Agaves are the succulents that keep on giving. It's all about their curious reproductive behavior that makes them the easiest of all big succulents to transplant. You can obtain them free if you know how to exploit their growth habits to bring clones home to your own garden. With many species native to the colder mountain West, and even more from further south with surprising heat and drought resistance, older plants can be found all over. They will become the genesis of your agave colonies if you know how to properly remove their "pups."
Agaves reproduce in two ways, first by flowering at the end of life in one grand effort to produce seed and diversify the population. Unfortunately they don't often encounter the optimal moisture for seed germination in the wild, so to compensate they have another vegetative method of cloning themselves.
As the original agave ages she will send out pups or offsets around herself. These are produced by umbilical roots or rhizomes that travel outward from under the mother to sprout into a whole new plant. The sprout can emerge just inches from the mother or many feet away depending on conditions and the species.
Over time each sprout grows from nutrients and moisture delivered through mom's "umbilical" root. As the sprout grows older, water demands exceed this source, so baby has incentive to produce its own feeder roots. These allow the pup to augment umbilical support and later stand on its own roots after the mother blooms and dies. It's his job and that of his siblings to replace her after death to carry on the species.
Free plants are obtained by removing pups and transplanting them around your garden. The mother plant may be existing there already or it could be a friend's or from abandoned properties where less agave loving folks discard these resilient plants. Do not underestimate how long they can survive out of the ground, making discards far more valuable than you think.
As older agaves mature, their pup populations may increase too as flowering approaches. This is when it's ideal to transplant so new pups can quickly take their place. These replacements can create even more new agaves down the road. The clean up and thinning of old overgrown agave colonies involves digging and moving the most suitable pups so light brings new growth and better water penetration.
The challenge is to assess the age of the pup before attempting to dig it out. Water well before digging to loosen soil for less root breakage. Strive to identify those pups that have their own roots forming, which are usually the larger older ones ready to be severed from mom and moved. Those you encounter that have no roots should be left hooked up to mom until they're farther along next year. Without these feeder roots, transplanting the prematurely causes so much moisture loss they fail to thrive the first year.
Pups with roots can and should be left out of the ground a few days before replanting. First snip off any damage to the roots so this can heal cleanly in open air. Set them in the shade so all transplanting wounds callus off before being exposed to soil and water.
Agaves are actively growing in the heat of summer, so this is a good time to harvest pups to create new plants. In older neighborhoods there are often hoards of old agaves pupping all over the place. Those mature plants that are sending up the bloom spike now will be gone next year, with only a bevy of pups to remain behind. Look to these end-of-life pups ready-rooted to survive mom's demise as the best candidates. In this sense, every locally harvested agave pup is a neighborhood kid already adapted to the soil and weather and rainfall by a neighborhood stay-at-home mom.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at email@example.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.