The long-term forecast for Central Texas is a little daunting for gardeners. Some experts are predicting that our current drought pattern could hang around until 2020. That’s a long time to wait for rain.
But die-hard gardeners are looking for ways to make lemonade out of this situation.
So what’s a gardener to do?
Shift gears. Accept it. Adapt. Think Darwin.
There are hotter and drier places all around the globe that are filled with beautiful plants, though some of them are very different from the plants that we’re used to growing here.
It’s time to:
a.) Assess what worked and what didn’t work in your garden this summer. That means what lived, what died and what you had to baby by hand watering much too much.
b.) Of the plants that made it, which were the hardiest, the ones that didn’t just live, but bloomed their little heads off on the hottest of days.
c.) Think twice about replacing something that didn’t survive with the same kind of plant. If it died, it was telling you something about its hardiness, your soil or growing conditions or its water needs.
d.) Finally, look around and see what did well in your neighbors’ gardens and consider planting those plants in your garden. Think outside of your traditional style box and consider how you can adapt to include more xeric and drought tolerant plants in your landscape.
Where do you start?
If you haven’t already incorporated agaves into your landscape, now is a great time to give them a second chance. An agave is a succulent, a drought-tolerant plant that stores water in its leaves, stems or roots. Native primarily to the dry regions of North and South America, there are more than 200 recognized species of agaves.
Landscaping with agaves doesn’t mean a rock and cactus garden. Creating a xeric — water-wise — garden simply means using native and adapted plants that can thrive in our climate. It means using plants that need significantly less water, though certainly not no water. And agaves are a perfect addition to a native perennial garden.
Agaves provide great contrast – the bold, structural look of an agave next to the soft, flowing form of Mexican feather grass or black foot daisies can be the beginning of a beautiful Texas-style cottage garden. Agaves provide both texture and focal points in the landscape. And don’t be worried that all agaves come in one size – huge. There are many smaller species that won’t take over.
As with any new venture in the garden, make sure you do your homework. Double check with your local nursery about the mature size of an agave as well as its growth habit, how it reproduces and also how cold hardy it is. Not all agaves can survive the colder winters we’ve had in recent years.
Agaves come in just about every size, color and flowering habit. They range from an almost blue-gray to olive to variegated — green with white or yellow. They can grow as compact as 9 inches high, like the Queen Victoria agave, Agave victoriae-reginae, to certain species of the century plant, which is one of the largest and hardiest agaves and can reach 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. This agave can grow a stunning bloom stalk more than 20 feet tall.
More commonly used in residential landscapes are the Parry’s or Weber’s agaves. Agave parryi generally grows to 2 feet by 2 feet and is more compact than some other species like the Agave weberi that can get 5 feet tall by 6-10 feet wide and are used for specimen or focal point plants in an open space.
Although some agaves are called century plants, they do not actually live for a century. Agaves can reach maturation anywhere from 8 to 40 years, after which many, but not all, agaves bloom and then die. Some of them bloom annually. The time to maturation can vary depending on the species and the growing environment. Because agaves are native to very dry environs with little water and scorching sun (like here, lately) the plant has to work long and hard to reproduce for the species to survive. Reproduction has been underway for years once the bloom appears and at that point, the plant is already dying. The energy required for the agave to bloom and produce seeds saps the mother plant. Removing a bloom spike won’t prevent the mother plant from dying; it will kill a spectacular bloom.
Some agaves produce little plant offsets from underground called pups, which can be cut off and replanted. Some produce bulbils (which are small clones of the mother plant) on the flower stalk. Other species only reproduce from seed. Many species are actually bat pollinated and some produce sweet scents to attract insects.
Agaves prefer sunny or partly sunny spots, deep and less frequent watering and well-drained soil. If agaves are planted with perennials or other plants, it’s helpful to place them higher than their landscape bed companions — on a berm or a bank, so they get less water and have better drainage than nearby plants.
Thomas Bintliss, the cactus and succulent expert at The Great Outdoors Nursery, recommends a 3-part soil mix for agaves.
“Drainage is very important,” according to Bintliss, “I recommend mixing soil with decomposed granite and either course sand or expanded shale, particularly for clay soils.”
One common misconception he points to is that agaves don’t need water. “If it’s hot and dry, a little bit of love goes a long way,” says Bintliss, recommending once a week watering in dry soil.
Unlike most plants, agaves are relatively pest-free, other than the evil agave snout weevil — it even sounds bad, doesn’t it? The weevil, a glossy black beetle-like insect, is relentless and will devour an agave. Adults lay their eggs in the agave and their young eat their way out. Infested plants start to wilt then collapse. To prevent spreading, infested plants should be removed and destroyed along with any weevils and grubs you see.
In addition to providing elegant and dramatic focal points in your landscape, agaves also have culinary and medicinal uses.
Some agaves have edible flowers or are used for their sap, a honey-like substance called agave nectar that is fast growing in popularity as a sugar substitute.
Some species of agaves are used as a diuretic or to relieve itching and sores.
Fiber from Agave silsiana is used to make sisal for twine, rugs, ropes, mattresses and crafts and is an eco-friendly alternative to asbestos or fiberglass.
Some agaves were used by Native Americans to make pulque for religious ceremonies. A similar drink is the foundation for today’s Mezcal. Agave tequilana, grown commercially in Tequila, Mexico, is used to make the distillate called Tequila.