Most agaves are unfazed by harsh sun, high heat and minimal water. Their statuesque, fountainlike forms lend a sculptural element to any garden, and contrast beautifully with fine-textured plants. They also make good firebreak plants and security fences.
Pests & Problems
Being indigenous to the New World (the American Southwest, Mexico and Central America), larger agaves store enough moisture to get by on rainfall alone and will thrive in nutrient-poor soils.
Although agaves like water, their roots---like those of most succulents---will rot in waterlogged soil. Plant them in coarse soil that drains well.
With the exception of a few soft-leaved and variegated varieties, agaves want sun---the more the better in all but desert climates.
When cutting a damaged leaf, keep in mind that a straight-across cut at its midsection will spoil an agave's symmetry. It's best to make two cuts that trim the leaf to a "V" that resembles the leaf's natural tip. Or cut the leaf all the way to the trunk. See how.
Caution: Agave Dermatitis
Agave sap can cause contact dermatitis. If itching or rash develops, wash the affected area immediately. If symptoms persist, get medical care. Use common sense: The drier the agave, the less its moisture content. The fresher the agave, the greater the risk. Regardless, wear skin and eye protection. Do a patch test to determine your susceptibility.
Large agave removal
- Cut off the bloom spike when it forms at the top of the plant. (This doesn't stop an agave from dying, but it does prevent the stalk from turning into a tree.) See how.
- Saw off the agave's leaves and discard.
- Optional: Chop the roots and roll the pineappled core out of the way. (I was tired of looking at it and wanted to put something else there.)
- Let the core continue to dry. This can take six or more months.
- When the core is shrunken and dry, saw it into pieces for the trash.
Agaves smaller than basketballs make excellent potted plants. Small agaves---there are many---look best displayed one to a pot. And any large species, when young, is fine in a container.
About those spines
Sharp points at leaf tips and along leaf edges can make agaves treacherous. If this is a concern, snip about a quarter inch from needlelike tips with garden clippers.
Nothing easier. Agaves start readily, even those lacking roots. Simply set it atop friable soil and keep it out of strong, hot sun while growing roots (they form from meristem tissue at the base). Once rooted, an agave is able to hydrate its tissues and wants (or can handle) greater sun.
One of the most widely grown is A. americana (century plant), because it offsets so prolifically from lateral roots. Baby plants that pop up are "pups." Simply dig and replant.
When an agave blooms, you may get a bonanza of baby plants, or "bulbils." Those at the bottom of the flower stalk mature first. Cut off the stalk or wait for it to fall on its own, then twist off fat little babies. In nature these may root on their own, but it's best to give them a good start. Fill a pot with potting soil, place the bulbil atop it, set in part shade and keep soil moist. When it takes off, it's ready to go in the garden.
All but a few agaves are monocarpic, meaning they bloom once and then die. This may take as many as 25 years, but it will happen.
As it completes its life cycle, a mature rosette that has graced a garden for years sends up a tall flower stalk. Most, but not all, branch. The plant puts all its energy into flowering and eventually dies
Some of the larger flower stalks are so thick that they need to be cut apart with a chainsaw to remove them.
Flowers along the stalk eventually turn into miniplants (bulbils) or seed capsules from which new agaves can grow.
Only the individual agave that flowers dies. In some cases---notably Agave americana species---a litter of pups will carry on.
Most agaves can handle cold into the 20s F if kept dry, and some go a lot lower. Based on info from agave experts and nurseries, I include the lowest temperature those shown in my Agave Gallery can handle.
Where to buy agaves
If you're in Southern CA, see my list of succulent nurseries and destinations.
If you're in Tucson: Starr Nursery.
Elsewhere, check with your local Cactus & Succulent Society of America chapter.
***NEW*** Agave Essentials and Essential Agaves (14:36) How to select and grow agaves, plus 30 varieties for landscapes and gardens.
What You MUST Know About Century Plants (Agave americana) (2:50) Why this large succulent is both terrific and terrible.
Century Plant Life, Death & Removal (4:45) What to do when your Agave americana blooms and dies.
Six Great Agaves for Your Garden (4:53) Lovely alternatives to Agave americana.
Agave guiengola (with Kelly Griffin) (5:01) The gentle giant of succulents.
Variegated Agaves in Hybridizer Kelly Griffin's Garden (4:33) Glorious multi-colored agaves.
Grow Agave attenuata (foxtail agave) (3:02) See striped hybrids of this popular soft-leaved species.
How to Trim Foxtail Agave (A. attenuata) What to do when soft, smooth, leaves scorch in summer or are damaged by frost in winter.
Grow Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor' (2:27) This gorgeous small agave is gorgeous in gardens and containers.
If you think I've ID'd these or any plants incorrectly, I definitely want to know. Please leave a comment or email me. I hope you enjoy exploring this marvelous genus! — Debra Lee Baldwin