Planting an agave is a thorny endeavor


Last weekend, after creatively wrestling this bad boy out of the car, my family helpers and I slid it onto a utility cart and rolled it into the back yard. This new whale’s tongue agave to replace Moby, while far from mature-size, is still large enough at 15 gallons to make planting — heck, even unpotting — a challenge. Especially as I would be planting it on my own, with everyone else at work or school.


For the uninitiated, whale’s tongue agaves, like most agaves, are well armed, with hooked thorns along the edge of every leaf and a sharp terminal spine at the end. The leaves are stiff (meaning they can poke you good) but also fragile; if you tip the plant on its side, the leaves can break and your beautiful plant will be permanently marred.

So how to plant it? First of all, you must wear eye protection. I recommend wrap-around safety goggles. You also need thick work gloves, sturdy and protective shoes, and, if you’re smart, a long-sleeved work shirt and pants. I wore short sleeves because it was hot, and I caught a few spines along my arm.


A mere flesh wound — no biggie. Definitely protect your eyes though.


After removing Moby last fall, I cleaned years of decomposing leaves out of the planting bed and added a yard of gravelly soil. It had settled over the winter, so it was prepped and ready for easy digging. I dug a hole just a little wider than the pot (since the soil was already loose, not compacted; otherwise, I’d have dug a wider hole to loosen things up for growing roots) and exactly as deep as the root ball. You don’t want an agave to settle deeper after a few rains; that leads to rot. So plant it high, but don’t leave the root ball exposed.


But first things first: how to actually unpot and plant this monster? I had to get creative. The plant was very heavy, but I was able to roll it close to the hole on the utility cart. I carefully slid it off the cart (this may have been when it bit my arm) and wrestled it over to the hole.

Tipping it over to unpot was impossible due to its weight and all those spines, plus I didn’t want to risk breaking the leaves. Instead I leaned the pot against a mound of dug-out dirt in order to access the bottom of the pot. Using tin snips, I cut the nursery pot off the plant, starting at the bottom drainage hole and working my way up. It cut more easily than I expected, and the pot was opened up in just a few minutes…


…revealing a mass of roots that had circled around the pot because there was nowhere else to go. I did what I do with all plants that are rootbound: I took a sharp tool (a shovel, utility knife, or pruning saw will work) and made deep, vertical cuts in four places on the lower half of the root ball. I also teased loose the roots circling around the top of the pot. It may seem like you’re hurting a plant to cut into its roots like that, but it actually encourages the roots to stop circling and grow outward into the soil.


Getting the agave into the hole proved tricky too. Because of its spines and weight, I couldn’t just pick it up and plop it in. I sat on the ground, leaned under the leaves (wearing my safety goggles!), and rocked the plant from side to side to edge it close to the hole. Then I leaned back and pushed with my legs to try to control its slide into the hole. Somehow it worked, and I didn’t even get stabbed! I backfilled soil, patted it firm, and stood back to admire Moby2. I’ll mulch this bed with gravel for good drainage — maybe after the live oak leaf drop, which seems to be starting early this year.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The upcoming talk with James deGrey David has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Install low-voltage outdoor lighting and create a welcoming glow


It’s only taken us 8 years to install outdoor lighting along the foundation of our house, and now that it’s done I’m wondering why on earth we waited so long. I love the warm, welcoming glow that a few wall-washing low-voltage lights creates.


What a change from before, as seen here. Two boxy, contemporary sconces (our replacement for too-small, traditional porch lights that we inherited) on either side of the porch nicely illuminate the doorway. But without additional lighting, the porch appears to float in pitch darkness — not very welcoming.


When we lost a tree this winter and I tore out the last patch of turf where it had stood, I decided it was now or never.


We bought 4 LED low-voltage flood lights from Hampton Bay at a local Home Depot. I considered wall wash lights, but I’d used floods at our previous house and thought they had a little more flexibility. We like that the fixtures are metal, not plastic, and we wanted LEDs to save energy and avoid the regular bulb changing required for traditional incandescent fixtures. LED lights are more expensive, but we hope it’ll pay off in the long run.

We also bought low-voltage cable to hook up the lights. Confusingly, there were two sizes of cable for sale, and the Hampton Bay box didn’t specify which size I needed. So I asked a Home Depot employee for help, and they looked up the lighting specs online and told me which size I needed.


Lay out your lights to decide how you want to position them.


Our ranch home’s facade is asymmetrical, and we decided one light would be enough on the left side.


We opted to highlight a sotol in a steel planter for nighttime drama, but we soon found it needed to be lit from the side, not head-on. Otherwise we had a big, pipe-shaped shadow on the front of the house.


The right side of our house is longer, so we placed two lights over there, one washing across the Chinese mahonias in the center of the foundation bed (between the windows) and the other highlighting the Japanese maple at the corner of the house. We added another light along the side-yard fence to highlight a piece of garden art and brighten a side path.

Run the low-voltage cable from the outlet where you’ll plug in your transformer to each light, leaving a little slack at each light so you can move it around if needed.


We already owned a transformer from our previous home’s lighting, so we didn’t need to buy one. Your transformer must be able to handle the wattage of lights you’re installing, so add up the wattage for all your lights and buy a transformer that can handle at least that amount. You may end up adding more lights (that’s easy to do), so it doesn’t hurt to buy a bigger transformer than you currently need. Of course LEDs use less wattage, allowing you to use a smaller transformer than if you choose incandescent lights.

Hook up the cable to the transformer by using wire strippers to remove about a half-inch of insulation from the two strands of wire at one end of the cable. Follow the instructions that come with your transformer to hook up one wire to the “A” terminal and the other wire to the “B” terminal.

Plug the transformer into a nearby outdoor electrical outlet and mount the transformer box on the wall. To hang it, screw a couple of screws to the wall, aligning them with pre-drilled holes on the back plate of the transformer box. If you don’t have an outdoor electrical outlet in the right spot, hire an electrician to run a line from your house to the spot where you need it, and have an outdoor GFCI outlet box mounted on a post that’s tall enough to support the transformer too. Make sure it’s situated where it won’t be an eyesore in your landscaping, but convenient to your lights.

A transformer with a timer allows you to set it to come on at dark every day and turn off at dawn, or in the wee hours if you prefer.


The lights have pinch-clips that bite into the cable. Once you’re sure about where you want your lights to be, unplug the transformer and simply clip each light onto the cable. The low voltage means it’s easy and safe to work with. When all your lights are hooked up and you’ve tested that they work by plugging in the transformer and turning them on, finish up by burying the cable a few inches deep, preferably along the house foundation or line of edging where you won’t be likely to dig in the future. If you ever do accidentally cut the cable, you can repair it by stripping the wires of both cut pieces and reconnecting them with wire nuts and electrical tape.


Press each light into the soil, being careful not to apply pressure to the head of the fixture, as that could damage the rotating joint that allows you to adjust the upward angle of the light.


Adjust the angle of the light as necessary to “wash” the wall or highlight a structurally interesting plant.


Avoid “hot spot” glare — where you see the bulb — by pointing lights away from pathways, doors, and windows.


It’s better to have too little light than too much. A prison-yard ambience is not what you’re after but rather a soft glow pulling certain features into focus.


Try it along your foundation to create your own welcoming glow.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The first talk with Scott Ogden has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get 24-hour advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Time to repot agave bulbils — i.e., Moby spawn


Two months ago Moby, my big whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia), bloomed and sent up a tree-sized flower stalk, on which hundreds of bulbils (baby agave clones) eventually formed. You can read all about that here and here.

I kept them misted through the last weeks of summer, but lately it’s turned cool and rainy — something agaves don’t like very much. Now that they’ve had time to root, I’ve given many of them away to friends near and far. One of those, Jenny at Rock Rose, told me she unpotted hers and found long roots circling the 4-inch pot, so I knew it was time to replant those I intend to keep. I selected 6 nice ones and gently shook the damp soil from their fragile roots. I bought 6 Italian terracotta pots from Shoal Creek Nursery (Italian terracotta doesn’t crack when it freezes like Mexican terracotta)…


…bagged cactus potting soil, and perlite to improve drainage and avoid root rot. (Pumice would be preferable to perlite, which floats, but I didn’t have any on hand. Next time I’ll order in advance.) The sales guy at Shoal Creek advised washing the perlite in a colander to flush out excess fluoride and to keep it from blowing around, which was easy thanks to this handy plastic colander and scoop from Tubtrugs, which I won as a door prize at this summer’s Garden Bloggers Fling.

Next I mixed one part cactus mix with one part perlite and filled the terracotta pots, first placing a small square of fiberglass mesh screening material over the drainage hole in the bottom. This is optional but helps keep out ants and hold the soil in place while still allowing water to drain freely.


With each pot filled partway, I placed a baby agave in the pot so the roots were spread out and down and then added more soil, gently pressing it around the plant.


Here they are, all potted up.


Gravel or rock mulch keeps the perlite from floating to the top of the soil when you water, plus it insulates the soil and gives a finished look to container plants. I bought vase-filler river stones and gravel at Target and spread a layer of black river stones atop each pot.


That’s better! For now they’re basking in the gentle autumn sun on the deck rail. Grow, Moby spawn, grow!


I still have some Moby babies left in my mobile potting station (a Gorilla Cart that I’ve covered with metal screening to keep out squirrels). Most of these are going to friends who’ve called dibs on a pup or two. But I hope to have a few leftover next spring to give away to a lucky reader or two! But wait — what’s that on the left?


Babies from a ‘Bloodspot’ mangave that bloomed months ago and finally produced bulbils of its own! Yes, I’m officially addicted to potting up bulbils. Grow, mangaves, grow!

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

What’s hot in garden design — or about to be? I interviewed designers and retailers across the U.S. to find out! Natural dye gardens, hyperlocalism, dwarf shrubs, haute houseplants, sustainability tech, color blocking, and more — check out my 2017 Trends article for Garden Design and see if anything surprises you.

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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