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.

Potting up agave bulbils


My whale’s tongue agave, Moby, came down last week. This week I’ve been sorting and planting bulbils (baby agave clones) from the bloom stalk. I’ve never had an agave bloom before, much less harvested its bulbils, so I looked online for advice and found Len Geiger’s helpful post at Married to Plants and followed his instructions.


First I used hand pruners to remove clusters of bulbils from the bloom stalk. Mine looked different from Len’s in that short flower stalks were coming up from the bulbil mass. I don’t know why. I picked through each cluster, pulling away and discarding the flowers and trying to find easily removable bulbils, as Len advised.


Many of the bulbils came loose in clusters, which makes it hard to separate tightly connected bulbils without breaking them. I tried gently pulling them apart and discarded those that broke off too high, keeping those that had little nubs of roots.


Mid-sort, the green tub on the right contains unsorted bulbil clusters. The red tub contains the best of the harvested bulbils.


The final harvest. Most are very small, but a few bigger ones stand out. I’ll keep a half-dozen of these as insurance, in hopes that I get 2 or 3 well-rooted plants to carry on Moby’s legacy.


Next I set up my potting supplies: bagged cactus potting soil, bunches of old 4-inch nursery pots, rooting hormone and a dish to put it in, a cup of water, and a trowel. My potting station? A brand-new Gorilla Cart that I won in a raffle at the Minneapolis Garden Bloggers Fling! It made a perfect set-up, as I can move it around for more or less sun very easily (and in and out of the garage when it freezes in a few months), and the mesh sides will help keep squirrels from digging in the pots while the agaves root.


Here’s what an ideal bulbil looks like: a clean break at the bottom with a little nub of root, already hardened off in a shady, dry place for a couple of days.


Per Len’s instructions, I dipped the bottom of each bulbil in a cup of water before dipping it in rooting hormone (the water helps it stick). He said rooting hormone may be unnecessary, but he uses it, and I thought it couldn’t hurt, especially since many of the bulbils are very small, with less root than this one.


Then I made a small hole in a soil-filled 4-inch pot and stuck the bulbil in, gently pressing the soil around it.


One Gorilla Cart filled! Len didn’t mention how often he waters his baby agaves while they root, but I’ve been misting mine once a day because it’s 100 degrees out. I’m keeping them in bright shade under a live oak, where they’re getting a bit pelted with acorns, but the Death Star is too much for them right now.


Here’s the final result. I ended up planting about 120 bulbils. (Sharp-eyed readers will notice a few squid agave pups in there.) Many are teeny tiny, and who knows if all of them will root. I’ll know in a couple of months. Meantime, I’ve wrapped rolled wire over the pots to discourage squirrels, who at this time of year are burying acorns like treasure-hoarding pirates. I can just picture them yanking out agaves and filling the pots with acorns.

You may be wondering what I will do if all 120 root. Well, I’m giving many of them away to agave-loving blogger friends in Austin and beyond, although I’ll probably wait to mail them until next spring, when they’ll be established and I won’t have to worry about them freezing in transit as they go through Denver or wherever. If I have leftover Moby Jr.’s at that time, I’ll have a giveaway of them here at Digging, so stay tuned!

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

Austinites and native-plant shoppers, I’ll be at the member’s day Fall Plant Sale at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on October 14, and I hope to see you there! I’ll be signing books between 1 and 3 pm in the Wild Ideas gift shop. If you’re not a member, of course you can still come on out and see the gardens and stop in at Wild Ideas. Hope to see you there!

South Texans, come see me at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa festival in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, October 22. I’ll be delivering the keynote talk, “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” that evening. Tickets are on sale at Quinta Mazatlan. I hope to see you there!

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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