Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
July, 2005
Regional Report

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This agave displays a beautiful rosette shape and lends a cool blue color to the landscape.

Amazing Agaves

In the midst of summer heat, when non-native plants are gasping for respite (as am I), native and desert-adapted plants plug right along. They have evolved over centuries to cope with intense heat and sunlight, minimal rainfall, and alkaline soil.

Agaves are particularly tough natives. Although an occasional deep watering in summer will prevent stress and improve their appearance in the landscape, they don't need much in the way of maintenance, making them ideal for reduced summer gardening chores.

Some folks might lump all agaves together in a group of "spiky plants" but they display considerable diversity in size and shape, from small rosettes to tall, tree-like specimans. Colors range from deep green to cool bluish-gray. Agaves also tolerate different growing conditions, such as sun exposure and cold hardiness, depending on where they originated.

Where to Plant
To have the best success with these plants, determine their preferred native growing conditions and provide them. There are four distinct desert regions in the Southwest (Mohave, Sonoran, Chihuhuan, and Great Basin) with varying elevations, precipitation and cold. For example, if something is native to low desert areas that seldom experience frost and you live at a high elevation with cold snaps, you'll know that you have to protect that plant during those times. Consider growing it in a pot and moving it to a protected location as needed.

Agave leaves may have wicked teeth on the margins and a sharp terminal point. Some species have smooth leaves. Research each species' size at maturity and transplant it where it will have room to reach that size. Pruning destroys the natural beauty of their structure, so you don't want to cut an agave back because it's dagger-like leaf tips are encroaching on a sidewalk.

Agaves don't like wet feet, particularly in cool winter soils. If rainfall is regular, I don't water agaves growing in the ground in winter months in the low desert (October-March). In summer, I water about once per month. Depending on your location and soil type, you might want to water twice per month in summer. Regardless of how often you water, never sprinkle foliage with a hose or run drip emitters for short times. Ensure that water always soaks about 1 foot deep. These simple tips will keep these strikingly architectural plants happy in the landscape.

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