09 May 2011

Flora Focus: Agave

As soon as we started thinking about landscaping, I knew I wanted an agave in the yard. We started by looking at the huge "century plant" type agaves that we see all around town, like this one:

That one is about four feet across, but there's one in our neighborhood that's probably eight feet wide by eight feet high. The name "century plant" comes from the notion that they grow and grow over the years (a hundred, they say, but that's just a myth) until they finally make a huge flowering stalk and then promptly die. Here's one in our neighborhood that started sending up its stalk about a month ago and will soon flower (and then meet its maker).

Anyway, as we looked at more agaves, we found smaller, less common varieties that were really interesting. I liked the ones with yellow edges, but Steve still preferred the big blues. After some negotiations, we settled on one like this:

It's an agave desmettiana variegata. It's currently about twenty inches across and will only grow to about three feet, so I think the scale will be good in our yard. The catch was that Steve insisted that we plant it ourselves. In my mind, a huge, heavy, pokey agave qualified for bringing in a professional, but I think he thought $90 was enough to spend on an agave that wasn't his first choice, without also paying someone to plant it.

So, fine, we would do it ourselves. So, while I was working on another project, Steve started digging. And soon hit a big tree root.

Which, after he broke through it, turned out to be a sprinkler line:

Uh oh.

Although we were virtually certain that our new irrigation system didn't have a line there, that was the end of the digging until we could confirm with the sprinkler guy that the we had only hit an unused line left over from the old house's sprinkler system. And sure enough, as our pictures showed, he had run the line for the front bed on the grass side of the edging and only brought it under the edging into the planting bed right where the capped line sticks out of the ground.


We (Steve) continued digging and found another pipe (the main water supply to the old house?). We were happy to leave it intact and just dig around it:

Once our hole was the depth of the pot and twice as wide (the rule of thumb for planting pretty much anything), we gathered some supplies:

The bucket was full of decomposed granite, salvaged when we tore out the temporary driveway (we'll get to that in a minute). The utility knife was to cut the pot off of the roots, so we wouldn't have to lift the agave up out of the pot. And in addition to gloves, we wore safety goggles so we didn't poke ourselves in the eye on the agave's pokey, pokey pokers:

But I had to take my gloves off a time or two, and one of the spines got me:

But back to the task at hand (no pun intended). We cut the pot apart and peeled it off.

Then we loosened the roots. Fortunately, there weren't many at the bottom, but there were lots on the sides.

I guess I assumed an agave would have a single, thick root reaching downward (like a carrot -- I don't know, it made sense to me), but there were actually a lot of thick, oddly-textured roots all around:

Hopefully they will help it settle into its new home.

To help with drainage (which is really important for agaves), we mixed the decomposed granite in with the dirt at the bottom of the hole. Then we carefully lowered the agave in and filled the hole with soil and more decomposed granite, then added mulch and stood back to admire our work:

With the boulder we bought when we had all of the soil and compost delivered, I think it makes a nice little tribute to the fact that we're in Texas, y'all (without being too desert-rific for the house or the rest of the plantings).

Assuming we can keep it safe through our occasional freezes, we can expect that it will slowly grow for 10-15 years, then flower and die. In that time, it is likely to make babies, and we look forward to transplanting one or two of them to the backyard. We'll be sure to do that before they get too pokey, though.


  1. You guys have great taste in agaves, and that is a beauty. So I'm reluctant to tell you that Agave desmettiana is not winter-hardy for Austin. Many of my friends (and myself) lost them over the last two winters. It's best to grow it in a pot that you can move in and out of the garage when freezes threaten. Also, not to be all gloom and doom, but a desmettiana of that size is probably quite a few years old already and may not have that many more years left in it before it blooms and dies. Still, desmettiana does produce a lot of pups, and you can clip those off this summer and plant them up in little pots, ensuring that you'll have additional plants for years to come. Good luck!

  2. I have a huge on of these in a pot that the roots were actually PUSHING THROUGH the side wall panel. I had to transplant it, but now it is so heavy, I can't lift it. So it's just lying there on it's side on the patio floor. There PLENTY of PUPS, but I have no clue how to seperate them from it's mother plant. If I knew how to do that... It would weigh less, and then maybe I could finally lift it into it new bigger home.

  3. Ellen, I have zero experience with separating pups, but I am going to have to learn soon because my agave sprouted one. I plan to start by gently tugging on it, maybe using some kind of tool like a hand shovel or even a fork if it resists. I figure it can't be too hard, right? Good luck!