Tough as nails.
In the vast landscapes of the desert southwest and Mexico, agave plants thrive against all odds. Despite scorching heat, prolonged periods of drought, and nutrient-poor soil, these plants stand tall. While their ability to withstand extreme conditions may not be necessary for survival in Central Coast gardens, agaves remain an excellent choice for their resilience and adaptability.
Countless Uses of Agave Plants
Agaves can serve various purposes in landscaping. They can be utilized en masse to create visually striking displays, or they can be used as elegant focal points. Regardless of their role, all agaves form rosettes of thick, succulent leaves that store water, enabling them to endure long periods without rainfall. These leaves come in a range of colors, from blue and gray to yellow, pink, and gold. However, it’s important to note that most varieties have sharp spines along the edges of their leaves.
With over 100 species of agaves, many of which are native to the hot and arid regions of the southwest US, Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies, there is a wide selection to choose from. Not only do they shrug off pests and attract hummingbirds when they bloom, but they also require minimal watering beyond the natural rainfall.
Selecting the Right Agave for Your Garden
In the past, agaves were mainly available in small pots from specialized growers. However, due to the rising popularity of succulents, agave plants are now more readily available in larger sizes. It’s important to pay attention to the tags when selecting your agaves, as the size of the plant in its nursery container may not accurately represent its mature size.
For example, a seemingly unassuming white-striped century plant (Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’) in a one-gallon pot can quickly grow into a striking accent piece, reaching over 4 feet in height and width. On the other hand, a delicate Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae reginae) in a one-gallon container may take years to reach a modest 18 inches in width.
Getting Started with Agave Plants
To successfully grow agaves, they need quick-draining soil, minimal water, and abundant sunlight. In coastal areas, choose a location that receives full sun throughout the day. Inland, consider a spot that provides some afternoon shade to protect the plants from excessive heat.
Slopes and mounds are ideal planting locations as they facilitate water drainage. Avoid low-lying areas, spots prone to excessive moisture, or areas within the reach of sprinklers. It’s worth noting that some agave species are sensitive to cold temperatures, so if frost poses a threat, select varieties with sturdier leaves, spines, or waxy coatings.
Planting agaves close to a wall or in a courtyard can help capture and retain heat, protecting them from chilly nights. Alternatively, covering the plants with a bed sheet during extremely cold nights can provide additional warmth.
Planting Tips for Agave Success
When planting agaves, avoid enriching the soil. These plants prefer well-draining soil and excessive fertility, coupled with excessive watering, can lead to premature death. If you have sandy soil, leave it as is. If you have clay soil, consider improving drainage by mixing in perlite or crushed gravel. Additionally, mounding the soil approximately 6 to 12 inches high can help improve drainage.
Before planting, thoroughly weed the area. If you’re working with larger agave specimens that have thorny spines, lay down weed cloth to make future weed removal easier. When digging the hole, cut open slits in the cloth. Take care when handling the plants, using protective gloves or wrapping them in layering materials.
Avoid using wood-based mulch near agaves, as these succulents dislike excessive moisture. Instead, opt for gravel, crushed rock, decomposed granite, or decorative glass pebbles to create a visually appealing and water-efficient mulch.
Irrigating Agave Plants
After planting, thoroughly water the agaves. For the initial few weeks, water them weekly. As the plants settle in, let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings. Once the winter rains arrive, you can stop watering altogether. In subsequent years, your agaves may only need watering a few times a month during the hottest summer days.
If your agaves share a planting bed with other low-water plants on a drip irrigation system, you can include them in the watering schedule. However, if the agaves are separate, consider hand-watering. If the planting area has a slope, shape basins on the downhill sides of the plants to prevent water runoff.
While agaves can withstand overhead sprinkler spray, they prefer not to be exposed to excessive moisture. Sprinklers often water lawns frequently, which can lead to soggy conditions that agaves do not tolerate well. It’s crucial not to overwater these plants. As long as their fleshy leaves do not start to shrivel, they are receiving sufficient moisture.
Pups, Flowers, and Agave Cycle
Most agaves produce offshoots called pups, ensuring the continuation of their species since most agaves die after blooming. The lifespan of agaves varies from seven to fifteen years, depending on the species, and the blooming process can span several months.
For certain agaves, such as the foxtail agave, the first sign of the impending blooming process is the elongation of the trunk. Subsequently, a tall stalk laden with long-lasting flowers emerges. These cream-colored flowers attract hummingbirds from all around. As the blossoms gradually fall, the stalk withers, and the leaves follow suit, leaving behind a desiccated shell.
Simultaneously, the pups at the base of the plant start to grow, continuing the life cycle of agaves.
Agave Plants and Companion Planting
Although traditionally associated with desert gardens, agaves complement a wide range of low-water plants. When considering companion planting, you can combine them with spiky plants like kangaroo paw and New Zealand flax for an intriguing texture contrast. Alternatively, blooming Mediterranean plants such as bougainvillea, lavender, and sage can provide vibrant colors alongside agaves.
Ornamental grasses such as blue fescue and fountain grass can add movement and softness to the landscape. Additionally, low-growing succulents like Kleinia, red apple, and ice plant can create a colorful and diverse planting bed when combined with agaves.
Essential Tips for Agave Landscaping
When positioning agaves in your garden, avoid planting them near paths, sidewalks, driveways, or patios due to their spiny nature. Instead, utilize these plants as natural barriers along the edges of your garden or incorporate them well within planting beds. Also, keep in mind that agaves should not be planted beneath deciduous trees, as this can make leaf removal challenging.
For more information and a wide range of agave choices for your landscaping needs, visit Ames Farm Center.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.