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For The Garden

All About Agaves

Author: Lori A. Johnson
Issue: April, 2017, Page 56
Photos by Brian Goddard

The blue-green leaves of an Agave wercklei contrast beautifully with a trio of bright green A. ‘Dianita.’
A local gardener embraces all aspects of the distinguished desert plants

Perhaps it was his innate sense of order that first drew Ron Parker to the sculptural and geometric qualities of agaves. Or maybe it was simply his desire to create a xeric garden when he moved into his home in Fountain Hills. Whatever the reason, Parker now has an encyclopedic knowledge of agaves, and his yard is tribute to the spiky desert natives. Not bad for someone who once had virtually no interest in gardening.

Ron Parker has transformed his Fountain Hills home into a xeriscaped paradise.
Nurturing A Passion
When Ron purchased his home, he was attracted not to its exterior but to the sweeping views of Four Peaks and the McDowell Mountains from the front yard. At the time, the landscape featured little more than a few trees, bushes, barrel cacti and a large agave. Ron lived with the yard as it was for the first year, but after doing some research, he decided to transform his entire property—front and back—into one cohesive xeriscape.

Agaves quickly became the focus for his landscape design—and an all-consuming passion. “Ever since I can remember, I always had a hobby or career choice that I felt compelled to take to whatever level I was able,” he explains. “Agaves became my latest thing, as my gardening efforts drew me inexorably toward them. I did a lot of reading, visited just about every nursery and botanic garden in central Arizona, and eventually started going out into habitats and studying with some botanical heavyweights in the field.” It was during these excursions that Ron also developed an interest in Southwestern archeology; specifically, the relationship that ancient desert inhabitants had with agaves. “Some of their 700- to 1,000-year-old agave gardens or farms can still be seen today, if you know where to look,” he notes.

An offspring of an A. zebra specimen that bloomed last year.
Ron estimates that he has purchased or traded upwards of 200 taxa with other agave collectors over the past decade. He has a total of 200 individuals planted in his yard and an additional 130 in pots, and he grows dozens of seedlings in a protected indoor environment until they’re ready for planting outdoors. “I have many favorites, which change from week to week,” he says, “but my criteria include a natural look, wicked spination, hardiness for the Valley and tolerance of our murderous sun.”

A number of species cannot take full sun exposure in the low desert, such as those native to the Caribbean. Ron singles out Agave zebra as a noteworthy addition to desert gardens, which he calls “one of the best and underutilized species for the Phoenix area.” Unfortunately, his two finest examples of A. zebra bloomed and died last year. While they’re gone from his yard for now, he has some seedlings started that he’ll transplant as soon as they’re mature enough to survive.

In the foreground, an A. nickelsiae specimen mingles with A. palmeri and A. chrysantha in the background.
Tough Work
“For my money, no garden in Arizona is complete without at least an agave or two, but maintaining an actual agave garden presents certain challenges,” Ron cautions. Agaves can thrive anywhere between eight and 40 years, depending on the species, but they only send up a bloom stalk, or inflorescence, once before dying.

 “Young agaves grow and become more impressive and beautiful with each passing year, and then, just as you’re basking in your favorite mature plant’s brilliant glow, it blooms,” he says. “While the flowering event is nothing short of spectacular, it ends with a dead plant that must be dug up, removed and replaced.” Eleven of Ron’s agaves bloomed last year, and he expects about the same number to do so in 2017.

Rounding out the garden are small collections of other succulents, including sansevieria and yucca—a close agave relative—and small clumping cacti, such as mammillaria and echinocereus, of which he has dozens.

Ron estimates he only spends about three to four hours a week gardening due to the largely self-maintaining xeriscape. With his free time, he moderates his self-created internet forum,, which serves as a repository for all kinds of information about agaves and other succulents. That’s quite a turn-around—from garden-avoiding novice to agave aficionado who shares his passion with like-minded enthusiasts around the world.

Ron’s garden includes nearly 200 taxa and more than 300 individual agaves that are planted in the ground or in pots. He keeps his garden art to a minimum and prefers to decorate with natural elements, such as interesting rocks.

Hummingbirds are regular visitors to Ron’s yard whenever an agave blooms. While the blossoms are often spectacular, an inflorescence signifies the end of an agave’s life span, and the plant will soon need to be replaced
A one-year-old A. utahensis seedling waits to be planted outdoors.

Somewhat rare in cultivation is the A. guadalajarana, native to the Mexican state of Jalisco, with its blue-green leaves and compact rosette form.
Along with agaves, Ron also has a number of other succulents, such as this dyckia hybrid.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: The long, slender variegated leaves of the A. sisalana mediopicta aurea keep company with A. hurteri and the popular cultivar A. ‘Blue Glow.’

When Ron began gardening, he took note of the tools his landscapers used. “If you don’t have the proper tools, you’re finished before you start,” he says.

A budding old lady cactus (Mammillaria hahniana) is one of many small clumping cacti distributed throughout Ron’s yard for added interest. An A. hurteri, native to Guatemala, looms in the background.

A closer look at the sharp teeth and leaf impressions of an A. guadalajarana

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