New England and succulents

It’s always interesting for us desert 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. The influence of European modernism on design is forcing that style onto beautiful traditional homes and gardens. This gradually blurs the great American garden styles that evolved in tandem with this architecture. In a way modernism contaminates these beautiful historic neighborhoods. Change is not always good here, and sometimes our best efforts to do the right thing have unexpected, and sometimes very dangerous results.

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.


Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at

About the Author