Home & Garden

May 17, 2014

Get hooked on agaves

Amid drought, these desert stars find more fans for their sculptural beauty and low-water needs.

During times of drought, garden thoughts run dry – as in, which plants can cope with little water?

We Californians practically live in a desert, so why not embrace more desert plants? But not too closely – those spikes hurt!

Longtime succulents expert Pat Allen has decades of experience growing some of the unthirstiest of plants – agaves.

“That’s the drought-resistant way to go for our area,” Allen said. “Some succulents don’t always live well when planted out in the open; it gets too cold or too hot. But agaves survive.”

Many agaves as well as other succulents and cacti will be on display this weekend during the 38th annual Carmichael Cactus and Succulent Society’s show and sale at the Carmichael Park Clubhouse. It’s a chance to check out many different varieties in one place – and take some home, too.

As a local expert, Allen has been fielding many questions about succulents as choices for water-wise landscaping.

“I get calls all the time about succulents (as drought-proof landscaping),” she said. “There’s been a lot of interest during the drought. With agaves, you water twice a month in hot weather – if needed. They’re really easy to work with – if they don’t rip your clothes off.”

At her Antelope home, she grows more than 200 agaves, almost all in pots. Allen waters each plant by hand. Fortunately, the agaves don’t need much.

“I can go 25 days (without irrigation) for my plants,” said Allen, who keeps careful track of temperature, precipitation and water use. “In winter, I don’t water at all. From Oct. 15 to March 15, I don’t pick up a hose.”

When she does water, each plant gets a sip, not a deluge.

“I feel the leaves – carefully,” she said, noting the spiny margins and needle-like extensions on many agave leaves. “If the leaves feel firm, they have enough water. If they’re looking wrinkled, they get a drink.”

Like all succulents, agaves store water, mostly in their leaves.

“The biggest mistake people make with agaves is overwatering,” Allen said. “Don’t flood them. Don’t give them too much water – they can’t hold it.”

Agaves need excellent drainage; if their roots stand in water or get too much moisture, they’ll rot. That can be an issue if the agaves are planted in the ground, especially in heavy clay soils. In a pot, the soil and irrigation level can be closely monitored and modified as needed.

Planted in sandy soil and gravel, agaves appreciate desertlike surroundings for their roots. That makes them ideal for container gardens.

“You want good drainage in the pot,” Allen said. “If you water with a hose, the water just rushes out the bottom – it’s a waste. Water with a long-spouted watering can. That way, you can pinpoint the water and give just a little.”

Containers also can stunt the growth of larger agave such as the familiar century plant ( Agave americana). The leaves of this pale-blue agave often grow more than 8 feet tall. The bloom stem can extend more than 20 feet high.

“Agave will live in whatever you give it,” Allen said. “ Agave americana can get as big as a house. A pot will contain its roots and keep it small.”

She pointed to her own examples of century plants kept under 2 feet tall and wide. But those blue agave are only part of a colorful assortment. Agave lophantha “Quadricolor” has handsome striped leaves in four distinct colors. Mangave “‘Bloodspot” looks like its been splattered in a crime scene (or by careless gardeners). Like a giant starburst, Agave geminiflori glows red in morning sunlight.

Most agave form their leaves into a giant rosette, making them a very sculptural plant. That shape also makes them an interesting landscape asset, no matter the drought conditions.

“(Agaves’) curved or undulating leaves suggest motion, which makes any garden more intriguing,” said succulents expert Debra Lee Baldwin, author of “Designing with Succulents” (Timber Press). “Two to three varieties selected for shape, color and texture can create simple, eye-catching compositions.”

Plant them in rows or geometric patterns. Some agaves – such as the Agave parryi – can form a fence line with its own sharp pickets.

Most agave are propagated from offshoots or “pups” that form around the base of the mother plant. The hardest part is extracting those offshoots without getting stabbed, Allen noted. But once removed, the baby plants will form their own roots along the bottom of their main stem, usually in two to three weeks.

The biggest misconception that most people have about succulents is that they all love full sun, Allen said.

“Most thrive with some afternoon shade,” she said. “In fact, a lot of my plants get only three hours of sun a day.”

Another misconception: Agaves and aloes are the same thing or very close. They look a lot alike, but are from different genera and have different needs. In California, agaves are a more natural fit. They’re New World plants, native primarily to Mexico and other desert areas of the Americas. Aloes represent the Old World, native to sub-Saharan Africa and dry climates of the Mediterranean.

With more than 200 species, agaves tend to tolerate a wider spread of temperatures – both hot and cold. They can take 100-plus degree days as well as nights below freezing down to 28 degrees (some varieties, even colder). Aloes are more sensitive to heat and cold. Agaves like it dry while aloes can accept more water, which makes the latter a better fit for combining with non-succulent Meditearrean plants.

Their spikes – the thornlike protrusions along the leaf margins – curve in different directions, too, Allen noted. On agaves, the spikes tend to curve towards the center. On aloes, the spikes usually curve outwards. Agave leaves are more fibrous while aloe leaves are softer and contain a gel-like substance.

“Aloe leaves break easily,” she said. “Agaves are hard to break.”

Unlike healing aloe, agaves actually contain a substance that can cause skin irritation. When working with these plants, wear gloves.

For her plants, Allen has some specialized, long-handled tools. She uses a 10-inch hemostat to pick up any debris that falls between pointy leaves.

“The good thing, the litter from these plants is almost nil,” she said. “You’ve got to be careful working around these plants. When the leaves dry out, they’re plain dangerous.”

“If your clothes get caught, don’t try to pull loose,” she added. “You’ll pull the plant right out of the pot. Instead, take off your sweater or whatever and carefully unhook it from the plant. You’ll do less damage.”

Allen has brought back to life plants damaged by frost or calamity. That’s part of the challenge.

“I don’t give up on a plant; they’re living things,” she said. “But that’s also one reason why I like agaves; they’re so resilient.

“I like the strength they show me,” Allen said. “They’re strong, they survive. And yet, they’re so beautiful.”

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