Friday, December 2, 2011

Gardening: Yucca. A Taste of the Tropics & Hardy!

Politics, just like the tropical forest, feeds itself from its own waste. – Paul Carvel

The bells! The bells! (Apologies to Victor Hugo and Quasimodo)
Hmmm. Interesting thought… Here’s something exotic that will not only last through our Nova Scotia winters but will increase if given the right conditions. It’s Yucca filamentosa

Beautiful when not in flower. Photo: catsav, Flickr ccl
I thought I would start posting ideas for springtime gardening. Even though winter hasn't officially arrived the growing season is definitely past, so we need pleasant thoughts to occupy our minds until the snow leaves for good next year.

Yucca plants are hardy perennials that have a range of USDA Zones 3 to 10. That’s pretty wide. Essentially that covers from the Florida Panhandle in the USA to most of the lower parts of Central Canada’s provinces and both Canadian coasts.

Yucca can grow between 12” in height to a glorious 5’ (60”) when their flower spikes are in full glory. They’re quite a sight and demand attention in the garden.

Some common names for Yucca include Spanish Dagger, Spanish Bayonet and Adam's Needle. The most common one I’ve heard in Nova Scotia is Adam’s Needle. There are nine species and 24 subspecies of Yucca, and their distribution covers a wide area of Central and North America. Some yuccas are extremely exotic looking – nothing at all like Y. filamentosa. Yucca filamentosa is usually what is sold here in garden centres.

I planted mine too close to young,
vigorous apple tree...duh.
For much of the growing season, yucca are a mass of architecturally interesting sword shaped leaves. They’re quite rigid and can be a bit of a danger so watch small pets and children. The leaves are usually in the form of an upright clump emerging from the ground. This makes them a favourite in garden border designs. They’re very structural.

The flowers!
But then they do something a little unexpected. They flower, a lot. Yucca (can) flower from the middle of summer through autumn, when they carry masses of white 2”-3” hanging bells. These flowers, that can appear in the dozens, are borne on very rigid stalks that emerge from the centre of each plant. The spikes on our plants were nearly 4 feet tall.

Note, I put “can” in brackets above. The reason is that I was waiting for several years for our yucca to go into flower. I believe it’s mostly my fault that I had to wait so long. I’m pretty certain I was a little unkind to it in both the soil and location choices. It makes a great difference. My yucca survived but did not “flourish.”

Location and soil
Choose a location in full sun to plant your yucca. Although Yuccas can tolerate partial shade, they grow best in full sun. The soil should be somewhat dry and well-drained as the roots of Yuccas rot easily in wet soil. The soil where I planted was not loamy as much as somewhat clay. 

Over time I believe I have amended enough, but some sand or larger aggregate should have been added into the soil to ensure proper drainage. That and some organic matter… You can even go to the extent of adding an inch or so of gravel to the top of the bed where they are planted.

If your plant is in a place where snow can be thrown on it you may want to
think about burlap protection. Not from the cold, but from the weight.
Photo: Jerry Friedman, Flickr ccl

Winter protection
Yucca filamentosa needs no real winter protection, unless you are afraid of winter damage to the leaves. One year we had snow ploughed heavily over top of ours and it flattened it like a pancake. It took a whole growing season for the leaves to recover. No blooms that year.

If you have the location, yucca is really well worth your minimal trouble. For the normal cost of a garden centre perennial you get a little of the tropics in your temperate garden. I haven’t been able to kill mine yet. Mind you I haven’t tried, but I wasn’t helping either.

Yucca sold locally in Nova Scotia is usually Y. filamentosa, but last year we purchased a variegated variety. It’s planted in hopefully a better spot. Only time will tell if I got it right.


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