Digging In Column: Agaves comes in many forms and sizes

An agave is a tough, easy-care succulent that can add style to your garden, tolerate less than ideal conditions and grow just about anywhere.

Because of their striking form and general tolerance to cold, heat, sun, drought and poor or alkaline soils, agaves are some of the most useful plants for our desert landscape.

Agaves are members of the succulent family and are perennials. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors, from the americana (century plant) that's flower stock will reach from 15 feet to 40 feet and can spread 10 feet in width, to the Agave utahensis which is a clumping agave only about 1 foot tall and wide.

As accent plants

Some of these plants can overwhelm a small yard or garden, so check the plant's mature size before planting. Since many have thorns or spines, do not plant them near walkways or play areas, however, others are available without those sharp tips.

As a background plant or to fill a large vacant spot in your landscape, try:

1. Agave americana. As mentioned, the century plant can spread to 10 feet in width, and its flower stock has been known to reach 40 feet, however, the average flower stock is only about 20 feet.

This bold, sculptural plant has grayish blue-green leaf blades that reach 3 to 5 feet in length. This agave is a prolific producer of offset. Leaf blades are well armed with saw-toothed edges and should be placed at least 6 feet away from frequented areas.

2. Agave americana var marginata (variegated century plant). The marginata is a smaller variety of the century plant, with large rosettes 4 feet to 5 feet tall and 5 feet to 8 feet wide. It has narrow, sword-like leaf blades, 3-foot long, which are gray-green with strong cream to yellow stripes down each margin. This agave looks great in a garden as contrast in color and form. It does need moderate water with occasional deep watering. Be careful not to overwater during winter months.

3. Agave weberi (Weber's Agave). It is slightly smaller, more refined, and is a deeper blue-green, with soft, almost luminous leaves unlike the americana, with leaves 4 feet long by 8 feet wide that are armed only at the tip with a sharp point. This agave is noticeably sensitive to light and closes up when conditions are too hot or too bright, but it tolerates cold. It spawns offsets but needs some supplemental irrigation in very hot summer areas. Space 3 to 6 feet apart for massing.

4. Agave attenuate (Fox Tail Agave). These are 4 to 5 feet tall and wide with pale green leaves that emerge from a tight central spear and reach gracefully back to resemble a large open, green flower. The flower stalk reaches 5 feet to 10 feet and it reflexes back toward the ground before arching upwards again, thus giving it its common name, "Fox Tail Agave."

5. Agave vilmoriniana (Octopus Agave). It is a striking specimen planted in the ground. It seldom reaches over 3 to 4 feet but spreads to 6 feet wide. It's blue-grey with sprawling, twisted form and leaf blades more slender than the century plant. Give moderate water in summer and protect from cold and reflective sun. In addition, it makes a good container plant, which would be beneficial as it is cold-sensitive.

As container plants

Many agaves are suitable for containers, so they are easily interspersed throughout your landscape. In addition, a container may be a good idea for some agaves because certain varieties are frost-sensitive. Here is a list of a few agaves that are suitable for containers:

1. Agave americana var. medio-picta "Alba' (Tuxedo Agave) - The tuxedo agave is a variety of the century plant, which grows 3 feet to 4 feet tall and 4 feet to 6 feet wide, with bold greenish cream central stripe and blue-green margins.

2. Agave angustifoloa var. (Marginata), (Variegated Caribbean Agave) - It has green leaves with marginal bands of bright white. A tight rosette of stiff sword-like blade leaves each up to 3 feet long and 2 inches wide.

3. Agave Blue Glow (Blue Glow) - The leaves of this agave are blue-green with red margins, which are attractively displayed when backlit. Unlike many agaves, it is a solitary rosette which grows 1 feet to 2 feet high and wide. The Blue Glow is a hybrid between agave attenuate and agave ocahui but looks nothing like either parent plant.

4. Agave bovicornuta (Cow Horn Agave) - A solitary growing agave, open rosettes with wide yellow-green to medium-green leaves that are widest in the middle. Leaf blades are edged with large reddish-brown teeth. Growing 2 feet to 3 feet tall and 3 feet to 5 feet wide, it takes this agave 12 years or more to produce a 16-foot to 23-foot tall branched flower stalk bearing 2-inch long yellow and green flowers.

5. Agave colorata (Mescal Ceniza) - It is a stunning plant when placed in front of a dark green background. This agave grows 4 feet tall and wide with blue-grey leaves that are short and broad, 1 foot to 2-1.2 feet long and 7 inches wide at the widest point. The flower stalk of the colorate can tower 10 feet tall and looks like a small, leafless tree.

6. Agave cornelius (Quasimotto Agave or Dwarf Century Plant) - Only growing 1 foot to 2 feet tall and 2 feet to 4 feet wide, it forms a small rosette about 18 inches tall. The short, strongly variegated yellow to cream leaves have undulating margins. This is a slower glowing variety.

7. Agave filifera - Dark green leaves have white filaments that detach from leaf margins and curl. It is a clumping, dense rosette up to 2 feet wide and 18 inches tall. A 6-foot tall spike carrying 2-inch flower, greenish when young, turning brownish as they age. The name filifera means "carrying threads."

8. Agave geminiflora (Pincushions Agave) - A short-stemmed plant that forms dense symmetrical rosettes of narrow dark green leaves. The leaves have slight red-brown tips. The long, thin leaves are about 2 feet long and 3/8-inch in diameter. The flower stalk is a narrow spike 15 feet to 18 feet tall that develops about 10 years after the plant starts growing, Flowers are yellow, but greenish near the base. They are flushed with some red or purple. The geminiflora is frost-sensitive, so it would need to be protected during winter months.

I could go on and on, as there are more than 50 varieties of agaves. You can easily choose from giant to dwarf, or from plain to exotic, to incorporate in your landscape.

Another feature with agaves is your landscape will take on a different look from year to year as they mature.

Agaves are interesting, low maintenance, low water, desert landscape plants.

They can be overwatered, so water sparingly and do not plant them where water collects.