Great interview. I love the male female question. I must be both cause i like them both. Lol

  6. Great interview! I reluctantly began to plant succulents some years ago after years of trying to grow temperate climate plants. Now I am very fond of Agaves and am resolved to grow a giant Agave just like some people grow giant pumpkins!

  7. I noticed lots of guys on the vanished xeric world site thought it wasn't really an Agave unless the marginal teeth were wicked and the terminal spines tremendous, but on the whole it may be better to avoid identity gardening.


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