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.
_______________________

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.

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.
_______________________

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.
_______________________

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.

Follow