New Eng­land and suc­cu­lents

Porterville Recorder - - GARDENING - Mau­reen Gilmer is an au­thor, hor­ti­cul­tur­ist and land­scape de­signer. Learn more at

I t’s al­ways in­ter­est­ing for us drier cli­mate folks to hear New Eng­lan­ders talk about agaves. A friend shared a re­cent post by Martha Ste­wart about how she grows the most cli­mat­i­cally un­suit­able plants us­ing heavy equip­ment, com­mer­cial green­house and a lot of la­bor­ers on her es­tate. Among the big pot­ted trop­i­cal spec­i­mens were agaves that Martha care­fully warned read­ers about the spines in gar­dens.

The clincher for me is not be­cause I’m a desert plant wonk, but I’m also an eques­trian. Later in the story Martha rec­om­mends putting a big blue agave in a white pot next to her mil­lion dol­lar stone horse sta­ble door for modern trendy suc­cu­lent style.

Martha se­lected a 3 foot tall and wide blue skin Agave amer­i­cana in a 2 foot tall pot. This is one of the wicked sharp big species. The prob­lem with this whole idea is stuff hap­pens with an­i­mals, es­pe­cially with horses. They spook un­ex­pect­edly that causes a sud­den move away from the source. If that agave is any­where near that horse, he can im­pale him­self not just once, but many times. Slam that agave into an equine leg and you might have per­ma­nent lame­ness. If it’s a $10,000 horse like rich peo­ple ride, this idea can get very ex­pen­sive.

Now imag­ine if you’re on that horse and he backs into the agave. He rears or bucks at the pain and you come off and land on paving or worse yet, that agave or an­other. You may not sur­vive it. This is why it’s against all land­scape de­sign pa­ram­e­ters to show, rec­om­mend or demon­strate the use spiny plants around ken­nels, live­stock pens, cor­rals and stalls. It’s down­right un­safe.

We know this in the desert where so many peo­ple, pets and live­stock have been hurt by our cac­tus and agaves and yuc­cas. The worst ones are those with hor­i­zon­tal spines at dog eye level in the back­yard. Dogs and other an­i­mals can’t see the tip of an agave spine, or a fine cac­tus spine end-on. I can’t see them end-on ei­ther, which is why I al­ways gar­den with glasses on out here. When Fido is chas­ing the ball and slides into that nasty plant, he won’t be ready for it. He may lose an eye or suf­fer deep punc­ture wounds. Yucca spines con­tain saponins that are painful and cause his­tamine re­ac­tions to boot.

Gar­den­ing of any kind is a no­ble en­deavor un­til you push it be­yond rea­son be­cause you can, then spread the word. We of­ten won­der about the re­gional ver­nac­u­lar ver­sus modern and non-site spe­cific plant­ing ideas that de­mand ex­ces­sive win­ter heat­ing and main­te­nance. What wa­ter sav­ings these arid zone suc­cu­lents pro­vide is off­set by en­ergy con­sump­tion to heat the green­house all win­ter.

An­other re­cent ex­am­ple was a beau­ti­ful old Los An­ge­les Span­ish bun­ga­low re­land­scaped for drought. The so­lu­tion was two mas­sive raw poured con­crete walls sep­a­rated by a row of iden­ti­cal plants be­tween them. It made the home site look like two dif­fer­ent lots from the street be­cause the build­ing and ar­chi­tec­tural walls were so vis­ually dis­con­nected. Yet still it got at­ten­tion for this in­con­gru­ous ap­proach that some­one prob­a­bly mis­took for cut­ting edge de­sign.

Amer­ica is lost in an ar­chi­tec­tural land­scape cri­sis be­cause there is so much ef­fort to change the look and feel of our gar­dens right now.

Hav­ing been in Cal­i­for­nia hor­ti­cul­ture and land­scape de­sign for thirty years, I can safely say gar­den de­sign can date a home. Not too far in the fu­ture all that con­crete and corten and gravel will lose its ap­peal. Sure you can re­land­scape, but you may need a jack ham­mer, heavy equip­ment and a cut­ting torch to re­turn it to Mother Earth so you can start plant­ing again the tra­di­tional way.

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