Transplanting a big agave: do you dare?

As regular readers know, I’m moving to a new house this week, and I’ve vowed to take my prized ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (Agave ovatifolia ) with me rather than leave it to the vagaries of fate and a new owner who may not appreciate its prickly charms.

Still, I quailed at the thought of digging up this porcupine of a plant nearly four feet in diameter and three feet tall, each broad leaf armed with curved, serrated thorns and tipped with inch-long, needle-sharp spines. So I emailed local agave expert Jeff Pavlat, president of the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society and whose beautiful garden MSS posted about recently. I’ll quote his advice in full for anyone else crazy enough to try moving a large agave:

Agaves usually don’t mind being dug up and moved. Of course, the larger the plant, the heavier and more difficult it is to move. There is a slight chance that the move will stress the plant enough to send it into bloom. This doesn’t happen very often and usually it’s with fairly mature plants. Since Agave ovatifolia was formally described as a species in 2002 and only became commercially available shortly after that, I’m going to assume that you don’t have a really mature plant even though it’s getting fairly large.

The easiest thing to do is to dig it up and replant it right away in its new location — but that probably isn’t an option for you. If you can dig around it and get it out of the ground with the roots still in a ball of dirt, you can wrap burlap around it like they do trees. However, because agaves usually have very long and not generally dense roots you probably will find that the soil will fall off and leave you with a mostly bare root plant. That’s O.K., agaves don’t mind being bare-rooted. If this happens, you should trim the roots back to around a foot from the base of the plant and remove any dead leaves. Agaves usually re-root very easily. Then all you have to do is pot it up until you’re ready to move and replant it — of course, that’s probably easier said than done. I would try to put it in a 24-inch shallow (18 inches deep or so) pot. If you need to remove a few of the healthy lower leaves to get soil in the pot you can do so without hurting the plant. Keep in mind that if you can do all of this without the plant taking any of your blood, I will be impressed.

Okey-dokey. Errm, let’s go!

At Lowe’s I bought an inexpensive ($12) shallow, plastic tub meant to be used as a pond liner. With a dozen holes drilled in the bottom, it seemed an adequate temporary container for the big, blue whale. But when I set it next to the agave, it shrank alarmingly. Good grief, would it fit in there? Oh well. Forge on!

I dressed as for battle. Rubber garden clogs. Jeans. Heavy, long-sleeve safari jacket (last worn in the wilds of Africa!) over an old t-shirt. Thick leather work gloves. Wrap-around plastic goggles. Hair pulled back and tucked under a straw hat. Except for the straw hat, which should have been a hockey mask and football helmet, I felt well protected. And hot. By the time I started digging it was in the upper 80s. And y’all know how I love the heat, right?

First step: clipping off the lower leaves in order to get a shovel under the plant. My long-handled pruners did a good job of slicing through the succulent, fibrous leaves without my having to get too close.

However, some of the leaf fibers were uncuttable and required leaning in close with a handsaw. I moved slowly and carefully, trying to remain aware of all spines in the vicinity of my face and neck.

I don’t have a picture of the next stage, as I was physically incapable of taking a photo. I dug all around the base of the plant, trying to cut out a decent-sized root ball. When I’d dug deep enough, I tried levering the plant up with the shovel so I could get under and cut the main roots. No dice. The agave seemed to weigh as much as a whale and would not budge.

By this time, sweat was running down the inside of my goggles, I was wiping my sweaty face with gloves sopped in agave juice from the severed leaves, and suddenly my face was stinging and itching madly. A few choice words escaped my lips as I dashed inside to get a wet towel and wash my face with soap and water. OK, no harm done. Note to self: take clean towel outside for mopping up the puddle I would become in another 10 minutes.

I dug a smaller circumference around the agave and tried to lever it up again. It budged. Encouraged, I dug some more and levered again. It lifted on one side and then on the other. Success! But how to pick it up and deposit it in the plastic tub?

The thing about agaves, which is probably apparent to everyone else but wasn’t to me, is that they don’t come with handles. You can’t lean in to lift the root ball without facing death by a thousand points. You can’t grab hold of the lower leaves to pull because they’re lined with thorns, and anyway they’re pretty fragile and snap like a Saltine cracker if you apply any pressure. You can’t pick them up on your shovel because they’re ridiculously dense and heavy. I couldn’t just leave the mess until my husband came home to help. What if a potential buyer called right that minute to see the house? I sat and thought about my fellow garden bloggers’ hauling experiences, and one in particular came to mind.

WiseAcre Gardener outsmarts heavy boulders with a chain, so I thought I might be able to outsmart ole ‘Whale’s Tongue’ by roping it like a heifer at the rodeo. Looping a thick length of rope around the base, I hauled with all my might, trying to bully it out of its hole. Nothing doing. Several exhausting tries later, I went back to digging and levering, finally getting my handsaw under and sawing blindly at stones, clods of soil, and presumably some recalcitrant roots. Pulling again on the roped agave like a madwoman, I felt it slide. Yippee!

I decided it would be easier to slide it if it were in the tub, so I pulled up with the rope first on one side, then the other, wedging the tub further under the agave on each pass. I sustained a few pokes in the knee, but no blood loss yet!

Now for the removal. I pulled as hard on the rope as I could, but the Whale just sat there, too heavy for one mere mortal to budge. So I started digging again, creating a gentle exit ramp out of the creature’s lair. This time when I pulled, it slid, and two buckets of sweat and some unprintable words later, it was out of the hole and sitting on the stone path.

Not done yet! Now I had to get the potted agave up on a wheeled dolly. I’ll spare you the details of levering, lifting, and avoiding painful spikes to the face. Eventually I won, and the agave is resting comfortably in the back yard, awaiting the next big move. I only hope I got enough of its roots for it to recover.

And guess what, Jeff? It didn’t get any of my blood. At least not this time.

All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

41 Responses

  1. You are Superwoman Gardener now! You should get some kind of merit badge for getting the agave dug up and in that container. I am very impressed. V.e.r.y impressed!

    I had to live up to my blog title, Carol. That, and “Never leave a man behind!” ;-) —Pam

  2. cherry says:

    You ROCK !!!

    Ha! It was like moving a rock, Cherry. —Pam

  3. Jenny says:

    I have to admit when you talked about moving it I thought- she must be crazy! I now see you were crazy and determined and successful. And someone called my clearing bermuda from the path “hard work” What are you going to put in the hole?

    I AM crazy sometimes, Jenny. I stuck a purple fountain grass in there. —Pam

  4. I wondered how in the world you were going to move this–but hated to ask! Now I know. Where there is a know. I can’t wait to see the new yard!

    I wondered too, Linda. Now I’ve got to find a place for it in the new garden or keep it in its holding pen for a while. Pressure! —Pam

  5. Nancy Bond says:

    You are Wonder Woman! Power to you for being so determined. I hope your agave makes the move well. :)

    After all that effort, me too, Nancy! —Pam

  6. Death-defying! Bravo!

    You have no idea. —Pam

  7. I don’t know what to say. You are WOMAN! You go girl. I wouldn’t have attempted it. Okay, maybe I would have just because it’s so big and so beautiful. What else is to be moved for the rest of this week?~~Dee

    I dug up the large mangave in the stock tank planter too, but that was much easier. I’m getting a few divisions and bulbs tomorrow, and that’s it. —Pam

  8. Robin says:

    Oh, Pam! You were determined to do this without help from all of us out here who would have gladly pitched in! I’ve been there, when dogged determination outweighs seeming logic. Congratulations on your feat of Superwoman-ness, and remember, even Superwoman occasionally had help from Supergirl. Impressive work! Robin

    Believe me, Robin, I was running names through my mind, trying to think who I might call for help. And then I decided that I could figure out a way on my own. Yep, stubborn. —Pam

  9. Diana Kirby says:

    You are woman, and we just heard you roar! Wow. When I talked to you on Friday, I had no idea how much of a Herculean battle it was. You did a great job of DIGGING and, subsequently, telling the story. So it’s not surprise that you won all those Blotanical awards — Congratulations, BTW! You certainly deserve ’em.

    Thanks, Diana. I think I was in the middle of the big dig when I spoke to you. Did you have a good time at BSN? —Pam

  10. Lola says:

    ROFLOL. Good for you.I’m glad you didn’t lose any blood. Next how are you going to get it on a truck?

    My DH is enlisted to help, Lola. Thank goodness. —Pam

  11. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Oh my gosh Pam, I leaned and pulled and grunted right along with you while reading your saga. I am so proud that you didn’t give up. I would imagine that your agave will do just fine with its move. There is an older gentleman here in town that for years dug up a HUGE agave and moved it into his pitiful excuse for a greenhouse each winter. The poor plant lay on its side on the ground without any soil on its roots all winter then come spring he replanted it. This went on for years. I am sure with your tlc the whales tongue will survive and thrive.

    I sure hope so, Lisa. That’s interesting about the man who dug up his huge agave every year. Boy, he must have been strong as well as determined to have that exotic plant. —Pam

  12. Is your middle name IronWill?? What grit and determination. That woulda been a job for my husband, and that would have been a difficult and digging it myself! I would have gotten a dissertation on why it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done…. Any congratulations on a job well done and also on Blogging Awards. You cleaned up girl!

    Thanks, Gardenmomma. Sometimes you’ve got to do a job yourself to get it done, right? —Pam

  13. arythrina says:

    Amazing set of pictures and great story! I’ve got my fingers crossed for your plant’s survival!

    Thanks, Arythrina. My fingers are crossed too! —Pam

  14. deb says:

    What an incredible accomplishment. Hope it enjoys the new home.

    I sure hope so too, Deb. It better. —Pam

  15. Kim says:

    What a story! I was on the edge of my seat. You are braver than I am – I’d have had reinforcements there from the start. I’m really glad you also posted the advice from expert Tom Pavlat – it gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, I can manage a Whale Tongue here in zone 7 in Maryland. I just know yours will survive, and I can’t wait to see it in its new home. And it does have handles now that it’s in the tub!

    I tend to jump into projects feet first, Kim. Reinforcements would have been nice. However, now I have bragging rights. ;-) —Pam

  16. Phillip says:

    I must have missed the post about your moving? Are you going to try and take all your plants with you?

    You’re missed a few posts then, Phillip. I’ve been writing about moving for nearly a month. I’m taking a few plants with me: sentimental passalong favorites, the big agave, and a couple of other slow-growing plants. The rest will have to take their chances with the next owner, whoever that turns out to be. —Pam

  17. Leslie says:

    I am beyond impressed! You did what you had to do…that is a very special plant. Not many people could have managed that without help!

    Most people would have been smarter about lining up help in advance. ;-) —Pam

  18. At least digging it & moving it was not complicated, but it definitely doesn’t look like it was easy. I can’t believe you tackled that by yourself. I would have had my husband helping me at the least. You are one brave gardener. Congratulations on your Blotanical awards, but I think you should get some kind of award for pulling off moving that bad boy.

    I wonder what that award would be called, MMD. The Crazy Gardener Award? Ha! There’d be stiff competition for that one. Lots of us are crazy enough about our plants to win that one. —Pam

  19. Wow, Pam – that is an incredible feat for one woman to accomplish! I hope that Agave appreciates how much you wanted it to move with you and settles in fast. Wish you had called me… even if I’m too creaky to give much help with the actual work, I would have been happy to take the video ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Whoo, I’d never have lived that down. I was a wreck by the time it was done. Thank heavens there were no recording devices around but my own. ;-) —Pam

  20. commonweeder says:

    I came to congratulate you on your Blotanical award and now I see why it is so deserved. What a story! Wait til I tell my daughter who is newly living in Texas, albeit near Houston.

    Hi, Commonweeder, and thanks. Yep, I’m crazy about my ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave, but this is the one and only time I’ll ever be moving it. What a day that was! —Pam

  21. Frances says:

    Hi Pam, this reminds us of Moby Dick. You will not rest without your whale! I am in awe of your stubborn determination, that’s what it takes to do a job that they said couldn’t be done! I love the part where the pond liner tub looked so small next to the giant agave. You are a real Texan now with that superb lasso job, and Amazonian queen as well. Your new garden will enjoy the fruits of your efforts when the whale is planted in a place of prominence there. May you never have to move again.

    Frances, I am cracking up over your vision of that agave as Moby Dick and myself as Captain Ahab! Thank goodness I didn’t end up roped to it at the bottom of the hole. —Pam

  22. Cindy says:

    Mercy, Pam, you had me huffing and puffing right along with you! I hope the Whale’s Tongue will be spectacularly untemperamental about the move and settle nicely into its new home.

    Me too, Cindy. It owes me! —Pam

  23. I’m very impressed! That’s some level of commitment. I can understand why, because I know the whale tongue agave is very central to your garden, but did you ever have a moment of thinking, “Sheesh, maybe I’ll just get another one for the new house”?

    Several times I’d looked at that big agave and thought, Nah, I’ll just leave it for the next owner. But then I’d consider that the next owner might well rip everything out and put in grass, and thinking of that cherished agave tossed out to the curb was the impetus I needed. That agave feels like a representation of this garden, especially here at Digging, and I just couldn’t leave it. Plus, as a local nurseryman and Jeff Pavlat have told me, you simply can’t find ‘Whale’s Tongue’ right now. —Pam

  24. I would have lined up some help before I attempted tackling that job. How long would you say it took you, in total?

    It took about 3 hours, Kathy. —Pam

  25. I want another post on transporting your Whale to your new home . . . do you have to pay a moving company extra for that?

    My husband and I are going to move it, Mary Beth. I’ll get a picture of it in the back of my car. Sure hope it fits! —Pam

  26. eve says:

    Good Grief. Indiana Jones has nothing on you. You are my newest hero. We had to move some Pampa Grass, which cuts you up bad and is pointy, and hard to budge, but that is worse I think. It will be worth it when you see it established in your new yard.

    I sure hope so, Eve. We’ve still got to get it over there. The adventure continues… —Pam

  27. Chookie says:

    And all this time I’ve been thinking that it was about a foot across; not knowing any of your native plants, I had no idea of the scale of your garden! Congratulations on not being bitten.

    Oh, it’s pretty big, Chookie. Believe me, it got bigger by the minute as I wrestled with it. —Pam

  28. What a riveting tale Pam. I hadn’t realised how big it actually was until I saw your spade lying quite close to it. It’s humongous, what a monster! It’s good to know that it didn’t get your blood, well done you. Now all you have to do is move it to the new garden and plant it. Can’t wait to read all about that. :-)

    BTW Congrats on winning Best Drought Tolerant, Best Pics and Most User Friendly Blog. Again with the well done!

    Many thanks, YE. And yep, that agave is a biggie. —Pam

  29. Bonnie says:

    Wow Pam, nice job!!!! I saw a tutorial on moving large rosebushes by Skip Richter and he recommended slipping an old blanket under the root ball and then having one person on each side to grab the blanket and move it across the ground. Perhaps that will work if reaching in to grab the container takes you too close to the needles. Call us if you need extra hands!

    Great idea, Bonnie. I’m filing that away for when I plant it. —Pam

  30. Aiyana says:

    What a job! That Agave was well worth moving though. It’s gorgeous. It will probably be fine. I’ve moved a fairly large one before with very little root attached, and though it took a while to recover, it’s now fine.

    That’s reassuring. This one looks fine so far. It may live in its pot for a month or more until I make a spot for it. —Pam

  31. Wow, what a job! I know that levering, digging and using of “a few choice words” all too well myself… so I nodded and laughed through your entertaining explanation. :)

    Good luck with the move, Pam!

    Thanks, Kim! —Pam

  32. eliz says:

    Can’t wait to see pictures of your new garden!

    They’re up now, Elizabeth. Well, it’s more of a yard than a garden at this point, but that’ll come with time (and money!). —Pam

  33. Libby says:

    Wow. I am in total awe. I really admire you for tackling this on your own. The rope was a stroke of brilliance And I will bookmark for future as I’m concerned about my agaves getting bigger and taking over the front garden; I may need to move them a few years.

    Ooh, move them now, Libby. I don’t recommend moving a large one unless absolutely necessary. —Pam

  34. […] you’ve been following the saga of my ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (Agave ovatifolia ), you’ll know how I wrestled it out of the dirt in my old garden in order […]

  35. How wise to think to dig an exit ramp in order to extract your Whale from its hole. I was having some very large (and heavy) sago palms removed one day. After the men dug the root ball, they leaned the rootball to one side and filled under it with dirt. Then they leaned it to the other side and filled with some more dirt. They continued on until the rootball was sitting on top of the ground. Ingenious – and nearly as cool as your exit ramp.

    That is a great tip, Mary Beth. Thanks for passing it along. —Pam

  36. Love the new blue bottle tree. So much so, I am going to add one to my new garden on the side of my garage. I think blue is the best choice for a bottle tree. While I’ve seen rainbow colored ones, green ones and yes brown ones, blue just grounds the space so perfectly. Thanks Pam.

    Bottle trees are fun and can be made so many different ways. There’s one in Lucinda Hutson’s garden here in Austin made of tequila bottles with a mulch of wine corks beneath. —Pam

  37. wiseacre says:

    Wow Pam,

    That was a job for someone else. Glad it wasn’t. You stuck with it and never gave up. Goob well done outsmarting that Whale’s Tongue’. I’m making you an official Idiot’s apprentice.

    Now I’m a bit worried about inspiring people to do things only an idiot would do. Keep it reasonable people, limit yourself to a ton or less.

    For plants – use tie down straps, the wider the better so you don’t ‘cut thru’ the root ball with a thin rope.

    Wiseacre, I can be stubborn about some things, and the garden is one of them. That agave was coming with me, gosh darn it. Wish I’d thought of the tie-down straps, although, knowing me, I’d have been too impatient to stop and go buy some. Next time (should that terrifying day ever come) I’ll have a few more tricks up my sweaty sleeve. —Pam

  38. […] BEFORE. The uppermost raised bed was the first space I cleaned out and replanted, right after we moved in. I needed a home for the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ (Agave ovatifolia), a monster of an agave I removed from my old garden. […]

  39. Lydia says:

    I have some huge agave century plants. They are about 4’5′ across and the needles are quite long. I need to move them into the greenhouse for the winter and would like to know if there anything that I can use to move them with the least amount of pain.

    You might try sticking wine corks on the spines before moving them, Lydia. —Pam

  40. […] of my favorite posts is about digging up a big, spiky agave out of my old garden in order to move it to my new home. What a job! But I saw the humor in the […]

  41. atissa says:

    Hi, I did the same thing with two 3′ tall 4-5 feet wide Giant Agavi three weeks ago and so far it is doing OK in the temp. pots. but in couple of days, i have to move them across the country with the rest of my household. the problem is, i can’t find any boxes larger than 2′ wide. do you think, it will make it?