Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - March 25, 2011

Cultivating a personal style with succulents

Water-wise, easy-care plants can enhance garden design

by Zohra Ashpari

Too busy or lack confidence in your ability to garden? Growing succulents offers the perfect solution, according to Debra Lee Baldwin.

Baldwin discovered succulents 21 years ago when she and her husband were purchasing their first home.

"The plants were the best fit for me because they were beautiful and easy to take care of in terms of watering," Baldwin said.

Baldwin, a San Diego-based garden writer and photojournalist of 25 years, will discuss how top designers use succulents to enhance gardens and help homeowners cultivate their own style in a talk and photography presentation on March 26 at the Gamble Garden Center.

Baldwin's interest in succulents germinated while on assignment for the San Diego Union Tribune: "I walked into my subject's garden and saw a large plant in bloom with bright orange and torch-like flowers. I fell in love." She added that it was a rare sighting as the aloe ferox, of South African origin, only blooms in the winter.

Succulents can survive long periods of drought by storing water in their leaves and stems, in contrast to annuals that require daily irrigation.

This is not to say that all succulents can go long periods without water. The smaller and more delicate the leaf of a plant, the more likely it is to need frequent watering, and the fatter and fleshier the leaves, the more likely it can go for longer stretches without watering.

"Water requirements depend, too, on the time of year, the temperature, whether or not the plant is dormant, and the humidity," she said.

Succulents have existed throughout the ages, ranging in shape and size — from small-leafed ground covers to tall trees — and in stem, leaf and flower color.

"Succulents are easy to cultivate: You can snap off a branch and it will form a root from where the leaves were attached. If there is a design you like at a friend's yard, you could ask for a piece, put it in a pot and it will grow," Baldwin said.

Novice gardeners perceive succulents as hardy and easy to adapt, she noted, but can be more water-sensitive than some might expect.

"Many beautiful succulents — such as kalanchoes from Madagascar, aeoniums from the Canary Islands and Haworthias from South Africa — are frost tender and thrive outdoors year-round only in warmer conditions," Baldwin said.

A novel solution to frost-sensitive succulents is planting the succulents in decorative containers, she said. Anyone, anywhere, can grow succulents in pots, which can be sheltered indoors.

"Gardening in pots also allows you to take your treasured specimens with you, should you move to another home one day," Baldwin said.

For those who prefer their gardens firmly planted in the ground, Palo Alto's climate only rarely produces frost, thus most succulents should not have a problem subsisting. Still, many plants will not survive even one bout of temperature below 32 degrees, Baldwin said.

"Plants (including most succulents and tropicals) that don't have a natural antifreeze in their chemical makeup will be damaged if the water in their cells freeze. This is because ice takes up more room than water, so the cells burst," Baldwin said.

Agaves are the exception. They can survive a temperature as low as 28 degrees.

"If you're worried about frost, I'd recommend an agave under-planted with one of the ground covers, which has a similar blue-grey tone," Baldwin said. She also noted repetition in color as a significant principle in garden design.

"Contrast is also important. Purple paired with yellow go very well, or red and green. It all depends on whether you are working in a garden or a flower bed."

Baldwin elaborates further on garden design principles in her two books, "Designing with Succulents" and "Succulent Container Gardens," which she will feature during her talk.

"Succulent Container Gardens" grounds the uninitiated in succulent basics, from selecting containers to arranging wreaths, topiaries and patio groupings in aesthetically engaging combinations.

Baldwin's book also advises on acquiring cuttings and seeds, finding most joy in the fact that cuttings can be shared among loved ones.

"Succulents continue to live beyond your own garden, keeping you connected with everyone else," she said.

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For more Home and Real Estate news, visit www.paloaltoonline.com/real_estate.

What: "Succulents in the Garden" with Debra Lee Baldwin

When: March 26, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Where: Gamble Garden Center, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto

Cost: $40 for nonmembers, $30 for members

Info: 650-329-1356 or www.gamblegarden.org

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Editorial intern Zohra Ashpari can be e-mailed at zashpari@paweekly.com.

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