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Cold Hardy Agave: Living Sculptures for your Garden

by David Salman


I admit that I have a fascination with cold hardy succulents, ornamental grasses and other plant groups that for some gardeners, are just a bit off the beaten path. But it's many of these same plants that are bringing a whole new look to American gardens.

There is something so alluring, so sculptural, so geometrically perfect in the shape of an Agave plant. The bold, sculptural forms of Agave add drama to any garden. Agaves (Century Plants) are hot stuff in the world of garden design, and High Country Gardens offers one of the largest selections of cold hardy varieties of any mail order/online nursery in the country!

Large Agave

Agave parryi.

When plant collector/gardeners found and transplanted Agave from their high elevation habitats in the Southwest and deserts of the Great Basin, the cold hardiness of these species eventually became evident. Collected on the brutally cold, exposed high-altitude plateau near Flagstaff, Arizona, Agave parry 'Parry's Century Plant, Flagstaff Form' and it's cousin Agave Parryi 'Camp Verde' are some of the largest, most cold-hardy forms of Agave you can grow.

Havard’s Century Plant is the “big boy” of the cold-hardy Agave, growing to an imposing size at maturity! The massive leaves are particularly wide and fiercely-spined, so give it plenty of room, and keep it away from walks and entrance ways. Plant it with the sublimely beautiful desert grass, Muhlenbergia dubia, for a striking sculptural combination.

Native to southeastern New Mexico, Agave neomexicana is another large, cold hardy Agave species. The main rosette of foliage is large, heavily armed with dark burgundy spines and often spouts smaller “suckers” around its base. When the plant matures sufficiently to bloom (after many years of slow growth), it sends up a huge 12-15’ tall flowering spike that will attract hummingbirds from miles around.

In the Western xeriscape, Century Plants are best planted where they can enjoy intense all day (or all afternoon) sun. Use the advantage of hot walls and enclosed walled gardens. Be sure the soil is well drained as standing water during the winter months will be the death of these plants.

Agave for Smaller Spaces

Agave toumeyana bella astragalus utahensis
Agave toumeyana bella astragalus utahensis

There are many small growing agave species just right for growing in containers on the patio and planting in home landscapes with limited space. After many years of growing Agave toumeyana v. bella in my Santa Fe cacti gardens I was convinced it was a minature gem. However, it was only recently that I was finally able to secure seed of this rare, very cold hardy form of the species.

The smaller 'dwarf' agave, Agave utahensis, display beautifully in smaller spaces:

  • Agave utahensis, thin green strap-like leaves
  • Agave utahensis v. eborispina, extremely spiny
  • Agave utahensis v. kaibabensis, handsome, larger form of Agave utahensis.
A. utahensis and A. toumeyana v. bella are perfect for planting in containers. Plant them in pots or trough planters next to benches and sitting areas where their elevated placement calls attention to their small stature.

Mulch and Care

agave utahensis kaibabensis, hblq521
Agave utahensis kaibabensis

Have fun using ornamental stone mulches. Polished black stone cobbles or racked Zen-style gravel are a perfect match under these living sculptures. Smaller nursery-grown Agave take 4 to 5 years to reach a large size. With rare exceptions, agaves don't need feeding; but you can give plants a very light layer of slow-release fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season.The first month or two after planting, water plants every four or five days. Irrigate every couple of weeks during the heat of summer. Be sure to stop watering in early fall as the plants must harden off for winter.

Great Companions for Agave

Agaves also give structure to beds of native wildflowers. Penstemon and agastache look twice as flowery and feminine paired with bold agave. Succulent groundcovers like Delosperma and Ruschia make superb companions for Agave, giving them a softer, brighter look.

Agaves stand in striking contrast to the fine swaying textures of ornamental grasses. If you combine Agave with grasses such as festuca,feather grass, and muhlenbergia, you’ll have a most stunning plant combination in your garden.

Be creative your own agave combinations. You can grow these in containers as well, which is strongly recommended for gardeners in the high precipitation areas of the Midwest and Eastern US. Think outside the border, the perennial border that is, and find a new look for your garden.

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