Leveling a pot and potting it up

Sunny and 65 degrees F, yesterday was flat-out perfect gardening weather, and I puttered, planted, and potted nearly all day. One of my last projects before I collapsed indoors involved a bit of rearranging and ground prep in order to pot up a ‘Sharkskin’ agave that’s been too shaded for its liking. Some agaves, I’ve found, just do better in pots, where you can give them excellent drainage, especially in winter when they risk rotting in chilly, damp soil. Aside from that, placing a pot in a garden bed creates an instant focal point and elevates a plant so you can appreciate its finer details. Also, potting the ‘Sharkskin’, a lethally spiny agave, would make the garden safer for our dog, Cosmo. I’d been snipping the tips off the lower spines, but I still worried he’d get poked in the eye.

Looking for a hot, sunny spot to keep my ‘Sharkskin’ happy, I decided on this corner between the deck and the hillside-garden path. A few years ago, I’d recognized the need for a focal point here and plopped a birdbath filled with green glass “water,” moved from my former cottage garden. In summer this space is livelier with fragrant sweet almond verbena (Aloysia virgata), Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), and wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys). At this time of year only the globemallow and wall germander are green.

Looking up the path, it’s a late-winter, straw-bleached scene of bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa), butterfly vine (Mascagnia macroptera), and gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida). Oh yeah — plus the sad, shaded, little ‘Sharkskin’ agave.

After moving the birdbath out of the way, I got my tools and supplies together. That’s right: I don’t just plop a pot in a garden bed. If you do that, you’ll soon see your pot leaning to one side, sinking into the soft soil, and you’ll forever be futzing with it. But if you lay a compacted, level base for your pot to sit on, you won’t have to fiddle with it later.

I bought a bag of paver base (crushed gravel), a bag of paver sand, and a couple of 16-inch square concrete pavers from Home Depot. With a tamper (a heavy, metal plate with a wooden handle) at the ready, I grabbed my shovel and dug an 18-inch square 3 or 4 inches deep.

I poured the bag of paver base into the hole and used the tamper to pack it down firmly. Then I spread a few inches of paver sand and laid the first concrete paver, checking with a level and moving sand as necessary to ensure that the paver wasn’t sloping to one side. The first paver sat flush with the soil, which was fine, but I wanted a little more height, so I placed the second paver on top. Then I filled and tamped around the edges with the soil I’d dug out.

Next I heaved my beautiful new pot from Barton Springs Nursery (bought on sale just after Christmas) onto the pavers and checked one more time with the level. Perfect.

I put some chunky rock for drainage in the bottom of the pot, and then I filled it with a mix of gravelly pebbles (leftover from another project), decomposed granite, and Hill Country Garden Mix from The Natural Gardener. I dug up the ‘Sharkskin’, taking care not to impale myself, and potted it up. A mulch of decomposed granite finished it nicely. I hope it’ll be much happier here. I’m enjoying my new focal point.

Cosmo photobomb!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

20 Responses

  1. Shirley says:

    Cosmo approves of dressing up that part of the garden and making it safer to explore. Nice tip on using the base material to level the pavers.

    I have brought my sharkskin inside this winter but if you leave yours out then it should be fine farther south.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Shirley, the ‘Sharkskin’ has come through at least two winters in my garden. I’ve moved it several times, trying to find just the right spot. It seems completely winter-hardy here in central Texas, but it not tolerant of cold damp and has occasionally lost a leaf to rot. I’m hoping the pot and a sunnier location will do the trick. As you know, it’s also a particularly spiny agave, so safety is a concern as well. —Pam

  2. Alison says:

    Such excellent instructions, thanks! Cosmo is definitely giving that potted Agave “the eye” in your photo. Almost like he misses it being closer to the ground.

  3. I like the look of agaves in pots. And, it does make the drainage a bit better.

    I worry about spiky plants in our fenced yard, because of the dog. Maggie goes completely bonkers, over squirrels. She’d run right into them. Pots are a good solution.

    I’ve used pavers under the pots, but not the sand, etc. That’s a good tip.

    And, that is a great pot you have there.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      My sister’s dog got poked in the eye by a rose thorn, so it can really happen with any number of plants. But agaves are particularly worrisome unless they’re in pots — and then it’s only your own eyes you have to worry about! I’m all about moving verrrry slowly around my agaves when I’m working in the garden. —Pam

  4. Jean says:

    Another thing to add to my spring buying list – a tamper. I’ve only tried one agave in the ground here in Louisiana and it looks like it gave up the ghost this winter (though it was on a slow decline). My others are in pots and seem to be quite happy. Love Cosmo and his photo bombs!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Oh yeah, we’ve used our tamper so much over the years, for D.G. paths mostly. A handy tool. I’m sorry to hear about your agave in the ground, but good thing you have some in pots. —Pam

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Cosmo knew he should be in the photo since one of the reasons for this shift in focal points is his safety. Nice job.

  6. Kris P says:

    Good tips! I’ve made the mistake of failing to level a birdbath before so I’ve learned my lesson about the value of proper preparation. I’m glad Cosmo can now navigate with his safety assured!

  7. Jenny says:

    Now that’s what I call a thorough job. The pot planted with the sharkskin make a great feature. My sharkskin rotted from the center this winter. I don’t know the reason because I haven’t pulled anything but the center of it out yet. Strange because it grows on a sea of road base. Maybe some kind of weevil.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Oh, I hope it’s not the agave weevil, Jenny. ‘Sharkskin’ does seem quite prone to rotting, but since yours was in road base, that seems less likely. —Pam

  8. Diana says:

    That’s lovely. I’ll be calling you when I’m ready to level my pots. My method is tried and true – you just push you shoulder into it a little bit and shove some more mulch under one side. Until it leans again! Ha. Great how-to lesson.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Diana, I’ve been doing just that with that birdbath for the past 4 years. This time, when I moved it to a new spot to make room for the potted agave, I did it right. Sometimes it takes a while to get motivated! —Pam

  9. ricki says:

    I have a number of tilting pots out there and now I know how to fix that. Thanks. Yours really dresses up that spot.

  10. Laura says:

    Wow, had no idea how much work went into each of your pots. I guess this explains why mine are all tilted :)

    • Pam/Digging says:

      To be honest, I don’t do this with every pot, Laura. But for big, heavy ones I take the time to set them up right because I don’t want to be shifting them again later. —Pam