Martha’s Vineyard gardeners can get good results in poor soil


Not every garden has good soil. Not every plant even wants the “best” soil. One way to get going with a garden that is less than ideal is to turn a flaw into an advantage — “make lemons into lemonade” — and learn how to match plant, location, and conditions. Bring in the agave (a-GAV-eh).

Agaves are a striking group of plants for the dry garden. The more poor and pebbly the soil, the drier and faster draining it is, and the best home it makes for them and other succulents. While pointy yuccas, mostly Y. filamentosa, have been grown in Island gardens for years, pointy agaves are much less known because they are marginally hardy here. However, they are so exciting and exotic that trying one in your best — appropriately impoverished — spot is a worthwhile risk.

Most gardens benefit from a variety of shapes and textures. A mass of undifferentiated greenery, especially post-bloom, is ho-hum and bland. The spiky monocots appeal on several counts, but it is their bold contrasting architecture that spices up plantings, all edgy with barbed punctuation.

Monocots, such as the agaves, are plants that start out with just one (mono) seed leaf or cotyledon (cot). The dicots are plants that start out with two (di) cotyledons, such as beans or maples. Other monocots are grasses, lilies, and alliums, all good garden exclamation points.

Some agaves may survive Vineyard winters if planted with extreme care in free-draining, sheltered, and/or sloping locations. To reiterate, the agave challenge seems worthwhile. However, these barbed monocots present a much surer bet for Island gardeners when used as striking container plants and then given indoor winter shelter.

My agave, A. americana var. medio-picta ‘Alba’, was given to me by the unforgettable New Bedford nurseryman, Allen Haskell. I had admired his, grown to great effect, in urns outside the nursery office. A. americana var. medio-picta ‘Alba’ is probably THE entry-level agave for many enthusiasts, with stylized shape and variegation in vivid blue-green and white. I too aspired to statuesque, agave-filled urns.

The original Haskell plant has grown offsets, “pups,” over the years; I was giving it soil richer than ideal and over-watering it, then. So I have been able to make gift plants and to have a couple in reserve, in case I do anything chancy, like planting one in the ground. This habit of growing offsets with in-ground planting, say in Arizona or California, results in striking agave clumps. In containers, however, offsets are less desirable, obscuring the plant’s fabulous shapeliness.

When planting an agave or yucca in gravelly, dry locations, one might ask what sort of plants would make good companions. The short answer is: if it grows in scree, gravel, or sand, it should do well.

Use rock garden subjects, succulents, or plants with woolly or grey foliage, sure signs of drought tolerance: verbascums, sedums, opuntias, lavenders, lithodora, various annual and biennial poppies, thymes, perhaps even agastaches or salvias.

Some sources of hardy agaves and yuccas are Plant Delights Nursery,, with a dozen Agave species/cultivars and four yuccas; and Yucca Do Nursery, with 90 varieties of what they term Wood Lilies: agaves, yuccas, nolinias, etc. Many originate in climates very different from ours; note hardiness zone information when ordering.

Fleuroselect Gold Medals

Fleuroselect has announced its list of gold medal winners for 2013. They are Lewisia cotyledon ‘Elise,’ Dahlia ‘Dalaya Yogi,’ and Celosia argentea ‘Arrabona.’ The Fleuroselect Gold Medal is awarded to novel varieties that have been tested by independent judges at trials across Europe and proven to supercede existing varieties in terms of breeding innovation and beauty. The new varieties will be for sale at quality garden centers in the coming season.

“‘Arrabona’ is a stunning new color on Celosia argentea plumosa. This striking red-orange beauty has outstanding garden performance and an exceptionally long flowering season. The variety is tolerant to drought, loves the heat, and is therefore excellent for tropical, subtropical, and continental climates.

“Dahlia ‘Dalaya Yogi’ is early flowering, medium vigorous, mildew tolerant and an alluring new addition to the current range of cutting-raised garden dahlias.

“Lewisia cotyledon ‘Elise’ flowers in the first season without a cold period, unlike any current L. cotyledon cultivars, and brings to the market an excitingly new, almost exotic, annual for rockeries, beds, and containers. ‘Elise’ starts flowering 4-5 months after sowing and delights all season long in sumptuous shades of pastel pink, rose, salmon, orange, white, yellow, and bicolor patterns.”

Seed catalogue blitz

Oh my, temptations are great and probabilities limited! In winter when only cold is growing and we have daydreaming-time to spend, Technicolor visions abound….

Paraphrasing Michael Pollan, who advises, “vote with your forks,” I am voting with my seed money for certain qualities beyond the seeds themselves: local/regional, organic, open pollinated (mostly), pollinator friendly, enduring.

My catalogue favorites seem to have grown bigger than ever: more pages, more choice. Personally, seed selection and ordering seem to favor a paper catalogue, checking back and forth among an array spread out on the dining table. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; Johnny’s Selected Seeds; Seed Savers’ Exchange; Seeds From Italy; Southern Exposure Seed Exchange; Pinetree Gardens; Vermont Bean and Seed; and two dozen others.


Homegrown, the vegetable gardeners’ collaborative, meets Sunday, January 20, at Agricultural Hall from 3 to 5 pm. Vegetable gardeners, and would-be ones, are welcome. Members please bring surplus catalogues and be prepared to finalize potato and onion orders; our self-imposed order deadline is February 1, to ensure best choice.

Tonight Polly Hill Arboretum is offering Backyard Astronomy with Barbara Caseau at 6:30 to 8:30 pm, cloud date January 17. The January Winter Walk takes place the 12th, starting at 10 am. Meet at the visitor center and dress for the weather.