Outdoor Cactus Garden
( Originally Published 1942 )
ALTHOUGH plants and flowers in the house give considerable satisfaction, and cacti must be grown there, at least for part of the year, in our more rigorous climate, yet many people agree with the author in feeling much the same about plants in the house as they do about native birds in cages. Birds belong in the trees and fields. It is their happiness in a natural environment that gives them most of their charm. It is true that cacti are not so sensitive as are the birds. We cannot ascribe to them personal feelings in the matter. And yet there is something incongruous, out of harmony, when one sees these citizens of the "wide open spaces" confined to the stuffiness of a house and surrounded by the furnishings of a modern home. It may be imagination, but have you not often felt that plants thus confined do not look happy, they wear an appearance of dejection and discouragement which even their fighting spirit cannot overcome?
True lovers of cacti see to it that their plants have a chance to enjoy living in an outdoor garden for at least part of the year if it is possible to do so. This can be arranged with very little trouble or expense.
A modest but very satisfactory outdoor cactus garden may be established in a very small space, and no other garden with which the author is familiar will give so much pleasure and satisfaction per square foot of space occupied.
A place three feet wide by five feet long may be made to accommodate as many as fifty medium-sized specimens, and each one a gem giving constant pleasure. The size of these outdoor gardens will vary from one plant to hundreds, but they can all be classified into two general types.
The first of these two classes is made up of those gardens where the plants are kept in flower pots the entire year. This method has obvious advantages in the colder sections of the country where the plants cannot withstand the winters. It is well to make it clear at this point that many cacti can resist surprisingly low temperatures if the air is dry, but will suffer and possibly die when exposed to higher temperatures if those temperatures are accompanied by rain or continued high humidity. There are nearly a hundred species of cacti growing wild in Southwest Texas where the mercury drops below freezing every winter and some-times flirts with the zero mark. But many of these same plants will not survive the winter in East Texas unprotected although the temperatures there do not range any lower. This is the explanation: West Texas has a rainfall of from fifteen to twenty inches, and East Texas has a rainfall of from thirty to fifty inches.
It is very convenient to have our beloved plants in flower pots when the cold, wet days of fall come, because we can then so easily get them into shelter without disturbing their roots. Some of us will take our choicest specimens into our homes. This may be safely done if we see to it that they have some sunlight when there is sunlight, and plenty of fresh air.
The fumes from burning gas may contain ethylene gas which is very injurious to cacti. Some people do not try to keep their cacti in the house because of this difficulty. They do not realize that these same fumes are detrimental to their own well-being. The sensible thing to do is to have ventilators for the gas stoves to carry off the fumes, and to let in plenty of fresh, outdoor air. Your cacti will be happy then, and probably your own health will be so benefited that you will escape, many of the colds and ailments common during the winter season. It is well to remember that cacti are fresh-air children.
Many species of cacti differ in their soil and moisture requirements. These requirements are more easily supplied when the plants may be treated individually in their own pots even when they are in their outdoor garden. This one may need a spoonful more of lime; that one a little fresh soil; the one over there should have some extra water to help bring out an especially large crop of bloom. All of these operations are simplified when each cactus is growing in its own container and can be treated without affecting the others.
It is much easier to secure proper drainage in flower pots than it is in a considerable plot of ground. Water-logged soil during long, continuous rainy spells is very difficult to avoid without considerable expense in the initial building of the garden unless flower pots are used.
Plants growing in pots may be taken up, examined, treated and re-planted when necessary without disturbing in the least any of the other plants. Should one of the plants die, the pot may be emptied, and all doubt of having possibly infected soil will be re-moved. To insure further safety against infection, heat the pot. New soil may then be added, and a new plant returned with perfect safety to the place of the dead one. This becomes much more difficult when one has to dig the dead plant out of the ground and tries to guess as to the amount of soil that should be removed with it.
The author recognizes one valid objection to the use of flower pots for the outdoor cactus garden. That objection is that the pots, too often, give the garden an appearance of artificiality which kills the artistic effect.
This difficulty may be largely overcome by decorating the pots with paint so as to remove the drab monotony of their original color. One does not need to be a trained artist to do this effectively since no special design is required, but it does give a most interesting opportunity for one to exercise his artistic sense in color combination.
Another method of using the pots in a garden which has good drainage is to plant the entire pot so that its edge is even with or extends slightly above the surrounding ground. This method secures practically all of the advantages of the use of flower pots but avoids the objection discussed above. Many cacti enthusiasts, who live in sections where the climate is so congenial that their plants may be left in the garden the year round, follow this method in preference to all others.
There are those, however, who do not like to use flower pots either in winter or summer. They build their outdoor gardens in such a way as to meet as nearly as possible the requirements of their plants. They also try to select those species which are known to thrive in that locality.
Such a garden has one advantage which may appeal to those who derive their chief pleasure from pride of ownership rather than any especial interest in the plants themselves—such a garden requires less personal and intimate contact with the plants. Little individual consideration is usually given. A specimen is planted. If it survives under the general conditions imposed, splendid. If it dies, it is pulled up and replaced with some other kind. Effective and extensive landscape effects may be obtained and maintained by this easy but rather cold-blooded method.
The outdoor cactus garden must provide positive and ample drainage for all plants in it whether they be planted in flower pots or planted directly in the soil.
When it is intended to have the surface of the garden at the level of or only slightly higher than the surrounding terrain, it is very essential that an excavation be made the size of the garden and deep enough so that the bottom of the excavation will be about eighteen inches below the top of the finished garden. The higher the garden is built above the surface of the ground, the less excavating will need to be done. The raised garden is usually the more satisfactory.
Eighteen inches may be deeper than necessary for the excavation where the original soil is porous, when the garden is made on sloping ground, or if it is intended to use only very small plants.
A layer, three or four inches deep, of cinders or coarse gravel should be put in the bottom of the excavation. This should be covered with two inches of fine gravel or coarse sand. The gravel or sand should be packed down on the foundation layer so that there are no air spaces of considerable size.
The rest of the excavation may be filled with sand if it is planned to grow only cacti in the garden and to keep them in pots sunken in the surface soil. On the other hand, if cacti or succulents other than cacti are to be planted directly in the soil, then a mixture of soil, as described in Chapter IV for plants in flower pots, should be used for the surface soil.
It is neither possible nor desirable to give the reader such detailed information that he can proceed to build a garden under any and all conditions, following each definite step by definite step just as one might follow a set of chemical processes. Each cactus plant and each cactus garden presents an individual problem and therein lies their fascination. It is a challenge to your intelligence and problem-solving ability. Thus the garden becomes an expression of your own personality; it is a part of you; it is your own child. Whether the results, from the artistic or the practical standpoint, are good, bad, or indifferent, you have in that garden a deep and abiding pleasure because it is all yours. The hope of the author is to present general principles, elucidated by occasional concrete examples, which the reader should take into consideration when working out his own particular problem and find in them both help and inspiration.