We had the good fortune of connecting with Debra Lee Baldwin and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Debra Lee, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I’m a San Diego native who grew up on an avocado ranch. Oddly enough, my parents proudly (and cluelessly) assumed I was precocious because I was reading at age 4. What they didn’t realize is I had extreme near-sightedness that shrank the world to within my outstretched arm. Illustrated books were my life. Everything else, including TV, was a blur. Play was difficult, especially anything that had to do with catching a ball! It wasn’t until first grade that a teacher suggested I get my eyes checked. But by then, words in print had done more to open the world to me than glasses ever did. Growing up, I longed to be a writer, a desire I buried because it would be too painful not to achieve it. I was considered brilliant scholastically yet was hopeless socially. I married too young and wasn’t an especially good mother (though my son might protest). I went through a painful divorce followed by therapy that gave me much needed perspective. And always, I was writing: diaries, journals, stories, fiction that never went anywhere, and free articles for small papers. Although talent and experience help, success is mainly about seizing opportunities. I fell into garden writing because there was a demand for it. As a low-paid Union-Tribune freelancer, I covered homes, gardens, architecture and interior design. I generated more content than salaried reporters, and eventually my articles won prestigious San Diego Press Club awards. I remarried, and my husband (now of 30 years) has always been wonderfully supportive of my career. Before the Internet squashed magazines, I became the highest paid garden writer in America.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
My first book about succulents was fairly easy to launch thanks to my professional network of garden writers and editors nationwide. It helped, too, that succulents are tremendously photogenic. California’s drought and wildfires boosted interest in plants that store water in their leaves. Even now, brides and collectors can’t get enough of them. Thirteen years after the publication of Designing with Succulents (Timber Press, 2007), the gardening phenomenon I helped to start is worldwide. My “Celebrating the Joy of Succulents” newsletter has 7,000 enthusiastic subscribers, I have a large social media following, and my YouTube channel has nearly 6,000,000 views. Yes, my three books are great resources, but you should see my website! I continually update it (I can’t help it) with news, photos and articles. I spend long hours in my home office, but we need a better word to describe it than “working.” I love (and can relate to) a story about artist Normal Rockwell. He was renowned for his magazine covers of average Americans at telling moments in time—most famously, his family-round-the-dinner-table Thanksgiving. Yet at his own, he didn’t stay to chat with relatives. He excused himself and headed out to his studio. Yep.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I get asked this a lot because San Diego county is the epicenter of all things succulent. We have more succulent specialty nurseries than anywhere else in the world. I added a page to my website listing local succulent destinations, including parks and events. https://debraleebaldwin.com/san-diego-succulent-sources-and-destinations/ For people who love a good garden (never mind succulents), this hidden gem gives a truly San Diego experience. It offers stunning clifftop views near coastal communities that have shops and restaurants worth exploring. Public garden: Meditation Gardens at the Self Realization Fellowship, 215 K St., (between 2nd and 3rd streets), Tues.-Sat., 9 to 5, Sunday 11 to 5, closed Monday. The lush, immaculately tended garden is tropical but does include succulents, plus breathtaking ocean views and soothing water features. Come prepared to be quiet, observant and respectful. Food and drink not allowed. Readers also should check out this list of Outstanding San Diego Gardens I compiled for Garden Design, at https://www.gardendesign.com/day-trips/san-diego/
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Kathy Brenzel, senior garden editor of Sunset Magazine for over 30 years, is the reason I authored three bestselling books and created a narrow but remarkable niche. In 2005, when I was Sunset’s San Diego-area scout and regional contributor, Kathy said, “You have so many great photos of succulent gardens, you should do a book.” Her suggestion rerouted my career, and eventually (this is not hyperbole) changed the way people garden in the West.