CAREFREE AGAVE CACTI
By: Jay Keeter
 
   Do you become more frustrated rather than passionate about gardening as the hot, dry weather arrives?  Don't despair!  There are a large number of very hardy and carefree Agave cacti whose appearance will sizzle in the summer heat.  Virtually maintenance free, the care of these architecturally interesting plants is nearly non-existent.  A gardener could go years neglecting an Agave cactus, only to find it looking better over that time!  Unlike those gardens full of thirsty lawns and flowers, all cacti gardens are very economical; no water bill involved here.  The Agave cactus is not only very forgiving if water is scarce, but they will also provide great structural form to any garden.  An abundance of these cacti are native to the Southwestern United States and Mexico.  We are fortunate along the S.C. coast to be able to successfully grow several types of these prickly anti-social plants. 
   Since these plants grow best during hot weather, summer planting is preferred because it allows  these spiny beauties to become well established before the wet, cold winter weather arrives.  Good drainage is a necessity; therefore our native sandy coastal soils need no amending.  If you live in an area that consists of poorly draining soil, then the installation of a mixture of coarse sand and ground bark to form a raised bed will ensure success.  Feed lightly once during early summer with a slow release fertilizer. 
   I am personally fascinated by the genus 'Agave,' commonly referred to as Century Plants.  The common name originated from the belief that it takes 100 years for a Century Plant to bloom; which  is not true.  Some varieties may present their bloom after only 15 or 20 years, while others may take longer.  The expression of a bloom is both deadly to the plant and fascinating to the viewer.  Large growing types of Agave may produce a bloom stalk nearly 30 feet tall, something rarely seen in the plant world.  Unfortunately, the parent plant will die after blooming, but leaves behind a great number of small, younger plants to carry on in its absence.  Agaves  form stunningly symmetrical rosettes in a variety of sizes. Their foliage color may range from variegated, blue, or green.  Our discussion of Agave cacti will involve only the hardy varieties, starting with the most compact and working up to some that may seem gigantic at maturity in the garden.
   Agave victoriae, reginae 'Queen Victoria,' is one of the slowest growing plants produced at our nursery, taking 2 or 3 years to become only 4 inches tall and a little wider.  Thick, dark green leaves are edged with attractive white margins.  Agave 'Queen Victoria' slowly produces offsets during its long life, ultimately maturing at only 1 foot tall and 18 inches wide.  The dense arrangement of leaves is attractive, and the compact size makes it appropriate for smaller gardens.  How lucky we are along the Coast to be able to grow this one, as we are at the top of the range where Agave 'Queen Victoria' is cold hardy. 
   Agave parryi truncate is often referred to simply as the 'Hardy Century Plant.'  It is considered by many to also be one of the most beautiful.  This plant is blue and newly emerging leaves often leave an interesting imprint upon old growth.  Many middle aged men may relate to its growth habit: short and fat!  Established 'Hardy Century Plants' have survived cold weather, dipping down into single digits, and have rarely exceeded a height of 18-24 inches.  But don't sell this one short as it eventually produces a phallic flower stalk nearly 20 feet tall. 
   Agave salmiana might also be called 'Green Century Plant. This green leaved, spiny edged species of Agave has thrived at our nursery.  The ultimate plant size may be up to 6 feet tall, and it is very prolific.  The growth of the parent plant is rapid, and each year it has produced a dozen or so offshoots.  If you want to transplant or share the offshoots with friends, then wear thick gloves and use a sharp knife or shovel when securing new plants.  As a few years have passed, the steady growth (currently near 3 feet tall), good cold tolerance, and heavy production of new plants has convinced me that this is one of the most dependable and impressive of Agave for our area. 
   Agave Americana, or 'Blue Century Plant,' come in slightly different varieties but most will produce wide, long, steel-blue upright leaves.  This is probably the most common form of Agave seen in the Southeast.  One of our old plants bloomed a few years ago and produced a bloom stalk 35 feet tall on a plant that was 7 feet tall and about 8 feet wide.  The blue Agave is not only popular as an impressive plant in local gardens, but is also popular in Mexico, where one variety is farmed commercially for the production of Tequila.
   All varieties of Agave are low maintenance, salt tolerant, deer resistant, and require full sun but very little water.  There are very few plants that I can truly say will thrive on neglect, but an Agave cactus certainly fulfills that promise. 
   To pick up an Agave variety for your garden, stop by Tropical Nursery at 801 25th Ave South in North Myrtle Beach or call 843-272-6043.