Thursday 26 August 2010

Beware of spikes

I mentioned in my first post that my spiky obsession started with one agave in a pot. It was an agave as, unlike aloes, there are enough that will cope with our winters or at least that is the idea.  Winter hardiness is a huge topic with exotic/tropical plants and there are three types of exotic gardening (whether succulent or not) :
  1. Only owning hardy plants that can cope unprotected over winter
  2. Protecting plants in the ground using temporary cold frames or by wrapping in fleece
  3. Moving plants into greenhouses (heated or not) or into the house
I started out aiming to be in the first category, at least the first 2 plants I bought have stayed outside without problems.  However it was not long before I was being tempted by rarer varieties which at least need protection from the wet, and finally the very tender ones that need to be somewhere heated over winter. So like everyone I ended up having plants in each category.

Agave Attenuata
Part of the problem is the generosity of other people; it is amazing how many plants you get given from other collectors and when someone offers you a lovely plant it is very difficult to say no just because it may need to be protected over winter. Strangely as I have got more plants I have got better at saying no, and now have a strict rule that it has to be something very special and on my wish list to warrant being brought inside over winter. I would like to say this was purely due to my will power, but it has far more to do with the looks my better half gives me every time she opens or closes the curtains and gets stabbed by an agave on the windowsill.  Thankfully I only have one large agave that needs pampering over winter, agave attenuata.  Luckily this is one of the softer spineless agaves and so you can brush against it without getting spiked.

Agave Potatorum Kissho Kan  Marginata Alba
The other agaves that get brought inside are the variegated ones, the really rare ones go for silly money and there is a whole industry of producing new variegates.  My current favourite (partly because it actually grows) is agave potatorum kissho kan marginata alba, this plant has all the characteristics I like in agaves; a very neat form, good spines, and it is compact so does not take up much space. If only all agaves were this fast growing, often I am reduced to marking one of the leaves at the start of the year to try to spot if they have grown any new leaves at all.

Agave Romanii
Most of my plants however have to cope to some degree with being outside over winter (either in the garden shed, or a cold frame or simple rain cover).  It is amazing how many are fine as long as they can be kept dry. This one is agave Romanii which have a nice red edge to the leaves.

Agave Bracteosa
The final group are planted and in theory don't need any protection at all. I'll stick to my two favorites today, which are agave bracteosa (another spineless agave, but the edges of its leaves are sharp so you still need to be careful). I have a few of these dotted around, both planted and in pots, and even small plants have survived the winters unscathed.  Sadly there are very few places that have caught on and sell it, but hopefully this will change.

Agave Montana
Agave montana is the other and has the most lethal spines out of any of my agaves. This is the plant I worry about when friends bring their kids over, I haven't quite gone as far as sticking corks onto all the spines, but I have thought about.  It is a beautiful plant though and one of the joys of not having kids is that I can have this lethal plant without having to worry too much.

One reason the number of agaves have grown so quickly is meeting a real agave enthusiast Paul. Obsessions are dangerous at the best of time,  but when you have someone else pointing out new plants or competing to get plants that's when the real trouble starts. Earlier this year I made the mistake of offering to help him build a website of his agaves and we set up North South Succulents. The idea was to show our plants and provide information on growing succulents in the UK. Obviously I didn't think this through (a recurring theme I think you'll find) as apart from providing information for others,  it has also shown me all Paul's plants and my wish list tripled in size there and then.

A garden full of agaves in the ground, in pots and hanging from fences is not without its difficulties.  Swearing tends to be minimal in our house, but every now and then some colourful language will be heard through one of us being attacked by an agave.  Less 'Beware of the dog', more 'Beware of the spikies'.

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