In The Garden With the Fluvanna Master Gardeners
By Irene C. Burke - Fluvanna Master Gardener
Fluvanna County Extension Office: 434.591.1950
Appearances may be deceiving but in the case of agaves and aloes I think there would be no mistake. Aloes, with north African origins, have a soft succulent look, while agaves, from the wild arid regions of our Western hemisphere, bear threatening spines and leaner leaves.
Aloes are not suitable for the outdoor garden in Virginia’s zones 6 and 7, where their fleshy leaves will readily freeze. Rather, use their vertical spires for your indoor plant collection to contrast with the softer trailing tropicals like asparagus fern and pothos.
Though accustomed to bright light, the leaves will scorch from direct afternoon sun. In summer, set them out only in dappled shade.
While aloe’s outer leaves exude a yellow-green irritant when bruised or scraped, the clear viscous gel of the inner leaves are said to heal and soothe flesh wounds, especially burns.
For succulents, irrigation must imitate native growing conditions or they’ll rot. Allow aloe’s sandy soil to dry completely before soaking, and water monthly in winter’s shorter, cooler days.
Agaves do not belong to the same family as cactus or aloe. What agaves offer us though, is a range of growing conditions from tropical to hardy.
Hardy agaves have the potential to create some unusual assemblies of drought tolerant plants in the sunniest spaces of your property, whether in the ground or a container, on the deck or at the mailbox.
Try Agave gracilipes, Agave harvardiana Davis Mts. TX coll. #IB278, Agave neomexicana, Agave parryi ssp. Truncata, or Agave potatorum. They grow in high deserts where sun is plentiful and temperatures drop to zero in the winter, low forties during summer nights.
You’ll need leather gauntlets for handling. When agave spines injure, the distress continues — reddening, blistering and bruising for 2-3 weeks.
Sculpt a planting hole on a slope that is 4 times the width of the root ball. They have long fibrous roots. Fill to 8 inches above the horizontal plane with one-third coarse sand, one-third finished compost and one-third native soil. Using a board or your hand, push aside the fill-dirt at grade and fashion within, a mound for draping the roots.
Soak the potted plant in a bucket of water until the bubbles subside. Invert the pot over the hole rolling it along the ground to loosen, then tap lightly on the base until the plant falls. Tease out the roots, spreading them above the earthen mound you’ve centered in the hole.
Now push back the soil you set aside, molding a shallow saucer. Mulch with a half-inch layer of pea-gravel or crushed rock. Next day, mist until the soil and stoney material settle. To establish, drench weekly for 4 weeks. Unless there is a severe drought, your agave will flourish with no further watering.
Avoid commercial potting soil with added nutrients as it will provide excessive nourishment, which may lead to flowering and the end of your agave; for agave concludes its life with a single blooming episode. This is probably why its common name is Century Plant.
After 10 to 35 years, from seedling to maturity, though certainly not a century, the agave will sacrifice itself with a spike or even a 25-foot mast covered in tubular flowers, setting hundreds of seeds for the next generation of agaves in your garden.
TIP OF THE WEEK
Now is the time to encourage shrubs and herbs, which tend to propagation with layering: azaleas, cotoneaster, sage, forsythia. Many have begun to root supine branches beneath a cover of rotted leaf mold, one good reason to be a little untidy around these shrubs. Keep the rootings covered with moistened shredded leaves.