Drought Tolerant Agave Make Great Container Plants

The spiky leaves of agave make it a popular drought tolerant plant. What's more - it makes a great container plant, allowing gardeners in all climates to grow their own.

Queen Victoria Agave 'Compacta' (Agave victoria-reginae 'Compacta') growing in a container.
Queen Victoria Agave ‘Compacta’ (Agave victoria-reginae ‘Compacta’) growing in a container.

Have you ever seen agave growing in the landscape?  Often referred to as ‘century plants’, these iconic succulents flower once in their lifetime before they die, which can take 7 – 50 years depending on the species.  Agave are known equally for their beauty in the landscape as well as for the tequila and agave nectar that are made from certain species.  Today, we will leave the subject of alcoholic beverages and sweetener aside and concentrate on how to use these drought tolerant succulents in containers.

Chances are that if you live in the northern half of the US, seeing agave planted in landscapes may be a rare sight, where cold winter temperatures would kill them.  However, gardeners who live throughout the Southwest and even southern areas such as Florida are fortunate enough to be able to grow one or more of the over 200 species of agave in their landscapes.

The gray/blue leaves of Agave parryi 'truncata' contrast with the maroon spines in the author's garden.
The gray/blue leaves of Agave parryi ‘truncata’ contrast with the maroon spines in the author’s garden.

If you are one of those northern residents who would love to grow agave in your garden, then I have good news for you – you can.  In fact, agave can be grown in all climates – even ones with cold winters, as long as they are brought indoors during winter.  Now does that mean that you have to plant and dig up your agave every year when freezing temperatures are on their way?  No.  By growing them in pots, you can move them indoors when cold winter temperatures arrive.

agave in container

No matter what climate you live in, agave make great container plants – particularly small to medium species such as black-spined agave (Agave macroacantha), Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae), Agave colorata, Agave schidigera and my favorite – Agave parryi ‘truncata.

Agave are truly ‘fuss-free’ container plants that thrive with sporadic watering and can handle a variety of exposures including full sun to filtered shade, depending on the species.  In zones 8 and above, most agave can be grown outdoors in the ground or in containers all year long (there are some exceptions, so research the cold hardiness of your species ahead of time).  However, for those who live in colder climates, most agave species will not survive cold winter temperatures, so growing them in containers where they can be brought inside is essential.

Agave medio-picta growing in a container in Madison, Wisconsin.
Agave medio-picta growing in a container in Madison, Wisconsin.

While agave are easy to grow, they do have some specific requirements when grown in containers:

1. Use a fast draining planting mix specially formulated for succulents.  Agave do not like wet feet and soggy soil can kill them.

2. Water when the top inch of soil is completely dry.  In hot, arid climates – water once a week in summer and in other climates, water once every 2 – 3 weeks in the absence or rainfall is usually sufficient.  In spring and fall, watering every 3 – 4 weeks is usually enough.  Agave seldom need water in winter, but you can lightly water them once a month.

3. Like most container plants, agave need to be fertilized.  In late spring and summer, add an all-purpose (20-20-20), liquid fertilizer at half strength, once a month.  In desert climates – add fertilizer in spring and fall and skip fertilizing in the summer.  Agave need no fertilizer in winter.

4. Agave need plenty of sun, especially when grown indoors, so place your agave container next to a west or south-facing window where they will get plenty of sunlight.

The curly white filaments of Agave schidigera adds to its beauty.
The curly white filaments of Agave schidigera adds to its beauty.

The variety of agave species is truly astounding with differences in color, size and shape.  Some are thorny, while others have little to no thorns.  Others have white margins on the leaves or leaf imprints.  Agave with blue/gray coloring can be used to contrast with darker green plants in the landscape.  Small agave can also make nice outdoor centerpieces on your patio table.

How about you?  Have you ever grown agave?  Perhaps you have admired these drought tolerant succulents and thought that you could never grow one.  Well, now you can – all you need is a container and sun!

Noelle Johnson
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. When she is not writing or helping other people with their gardens, you can find her growing fruits and vegetables, and planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.