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desert gardening basics
May, 2008, Page 196
Illustrations by Michael Gellatly
When an agave sends forth its magnificent flower stalk, it is both thrilling and bittersweet. That’s because most agaves will die after flowering. Even so, a parent agave does its best to ensure future generations by producing a generous number of offspring. And the good news: These “bulbils” and “pups” are easy to transplant elsewhere in the landscape and in containers.
Some agave flower stalks are covered with hundreds of bulbils, sometimes called plantlets (pictured right). Growing from a bud at the base of each flower, a bulbil is a miniature clone of the parent plant. The longer it stays attached, the larger it grows.
Eventually, bulbils fall to the ground and may take root. Rather than wait for nature to take its course, gardeners can remove bulbils from the stalk as soon as they can be easily pulled off, without resistance or tissue damage. Keep in mind that the bottom of a bulbil must be intact for roots to develop.
Even before flowering, many agave species produce offsets known as pups. Offsets grow from runners sent out from the base of the parent plant, just below the soil surface. Pups often poke up through the soil near the agave’s base or can emerge several feet away. Over time, one agave may develop into an impressive grouping.
Pups may be removed and transplanted at any time, although it is easiest when they are small. Carefully brush or scrape away the surrounding soil to avoid damaging the plant. Use a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut through the runner, which might be fairly thick and fleshy (pictured below). Place the pup on newspaper in a shady spot for several days, allowing the cut to dry and callus before transplanting in the ground or a pot.
To prevent root rot, agaves do best in loose, well-drained soil. When planting in the landscape, loosen soil to a depth of 12 inches for good root penetration. If you have clay soil that retains excess moisture, amend the planting area with sand and gravel. For containers, purchase a soil mix made specifically for succulents and cacti, or blend your own with one-third each of pumice, light potting soil (not rich in peat or other organic matter), and coarse sand (sold as sharp sand) or decomposed granite.
To propagate a large number of bulbils, fill a planting flat with cacti soil mix. Set the base of each bulbil in soil just deep enough for it to remain upright. Allow soil to barely dry out between thorough waterings. Place out of direct sun for a month or two or until roots establish, then plant in pots. Bulbils also can be transplanted directly into the ground, although they typically perform better if permitted to first develop size and a more extensive root system in some type of container.
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