Shovel-ready project: removing a dead agave

The Whale's Tongue agave in front of the house bloomed last spring, and has been slowly decomposing ever since.
Bloom spike emerging in mid-April
Bloom spike getting taller - end of April
Dying back by September
Because our biannual city brush pick-up is scheduled for Monday, the agave had to be removed this weekend, to avoid doing the job during a blazing hot summer, when the next pick-up is scheduled. Plus, it looked terrible, and it was starting to stink.

After reading Pam Penick's post on how her "Moby" was removed after his demise, I had a good idea of the job ahead.

The first step was to remove the spiky leaves. I thought some of the oldest, driest leaves might simply snap off or pull out, but no. They were tough and fibrous, yet flexible, like thick burlap or jute cloth. I had to cut off each leaf by sawing through it with a cleaver (the sharpest implement I could find in the house).

Many of the oldest leaves were rotting, with a horrible odor, housing all sorts of bugs involved in decomposition (like the ones that hang out in the compost bin). Luckily, I didn't see any agave weevils - hooray.
Fiber and rot
I don't have photos of the nitty-gritty work to share, as my double-gloved hands were covered in slimy agave muck and sap during the tiring, hours-long job. I wore long sleeves, a t-shirt and a jacket, and rose gloves over latex gloves to protect my upper body from the caustic sap. Every time I went into the house to take a break, I had to strip off both glove layers and the jacket, wash my hands, then put the jacket, new latex gloves, and the rose gloves back on when I was ready to start again.

After sawing off every last leaf, the agave heart was left to dig out. Although my agave did bloom, it didn't form bulbils - either the agave was sterile, or it wasn't pollinated properly. So I didn't have to worry about protecting baby agaves during the dismantling process.
Blooms emerged in May, but no babies formed
The plant was already very wobbly, so Jack tried to pull it out using his body weight, by holding onto the bloom stalk, climbing onto the lower portion of the heart, and leaning back. That served to break off the bloom stalk at its base, but alas, the heart remained secured to the ground.

After Jack chainsawed the woody bloom stalk into pieces to haul to the curb, I tried to dig the heart out with a shovel. A thick mass of deep roots refused to yield, so Jack hacked away at them with the cleaver until they finally let go. Victory!
Severed roots on base of stump: some by shovel, some by cleaver
It took both of us to roll the heart to the curb, which weighed at least a hundred pounds, maybe more.

The final part of the job was to stuff all the cut-off leaves into yard bags.

It was a difficult and rather disgusting job and one I do not plan to repeat, as I won't be replacing the dead agave with another big agave. I've decided I much prefer soft, lush and fragrant plants to pointy, stabby ones, particularly in front of the house near the sidewalk and driveway.

Now there's a big empty spot in the front garden to fill, and a lot more cutting back to do.

Words and photos © 2009-2019 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.


  1. Ouch! I feel your pain! "Flippers" next door just planted a huge agave in a cedar box near the front door. I'm sure the new owners will be asking me what in the heck to do about it in a few years.

    1. Near the front door! I was kicking myself for planting mine near the driveway. I never thought it would get as big as it did. It must have been happy.

  2. I had no idea that your agave had died. Seems to me that someone will be happy about that and the no pups thing. Sometimes losing a plant isn't too much of a hardship and it opens up new opportunities to try something new and different. I remember when I took my dead one out I didn't know about the sap. I was stinging all over my bare skin. I won't do that again.

    1. Remember when it got those weird black spots on the leaves? That was the beginning of the end. Yes, Jack's thrilled it's gone. And he's right, it really was too close to the driveway and sidewalk.

  3. It’s a job to hire out as far as I’m concerned, so I’m super impressed that you did it yourselves! You are strong and determined.

    1. It wasn't difficult, especially with Jack's help, just tiring and gross - bugs! caustic sap! rotten stinky agave flesh! Plus, going through heavy-duty gardening maintenance tasks like this one helps me think more critically about my landscape purchases, particularly in regard to longevity and upkeep. And, I'm saving my hire-out funds for more fencing!

  4. I am impressed, what a job that was! I’m confused about the caustic sap though, I’ve never run into that with an Agave?

    1. Really? Must be some sort of allergic reaction I have to it. Some say it's saponins in the sap that can cause an itching and burning rash; others say it's calcium oxalate crystals. Whatever it is, it's highly unpleasant!


Post a Comment