Two must-read books for succulent lovers: Succulents and Designing with Succulents


All you succulent junkies, listen up. If you love succulents or want to learn how to grow them, two newly released books by succulent-gardening trailblazers Debra Lee Baldwin and Robin Stockwell need to be at the top of your must-read list.

Let’s start with Designing with Succulents by “Queen of Succulents” Debra Lee Baldwin. This is a completely revised 2nd edition of the book she published a decade ago, when succulents were just taking off as “it” plants and interest in waterwise gardens was growing, especially in drought-prone regions. I gave the 1st edition a rave review when I read it in 2009, and I just finished the revised 2nd edition (2017, Timber Press), eager to see what had changed.


Photo by Debra Lee Baldwin. Design by Steve McDearmon of Garden Rhythms.

In a word, everything. Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed., doesn’t just have a new cover and an updated, photo-rich design. It also contains a trove of new information and 100 additional images. Thanks to Baldwin’s expertise on succulents from propagation to design, beautiful photographs, and personable writing style, the book retains its well-deserved status as the bible for succulent gardeners.


An Austin succulent garden. Photo courtesy of D-CRAIN.

I can hear you wondering: Is the book just for California gardeners and others in frost-free climates? Absolutely not. While those of us who experience winter freezes can’t easily transform our entire yard into a succulent garden — although see the D-CRAIN-designed garden in the above photo for warmest-part-of-Austin inspiration — we can still grow tender succulents in pots that we bring indoors or into a greenhouse for protection in winter. I have a potted succulent collection that I enjoy from spring through late fall, and they’re much easier to grow than thirsty annuals. Plus those of us in the Southwest and South can grow in the landscape plenty of succulents hardy to the upper teens or low 20sF, and Baldwin has growing info and design tips about these as well.


Photo by Kyle Short, courtesy of Debra Lee Baldwin. Design by Gabriel Frank of Gardens by Gabriel.

Aside from all the practical information, what I appreciate most about the book is the breadth of design advice — useful for any kind of garden but especially those incorporating succulents — and beautiful, wide-view (not just close-up) photos of gardens. Helpfully, in the final chapter, Baldwin also includes descriptive recommendations of 50 waterwise plants that pair well with succulents, since few of us will give over our entire gardens to these fleshy plants.


Surfer dude, former nurseryman-owner of Succulent Gardens, and most especially succulent proselytizer Robin Stockwell — aka “the Succulent Guy” (do all the succulent experts have nicknames?) — has also written an excellent book: Succulents: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing, Designing, and Growing 200 Easy-Care Plants (2017, Oxmoor House).

Stockwell brings an artistic sensibility to the use of succulents, writing:

“I thought of my nursery as a paint store, my plants as the paints, and my inventory as the palette with which to work. The designers and home gardeners who bought my plants were the artists; they chose plants as a painter does paints — for a specific garden that became their living canvas.”


Photo courtesy of Time Inc. Books/Jennifer Cheung

While he focuses mainly on the West Coast in terms of turning one’s yard into a succulent garden, Stockwell gives equal time to container gardening and even DIY projects involving succulents, which one can achieve no matter where you live — putting that artistic appreciation of succulents to good use.


Photo courtesy of Time Inc. Books/Thomas J. Story

He shows the many ways succulents can be used for temporary adornment, including in succulent wreaths, hair ornaments, cake garlands, gift toppers, planted beach rocks and driftwood, green-roof birdhouses, succulent-topped pumpkins for table centerpieces, and more, offering handy tips on creating these yourself.


Photo courtesy of Time Inc. Books/Marion Brenner

Creative succulent containers, like this arrangement of stacked pots, are fun and simple even for beginner succulent gardeners.


Photo courtesy of Time Inc. Books/Caitlin Atkinson

My only quibble with the book is that some (maybe all?) of the garden profiles that appear throughout the book have previously appeared in Sunset publications. It gave me a sense of déjà vu: hadn’t I read about these gardens before, literally word for word, and seen these photos? It was only then I noticed that Sunset garden editor Kathleen Norris Brenzel is credited on the title page, although not on the cover. I suspect these portions of the book are hers. While the repackaging surprised me, the garden profiles do nicely illustrate how to design with succulents, and most of them were fresh enough for me to enjoy again. They also include a handy “get the look” inset, with pithy advice for translating elements of each design into your own garden.

Overall the book is eye-catching with a clean graphic design, photo details called out with arrows and inset text, and information presented in easy-to-digest short paragraphs. At the back of the book, Stockwell lists his favorite plants, each one nicely photographed, as well as care and propagation advice.

You’ll savor both books, and they’ll teach you everything you need to know to start growing or get better at designing with succulents. Whether you can grow them in-ground or in winter-protected pots, succulents are beautiful, addictive plants. And it’s OK to feed this addiction — it’s a healthy one!

Disclosure: Timber Press sent me a copy of Designing with Succulents and Oxmoor House sent me a copy of Succulents for review. I reviewed them at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Get ready for fall garden tours in Texas! The Garden Conservancy is sponsoring Open Days tours in Fort Worth on Oct. 8th, San Antonio on Oct. 14th, and Austin on Nov. 4th.

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Evergreen combos (mostly) for Austin


A local reader asked me about evergreen plants that grow well here in central Texas, and as I was putting together today’s Foliage Follow-Up post, I realized it’s a good opportunity to share some of my faves. I use a lot of evergreen plants — though not necessarily shrubs — because 1) they tend to require less maintenance than plants grown for flowers, 2) they look great year-round, 3) they provide wonderful structure, and 4) I have lots of shade, and flowers generally need more sun.

In the photo at top you see a chartreuse scrim of bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa), an ornamental clumping grass that stays evergreen in most winters. Last winter’s two Arctic blasts did bleach out the foliage, and it takes its time in greening up again. But for a light-catching green cloud, drought tolerance, and deer resistance, this grass can’t be beat.

In the steel planter, ‘Burgundy Ice’ dyckia offers a dark-leaved evergreen option for Austin gardens. Again, it can be damaged in extreme cold, but most winters it does fine. As a low-growing, front-of-border plant, white skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens ‘White’) is a semi-evergreen sub-shrub that tolerates dappled shade. It looks best with a light shearing in late February and maybe again in mid-August. The white-flowering skullcap can be hard to find, but pink is readily available. Save the purple skullcap (Scutellaria wrightii) for full sun and gravelly conditions.


Here’s a long view of this same bed, from a little further along the driveway. Strappy Texas sotol (Dasylirion texana) is the star here, backed by bamboo muhly. In front, I just took out all my iris, which wasn’t blooming in the dappled shade, and replaced it with evergreens ‘Micron’ dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Micron’), foxtail fern (Asparagus meyeri), and variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’). ‘Micron’ holly is a new one for me and is said to get only about 1-1/2 ft. tall by 2-1/2 ft. wide. (I bought all of Barton Springs Nursery’s supply, but I spotted it at The Natural Gardener last weekend.) Foxtail fern and flax lily both can be hurt by deep freezes, but generally they do fine in Austin’s winters, and they are workhorses that require very little care or maintenance.


‘Green Goblet’ agave (Agave salmiana var. ferox ‘Green Goblet’) is a winter-hardy agave with a beautiful olive-green leaf with a tinge of blue. It produces pups on underground runners, but not too many, so they’re manageable. I just tug it loose whenever one pops up — usually several feet away from the mother plant. The silver groundcover woolly stemodia (Stemodia lanata) is not evergreen, but it’s a good choice for part or full sun and gravelly conditions. Fuzzy-leaved mullein (Verbascum spp.), which is generally evergreen for two years until it blooms and then dies, grows amid the stemodia.

In the background, I’m growing a lawnette of evergreen Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa). I now recommend ‘Scott’s Turf’ sedge (Carex retroflexa ‘Scott’s Turf’) instead of Berkeley (Scott’s is less fussy), but both are good lawn substitutes for part shade or dappled shade and green all year.


Purple-leaved ‘Vertigo’ grass (Pennisetum purpureum ‘Vertigo’) goes brown and dormant after a freeze, but it does return each year, unlike traditional purple fountain grass. Next to it, lavender-flowering Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora) has fragrant, edible, evergreen leaves. You can see the evergreen sedge lawnette in the background.


My favorite agave has to be whale’s tongue (Agave ovatifolia), a powder-blue agave that doesn’t pup but grows in an open, rose-like form. I also like evergreen softleaf yucca (Yucca recurvifolia), growing at left of the agave — and too close, unfortunately. In the foreground, blooming hot pink and attracting hummingbirds, is autumn sage (Salvia greggii). Its tiny, semi-evergreen leaves release a minty fragrance when you crush them or brush against them.


I also love wide-leaf giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera ssp. chiangii), a stately, more open and vase-like relative of the common red yucca. Its evergreen leaves are long and sword-like, although not particularly spiny, and white thread-like fibers dangle from their edges. A white-flowering Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii ‘Alba’) grows in front — not evergreen, but a nice companion in dappled shade. The white Turk’s cap is harder to find than the common red, but last week I saw some 1-gallons for sale at Barton Springs Nursery.

The only downside of using giant hesperaloe is that bucks love to rub their antlers on it in the fall and winter, smashing its beautiful form. So now I put rolled wire fencing around it from early fall through spring. And I do the same with my ‘Green Goblet’ agave, which the bucks will also antler-damage.


The side-yard path into the back garden is mostly evergreen with bamboo muhly, ‘Blue Ice’ Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. glabra ‘Blue Ice’), ‘Sapphire Skies’ Yucca rostrata, ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon (Ilex vomitoria ‘Will Fleming’), ‘Bright Edge’ yucca (Yucca filamentosa ‘Bright Edge’), and prickly pear (Opuntia).


I’m loving the totem-pole shape of my one surviving Indian fig opuntia (Opuntia ficus-indica). The others succumbed to a deep freeze one year. Indian fig is less cold tolerant than many prickly pears.


Peeking around the Yucca rostrata, you see a couple more hardworking evergreens, ‘Winter Gem’ boxwood and the ubiquitous live oak (Quercus fusiformis), which shades most of my garden and indeed most of my neighborhood, none of which were planted by human hands and grow as Mother Nature planted them in loose clusters.

This is my September post for Foliage Follow-Up. Fellow bloggers, what leafy loveliness is happening in your garden this month? Please join me in giving foliage its due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I’d appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! I look forward to seeing your foliage faves.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Get ready for fall garden tours in Texas! The Garden Conservancy is sponsoring Open Days tours in Fort Worth on Oct. 8th, San Antonio on Oct. 14th, and Austin on Nov. 4th.

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Oxblood lilies popping up after Hurricane Harvey


Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 10 inches of rain on my garden between last Friday and Sunday, and high winds littered the ground with leaves, twigs, and ball moss. A Texas mountain laurel fell over in the sodden soil, and we lost power for 6 hours. A weather event, but nothing compared to the walloping that Houston, our neighbor to the southeast, is still enduring. My thoughts have been with friends and family there, some of whom narrowly escaped having floodwater in their homes.

The first fall rains usually come in September and coax oxblood lilies and hurricane lilies out of the ground, to bloom in a sudden dash of red. Although the rains came early this year, sure enough the first oxblood lily opened yesterday, springing out of the sedge lawn just 24 hours after the rain stopped.


This is a stray that remained in the front garden after I dug the rest out and moved them to the back. Deer enjoyed snacking on them, you see. This one will probably be a munched stem the next time I look.


But others are popping up in the back garden, and I look forward to the big show.


Here’s the Texas mountain laurel that toppled over after the storm, one of several fallen mountain laurels I saw around town. The drought-tolerant, smaller trees like this one seem most dismayed by the heavy rains. My son helped me stake it yesterday, and I hope it’ll recover its balance. The inland sea oats at its feet are dressed for fall, their tan oats dangling like fish on a line.


The waterlilies don’t mind the rain, of course.


Peachy pink ‘Colorado’ is always blooming.


I found this dead cicada on a waterlily pad in the pond, perhaps a casualty of the storm. It’s been a big year for cicadas in Austin.


Very much alive and enjoying dinner was this argiope spider in the front garden. I’ve seen a number of these this summer, although some have disappeared, leaving behind torn webs — victims, perhaps, of bigger and hungrier creatures. Such is the circle of life.


Before the rains, I was enjoying a nightly show of datura blossoms.


On a recent night there were at least 25 white trumpets glowing by moonlight.


Beautiful and fragrant


I was away on a road trip from early to mid-August. Right before I left I took a few photos that I didn’t have time to post, so here they are, better late than never. This is a collection of sun-loving cacti and succulents on my deck. The galvanized potting table from Target goes well with the galvanized cattle panel railing on the new deck. On the bottom shelf, shaded somewhat from the Death Star’s high-beam, are my Moby spawn, aka pups from my dearly departed whale’s tongue agave. They’ve grown quite a bit this summer.


I wait all summer to see my pond crinum bloom, and I nearly missed it — but not quite! It started blooming the day before we left, and I enjoyed it for 24 hours and then came home to a wilted flower stalk lying in the water.


And in the side garden that I don’t visit every day, a ‘Purple Pillar’ rose of Sharon, a trial plant from Proven Winners, was putting on a good show too. Maybe the Harvey rains will encourage a rebloom.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

The Austin Cactus & Succulent Society hosts its Fall Show and Sale on September 2 & 3, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, at Zilker Botanical Garden (2220 Barton Springs Road). Come see rare and beautiful cacti and succulents and shop for plants and handcrafted pottery. Admission is free with paid entry to Zilker Botanical Garden ($2 adults, $1 children and seniors).

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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