I’m lost for words when it comes to sharing thoughts on succulents. My love for this plant began in my small town backyard that I turned into a garden filled with many succulents. As the years pass I’ve been joyously overwhelmed with all the different types of succulents there are available for home gardens. What turned me on to these plants is the fact that they are low maintenance and they could tolerate the clay soil and dry summers late summers in Ohio. When I lived in town I had two small children and not alot of time to spend out watering and tending to the clay… I mean soil. The succulents I grew provided amazing color in my earlier days of landscaped garden design.
Last year I came across some amazing photos of succulents in containers on Facebook’s Debra Lee Baldwin page and I totally fell in love again with my beloved succulents. I love being on Debra’s friends list on Facebook and Instagram because she posts daily on topics that range from what she is doing in her own garden and on the road as well.
I recognize Debra for being an extremely creative watercolor artist and later found that she is a prize winning author. One look at her choice of color and composition in her work and you will no doubt agree. Be sure to bookmark her Zazzle site to take a look at some of her work. She also shares some of her paintings but more so her photography on her website and on Gardening Gone Wild where she blogs with Fran Sorin and Saxon Holt.
Debra was kind enough to answer a few questions I was dying to ask her about her art career, her writings and of course some gardening tips.
My Interview with Debra :
Bren : When did you discover your love for succulents?
Debra Shares: Succulent describes any plant that survives drought by storing water in its leaves, stems, or roots. When I was a child, such smooth, plump plants reminded me of modeling clay, and their shapes of stars, beads, and jelly beans. As I grew older, I equated succulents with jade plants that thrive in abandoned gardens and were removed by people who were serious about landscaping.
Succulents were far from my mind when I began gardening in 1990. Because I wanted big, bold, beautiful flowers, I cultivated tropical cannas, and roses and fluffy perennials that hearkened to English gardens—never mind that inland Southern California (USDA zone 9) was subject to frost, 100-degree heat, rain that falls minimally (and mostly in February), and the soil is decomposed granite, poor in organic matter. At one time I had more than a dozen varieties of cannas and 75 rosebushes, all of which required endless amending, mulching, fertilizing, pruning, spraying, irrigating, and deadheading. I still would be doing all that it if my work had not introduced me to people who view gardening as an endeavor that ought to suit the region.
My job as a garden and design writer is to define and describe beauty. Whether I am touring a showcase house or a notable garden, I strive to find what makes the environment appealing. Architects, landscapers, and homeowners who design such settings dissect them for me, so my readers can learn their secrets.
In midwinter of 1999, when my garden consisted of pruned, leafless rosebushes; brown-leaved cannas; and perennials that had been cut to the ground, I was asked to write a story about Patrick Anderson’s garden, located in Fallbrook, California, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. That day in December his garden was lush and colorful, despite its decomposed granite soil and lack of automatic irrigation.
“Fleshy green monsters in Patrick Anderson’s Fallbrook garden look like they might snap him up if he turns his back,” my article began. “They’re giant succulents, and Anderson’s half-acre hillside showcases hundreds of unusual ones.” The story went on to describe aloes that “pierce the sky like exotic torchbearers, hot orange against cool blue,” and agaves that “sprawl like squids, or explode upward like fistfuls of knives.”
I discovered that succulents are as elegant as they are dramatic and show to advantage in uncomplicated combinations. Two or three varieties carefully selected for shape, color, and texture create simple, eye-catching compositions. Those succulents—notably agaves—with curved or undulating leaves suggest motion, which makes any garden landscape more intriguing. Moreover, succulent foliage forms patterns, like seashells and snowflakes, that illustrate nature’s innate geometry and that are striking when repeated.
During the next few years, I incorporated more and more succulents into my own garden. Like traditional pruned hedges, succulents lent structure to the overall design, but were much more practical. They held their shapes year-round and kept the same leaves for years. I learned firsthand that in a warm, dry climate, a garden comprising succulents and similarly drought-tolerant perennials makes sense economically, aesthetically, and ecologically. It is lush and appealing, requires significantly less water and maintenance than roses and tropicals, and does not turn into naked sticks in winter.
Aeonium arboreum and A. haworthii, Agave americana ‘Marginata’, and Bulbine frutescens proved trouble-free—as did the aloes, sedums, senecios, kalanchoes, and graptopetalums that followed. These were readily propagated, and the results were so easy-care and appealing, that my garden subsequently was featured in Sunset magazine and Better Homes & Gardens.
Since then, I have sought gardens throughout Southern California, and as far away as New York and Vancouver, that show succulents to advantage. This book is the result of my search; its purpose is to offer alternatives to traditional lawn-and-flowerbed landscapes and to show what is possible when succulents shine as primary garden elements. It is a guide to aesthetic and practical ways to cultivate, display, and enjoy these versatile plants, in the ground as well as in containers.
Bren : Did you have formal training in painting or were you born with that remarkable talent?
Debra Shares : I believe that people are born with certain predilictions that, with training, education, practice and passion, can become talents.
My primary interest has always been words, which I suspect may have to do with being so nearsighted as a young child, my world was a blur beyond the pages of a book.
I was fortunate to have a tutor when I was 10 or 11 who taught me how to use watercolors. Subject matter is so very important, and some painters haven’t a clue—I certainly didn’t at first, and my early work makes me wince. I have been fortunate to have interviewed numerous top designers and creative homeowners, who over the years shaped—and I believe refined—my aesthetic.
But as for painting, I have only the ability to copy what I see, not to pull it out of my head. I base my paintings on photos. I don’t draw the image first, but rather trace it from a print-out of the photo. I do know how to sketch, but I don’t enjoy it. Putting paint on paper is what’s fun. I love the translucence of watercolor, the way the brightness of the paper illuminates it, like sun shining through the petals of a flower.
And possibly also because of being so very nearsighted, I don’t like abstract paintings. To me, they depict a blurry world. This may be why my watercolors are so detailed. In any case, I can’t seem to stop painting until every last detail is depicted. When my life is less crazy, I’m going to take a class in how to do quick watercolors. The ones I do now take days!
Bren: Who is your mentor – in writing and / or art? Do you have a particular artist you admire who has encouraged you along the way?
Debra Shares: I have a degree in English Literature, which I pursued thanks to a high school English teacher who terrified everyone with her insistence on perfection. She was a nun at a Catholic girls’ school. Sister Meta Marie now has Alzheimer’s. What a waste of a magnificient brain. Two of my classmates became English teachers. One now flies to Ohio, once a year, to visit Sister Meta. I hope she knows she made a positive impact not only on her own students, but on her students’ students as well.
I learned photography from observing professional photographers (mainly from Sunset magazine and the San Diego Union-Tribune) who shot the locations I was writing about. It was up to me to expedite the shoot—to make sure their photos would illustrate my story. I watched how they manipulated light—photography is all about light. Incidentally, the word “photography” means “writing with light.” Don’t you love that?
Before digital photography became the norm, there was no way I could take photos worthy of publication. I’m hopelessly nontechnical. Once you start talking F-stops, you lose me. But as a writer specializing in homes, gardens, architecture and design, I learned composition—what makes a good photo and how to compose one. For my first book, which came out in 2007, I took 75% of the photos, and had two cameras around my neck when I visited gardens—a Canon SLR and a Canon digital EOS. At the time, Timber Press prefered slides. I’d shoot the heck out of a subject with the digital camera, and when I knew I had a sweet shot, I’d shoot it with the SLR. Thank God I didn’t have to do that for the second book!
If I had to credit a mentor that has made the greatest impact on my photography and painting, I’d have to say it’s light itself. Light is a great teacher. I become transfixed when I see sunlight glittering on leaves, shadow patterns, or some lovely translucence. I’m uncomfortable in the presence of “wrong” light—i.e. a windowless room with fluorescent lighting.
Bren: Do you have another favorite medium in art besides watercolor and photography?
Debra Shares: The way plants are combined in a garden is art in three dimensions. I have a half-acre I’ve played with for 20 years. (See the Debra’s Garden page of my website.) The great thing about gardening as an art form is that you don’t need a lot of space. You can create a entire garden in a container.
I enjoy teaching container gardening workshops and seeing what my students come up with. I do a demo and explain basic design principles, then walk through the nursery with them. Each carries a glazed pot, and we pair it with succulents with colorful leaves or intriguing textures. What they come up invariably transcends what I’ve taught them, which delights me.
Bren : Which came first with your succulent water paintings – the photograph or the canvas work?