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.

Garden clean-up in progress for Foliage Follow-Up


The pond patio garden is mostly evergreen, so the big cleanup here occurs later, in March, when I muck out the pond and divide the water plants.

With our brief winter segueing right into spring, February is a transitional month here in Central Texas. We may yet get another freeze, but new growth is greening up many plants, even as winter-browned foliage hangs on.


Inland sea oats still sporting its winter look, with chevron seedheads dangling. Fresh green leaves are already popping up from the roots, so I’ll cut it back this week.

It’s important to provide cover and food sources for birds and other wildlife as well as have something to look at all winter, so I leave plants standing after they go brown. But now it’s definitely time.


Flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii) branches are showing new leaf growth. I’ll cut the branches back to about 12 inches to keep the plant compact.

My garden thinks winter is over, and I’m racing to keep up. Cutting back renews many of the woody natives and keeps them from getting straggly, like autumn sage and flame acanthus.


Mexican honeysuckle after its cut-back — not pretty now, but it’ll grow. I only cut it back this hard in years with hard freezes that turn it to mush.

Still, the big mid-February cut-back gets a little harder every year, the older I get, and I may hire help next year.


‘Vertigo’ pennisetum after its cut-back

But for now I forge on solo and try to get it done in manageable stages: a little last weekend, a little more this weekend.


I also need to make time for unexpected tidying, like this drooping ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon, which I noticed today leaning over the path. But check out the size on that Yucca rostrata by the shed! It grew a lot last year and now stands about 6-1/2 feet tall.


Last weekend I got sidetracked (of course) with some repotting, like the squid agave in the culvert-pipe planter, which had settled too deeply and needed to be pulled out and replanted in added soil.


I also replaced a shaded-out yucca in the taller blue pot with a ‘Sparkler’ sedge I transplanted. I hope it’ll survive my tough love of containers this summer by not requiring more than a weekly or maybe twice-weekly watering. I’ve struggled to find a plant that likes the bamboo-shaded, dry conditions of the stock-tank planter. I’m going to try Texas sotol this spring.


I’m happy to see a freeze-damaged ‘Chocolate Chips’ manfreda coming back nicely in the smaller pot, alongside Mexican feathergrass.


I’ve also done some significant planting lately, including a new 5-gallon Yucca rostrata ‘Sapphire Skies’ from Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery to accompany my prize-money yucca along the back fence.


I also planted a new and bigger Moby replacement — that is, a new whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia) for Moby’s old spot. I’ll have a post about agave-planting challenges soon!


I still need to tackle some pot clean-up chores, since December’s deep freeze made a mess of some of my succulents. Like this ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, for example. It’s normally beautiful at this time of year, with coral bloom spikes hoisted above slender, blue-green leaves. It’s blooming OK, but the fleshy leaves have bleached, frostbitten tips and would benefit from selective pruning.


The cinderblock succulent wall looks forlorn too, in spite of a brave show by the Palmer’s sedum (Sedum palmeri), which survived our freezing weather just fine and has been feeding honeybees for weeks. For future reference, other survivors include ‘Blue Spruce’ sedum, ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense), variegated prickly pear, and soap aloe with a little damage. I was most sad to lose my Coppertone stonecrop, but I can easily buy a new one, along with a few other small succulents, to refresh the wall planter this spring.

Like I said, it’s a busy time of year in the garden!

This is my February post for Foliage Follow-Up. Fellow bloggers, what leafy loveliness — or dead-foliage clean-up chore — is happening in your garden this month? Please join me in giving foliage its due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I’d appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! If you can’t post so soon after Bloom Day, no worries. Just leave your link when you get to it. I look forward to seeing your foliage faves.

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.

Pre-spring nursery shopping


Stacked pots of pansies, ornamental cabbage, and other annuals at The Natural Gardener

Even though the weather’s been terrific for gardening, I’ve been under the weather for about a week, keeping me from my annual late-winter cut-back of the garden. I really need to get that done because spring is arriving early in Austin this year. New growth is budding and unfurling on perennials, ornamental grasses, and trees, and I need to get the freeze-dried foliage out of the way.


Mockingbird ornament on a cedar branch fence at The Natural Gardener

Feeling a little run-down may have kept me from doing any physical labor, but it hasn’t kept me from cruising the local nurseries — just looking, for the most part. Barton Springs Nursery, Vivero Growers, The Natural Gardener, East Austin Succulents, Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery — they’re all getting new shipments of plants in daily, and I notice every place is hiring, so you can tell the big spring rush is nearly upon us.


I did, of course, buy a few plants here and there: ‘Scott’s Turf’ sedge at BSN a couple of weeks ago, and a big whale’s tongue agave at Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery today. What?? you may be wondering. What are you doing buying another whale’s tongue agave when you potted up hundreds of bulbils from Moby after he bloomed?

Well, let me tell you. I needed it. Moby left an awfully big hole when he went to the great big ocean in the sky. I tried a 5-gallon ‘Vanzie’ whale’s tongue in his place, but it was just too small, so I moved it elsewhere. While I’m normally patient about buying smaller plants and giving them time to grow, I have in the back of my mind at all times now that the Garden Bloggers Fling will be coming to Austin in 2018, and there are likely to be a lot of bloggers in my garden looking for Moby’s legacy.

So today I picked up this big (15-gallon), beautiful new whale’s tongue agave from HCWG (well, I didn’t pick it up; two strong guys wearing protective goggles loaded it up for me), and my entire family — all of us wearing safety goggles — helped me unload it when I got home. It probably weighs 150 pounds and is bristling with spines along all its leaves, not to mention 2-inch, needle-like spikes at the end of each leaf.

My husband came up with a genius idea for getting it out of the trunk of our SUV: he wedged a ladder lengthwise between the trunk and a sturdy rolling cart, which one of us held in place. He and my son wrestled the agave onto the ladder and slid it carefully down to the cart. Then my daughter steadied the agave while I rolled the cart into the backyard. Did Moby2 draw blood? Yes, all four of us were bleeding afterward — just a little! But it was worth it.

At least I think so.


While we’re talking new plants, let’s check in on my baby ‘Bloodspot’ mangaves, shall we? I’m growing these from scratch — or rather, harvested from a bloom spike on a mature ‘Bloodspot’ mangave that died after blooming last fall. Here were the mangave pups in November, freshly potted up.


And here they are today. Look how much they’ve grown! I’m liking this business of potting up baby plants, which I never used to bother with. I can’t wait until these get big enough to set out in the garden.

How about you? Are you doing any gardening yet, preparing for spring, or still enjoying winter downtime?

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.

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