A low-water, high-style succulent garden in San Diego

I don’t think I’ve ever been as rude to another designer as I was when I saw this garden.

A few weeks ago I visited my good friend Debra Lee Baldwin who graciously introduced me to a wonderful landscape designer, Frank Mitzel of Aesthetic Design.

Frank kindly took us to see a garden that he and fellow designer and contractor Randy Laurie created in the Mission Hills district.

After meeting Frank in front of the house and exchanging a little small talk, he led us around the side of the house.


It was at this point that all manners left me.

I ditched all of them, running into the garden with my trusty camera to try and capture the magic that was unfolding before me.  The clouds had miraculously softened the harsh sun, the colors were at their peak, and I couldn’t help myself.


Before me was one of the most beautiful low-water, low-maintenance gardens I think I’ve ever seen.

Surrounded by very steep slopes were three distinct garden beds filled with succulents, agaves and California natives.  Here’s a birds-eye view of the garden giving you an idea of just how steep these slopes were.

And to hold the soil in place, the slopes are planted with various tough and drought tolerant agaves, bansias, and echium as well as California natives such as wild lilac and lemonade berry.

This garden is not only visually stunning, but is created with the environment in mind.  For example, there’s a weather station in the garden that collects climate data to control a sophisticated irrigation system, which has reduced water consumption by more than a third.

When asked what inspired this garden’s design, this is what Frank said:

While traveling with the owners in Italy, it was obvious that our temperate climate could vary vastly, where palm trees could be growing right next to cacti.  The homeowners wisely recognized this fact & fully appreciated that we are fortunate to grow such a wide variety of plants in our same San Diego climate.  We can pretty much get away with a “anything grows & anything goes attitude” without compromising the integrity of all the necessary basic design principles of balance, symmetry, repetition, unity- all to achieve the ultimate goal of harmony in the garden landscape.”

I love it – ‘anything grows and anything goes!’



The scale of the garden lends itself to long flowing curves to help define the oversized amoeba-shaped planting beds.

And surrounding these beds are lovely, crunchy decomposed granite pathways, meandering here and there allowing you to slowly take in all sides of the planting areas.


One of the striking design elements I found in this garden was that of repetition.

In this case, repetition of form with the use of various agave and succulents with spiky shapes.  However, because the foliage consists of different colors and the plants are different sizes it works without looking insanely busy.  I love this so, so much!


Another form of repetition is the use of color – in this case the color blue.

Blue can be a little tricky to use in the garden, but here it’s successfully used in the forms of giant agave, the mid-sized a. parryi, and a ground cover senecio.

The blue plants gently weave throughout the bed, creating a flowing sense of consistency. When using mainly succulents and cactus it’s important to include plants that soften the sometimes harsh shapes.  This garden has plenty of blooms not only from succulents, but from salvia, grevillea, leucadendron, and leucophyllum.



The blooms provide such a welcome contrast of textures and color, adding to the excitement of the garden.


In one of the beds an old wrought iron gate from the original house is repurposed as garden art and as the perfect backdrop for this aloe.

In another bed, passion vines and a purple-flowered Queen’s wreath vigorously scramble through the other gate.


And what garden wouldn’t be complete without a place to rest while taking it all in?



 Whether sitting on a patio overlooking the valley below, sneaking away to a quiet corner to nap or viewing the overall garden from a built-in banquette this garden has many places for quiet repose.




I love this photo, as it not only shows how thrilled I was to meet Frank and see the garden, but you can see for yourself that even Jim Bishop (who joined us for the day) couldn’t pull himself away from his camera.

Hmmm…I hope Frank takes it as a sign of the highest form of flattery!



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    • Yes, Pam, it would’ve been a race between us to see who ran off first!

  • I would have been going crazy taking photos just like you! What a beautiful and well thought out garden. I wish I lived down in that area and could do something like this. Right now my husband and I are in the middle of moving many succulent pots into our garage and trying to turn my gazebo into a greenhouse. I went kind of crazy this year and all my babies will not fit! Thank you so much for showing this beautiful garden to us!

    • I feel your ‘pain’, Candy! I finally gave up trying to overwinter Agave attenuata after losing them with the first shower of hail! Best of luck fitting them into your gazebo!!

  • Hello there, Rebecca. I am so glad you got to experience the garden. A lot of hard work went into the planning and the install with the hope always being that any visitor could get lost in their own adventure and find something new and interesting around each and every bend. Thank you also for your kind words, and for the wonderful comments from your readers. You’ve taken some great pictures, and it is rewarding and fulfilling to have others see them and share in the enjoyment of the garden. Please come back and see it again, as the garden continually changes, with different things in bloom throughout the year.

    • Randy, you are SO welcome! Thank YOU for creating such a magical garden – it was an honor to walk through there (and believe me, I could’ve stayed for hours!) Next time I’m in San Diego, I’ll give Frank a call and hopefully get the chance to meet you in person and see the garden again!

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you Rebecca. I think I’m in love… this garden more than beautiful, it’s a little piece of heaven. The colors, textures and shapes are perfection for this site. Frank and Randy are amazing designers. I’m thrilled you always have your camera at hand. I’ll be drooling over these shots for a long time to come. Wow.

    • Yes Sheila, Frank and Randy ARE amazing, aren’t they? I wish you could’ve seen this garden in person – you would’ve loved it as much as I did!!

  • I can see why you ran off with your camera in tow! I’m not generally fond of succulent gardens, just a personal taste thing, but even I have to admit this garden is spectacular! It’s alive with so much texture and color. We’ve certainly got the slopes here, now if only we had San Diego weather! 😉

    Glad to read their weather station is doing its job too. We installed a Davis system last winter just above our orchard, for the same reason, and (fingers crossed) plan to finally get it connected to the rest of our irrigation system this winter. As we’re on well water, I’m looking forwarded to keeping our irrigation to an absolute minimum!

    • Yes, it’s that ‘grow anything’ San Diego weather that stops me from using lots of their plants,too. Good for you that you’re using a smart irrigation system! I’m sure it’ll save you tons of money, plus the headache of always trying to remember to give extra water in a heat wave, turn it off when it rains, etc. I’d love to have my garden hooked up to one. My next house will, for sure.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this experience Rebecca.

    • You’re so welcome, Laura! Hey – when can you come for a garden tour?

    • Hi Rayetta – I’ll be happy to pass along your request, but I doubt it as I was told the clients are very, very private people. Emphasis on ‘very’! I have your email so someone will contact you directly if it’s possible – keeping my fingers crossed!

  • Your racing off, camera in hand is totally understandable! What an amazing garden. The blend of the agave forms with the soft xeric plants is wonderful and is just what we are trying to do more of in Austin, given our extreme drought and heat.

    • Thanks for understanding my ‘rudeness’, Diana! I have many friends who live in Texas and you all have had the hardest time with extremes this year, haven’t you? If i lived there this is the ONLY type of garden I would plant! And why not? Beautiful and tough as nails! Thanks for stopping by!

  • Hi, Rebecca — Great photos! I suspect your response was exactly what Frank had hoped for. Loree, I live in San Diego and I feel the same way you do about this garden (oh, to live there and grow everything my heart desires). I wouldn’t mind the location, view and house, too!

    • Yes, I’ve heard from Frank and he forgives me. 😉

  • WOW! Rebecca that garden is just gorgeous…every single photo has layer upon layer of fabulous plants. Oh to live in San Diego and grow everything that my heart desires…thanks for the tour!

    • Oh I’m so glad you stopped by, Loree – this is definitely your type of garden, isn’t it? You would’ve loved it!

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