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Building The Outdoor Cactus Garden

( Originally Published 1942 )



THE previous chapter discusses some of the foundation work necessary in building a successful outdoor cactus garden. We are now ready to consider the important problem of the retaining wall construction.

The retaining wall of a cactus garden may be a very simple and inexpensive affair. It may be made of planks well treated with a wood preservative such as carbolenium which is sold in most lumber yards. Planks are always available, and a wall made of them is easily constructed. The boards, how-ever, are very ugly, and they need a coat of "pebble-dash" to make them attractive. Hardware cloth or fine-meshed poultry netting should first be nailed to the sides of the boards to be pebble-dashed so that the mortar will stick more securely. The mortar is made by mixing cement, sand and medium fine crushed rock in the proportions of one part cement, two parts sand, three parts crushed rock, and mixed with water to make it just thin enough so that it will stick to the boards when thrown against them and will not run down the sides. This finish is called pebble-dash because of the crushed rock or pebbles which it contains, and be-cause it is dashed against the surface instead of being spread with a trowel.

There are various color pigments avail-able at any store handling paints which may be added to the mortar if the natural gray is considered too commonplace. The mortar may even be divided into several batches, each of a different color. When these are applied in alternate splashes, a unique mottled effect will be obtained. The decorative value of this finish will depend upon the discrimination exercised in the selection and use of colors. It must be remembered that the coloring should so harmonize with the dominant color scheme that attention is diverted from rather than attracted to the wall. The garden is made to display cacti —not a fancifully colored wall.

A plain concrete wall with a rough finish makes a good appearance and it is much more permanent than a wall made of planks. It is a distinct advantage that this type of wall does not have to be straight nor does it demand that the beds of the garden be constructed in squares or rectangles—"straight is the line of duty; curved is the line of beauty."

Rocks laid up in cement make the most artistic and satisfactory type of wall where rocks are available for it. Such a wall is permanent and seems to harmonize with the plants without being obtrusive.

The kind of rocks to use must be deter-mined by the garden builder himself. Any kind of rock properly laid up makes an attractive wall, so that much depends on what may be easily obtained. The most common-place rocks may be made into very decorative and attractive walls—rubble from a near-by gully; sandstone from a neighboring hilltop; bits of granite discarded during the construction of some building or brought in from the country; even pieces of torn up concrete pavement or broken bricks may be used with delightful results. The beauty and appropriateness of the wall does not depend so much on the materials used as it does on the ingenuity, good taste and artistry of the builder.

A much simpler wall may be constructed by laying up the rocks without concrete. This wall is not so substantial as the former, but, if the rocks are chosen so that they fit snugly, and each one is laid so that it binds the other, there is little danger of them being knocked out of place. This type of wall eliminates the trouble and expense of mixing mortar, and it does not require the services of a mason.

The construction of the retaining wall for your garden should not be considered a piece of drudgery. It calls for as much originality, careful thought and discrimination as the selection of the frame for a master painting, and the pride one may feel in an artistic wall is second only to the pride one may feel in the garden itself.

The width of the cactus beds should be such that the plants may be cared for with the least possible inconvenience. Great, in-deed, must be the enthusiasm which can survive the back-breaking, temper-destroying labor of caring for these spiny plants in beds that are built too wide. Probably there is no other single cause responsible for so many neglected cactus beds. The beds should present a constant and irresistible invitation for attention by the comfort and ease with which the work may be done.

The beds should be narrow enough so that even the most inaccessible parts may be worked with ease. It is important to remember that this work must be done with-out allowing the arms or hands to brush against the plants if one wishes to avoid a rich harvest of painful scratches and thorns. It is well to have the beds so narrow that most of the work may be done by reaching over the plants. It is not practical, of course, to attempt to reach over the larger cacti, but these are usually few in number and may be so planted that it is not necessary.

The width of the beds in feet depends somewhat on the height and length of the arms of the person who is to do the work. Four feet in width for beds that can be worked from both sides may be satisfactory for some of us, but three feet is much better for the average person. Beds that are to be worked from one side only should be only half as wide. Those who feel that such beds are too narrow should determine the proper width for themselves before starting construction. This may be quickly and easily done by marking on the ground the outside edges of a bed the proposed width and actually planting and working around a few specimens in it. This will eliminate all guess-work, and you may even find that the cacti which you intend for a certain planting may be given a wider bed than others, or it may require a narrower one than you anticipated. The absence of uniformity in the width where there are several beds often improves the effect of the whole garden.

Many little artistic touches will suggest themselves to the builder which will trans-form the garden from a drab, uninteresting affair into "a thing of beauty and a joy for-ever."

There is a temptation which besets nearly all persons planning their, first cactus gar-den. There is something about cacti that suggests the possibilities of a formal garden. The novice has a vision of little plants arranged in circles about a larger plant as a sedate' and dignified center like fairies dancing about their queen. Other fantastic and intricate designs seem most intriguing. Groups of plants may be arranged so that their spines and flowers will make an elaborate and harmonious color pattern. The size of each individual plant is considered and so placed that it will not appear incongruous. The author fully appreciates the lure of such a dream, but let the novice beware—it is a snare and a delusion.

Perfection must be maintained in the formal garden at all times. A broken ring caused by the death of a plant or two is so conspicuous that it ruins the whole picture. A missing plant in a group of uniform or graduated sizes must be replaced by one of the same size as the original or the symmetry of the arrangement will be destroyed. It is not difficult to visualize the effect of replacing a plant in an orange and yellow flowered group with a red-flowered plant, or substituting a cylindrical plant for a globose one.

It is obvious that the only way such a garden may be successfully maintained is to have available a complete set of duplicates of all plants, as to species and size, to be used as replacements. This is rarely feasible for a private garden; and, therefore the formal garden should be left to those institutions that have the financial resources and the equipment necessary to maintain such a garden in the state of perfection which it demands.

We should not regret giving up this dream of a formal garden, because, after all, its chief claim to admiration is its artificiality. It seems almost a betrayal to force these plants from the free and open desert places into circles, squares, stars, and count-less other artificial motifs. The author has seen pictures of birds made by fastening feathers on cardboard. Some of them are very artistic, and yet who would compare them with the beauty of those same feathers in their natural place on the pulsing body of a happy, joy-filled bird? The true beauty of a cactus plant can be properly appreciated only in a setting closely approximating its natural surroundings. True artistry in the display of cacti lies in the ability to create in the garden that mysterious atmosphere of the desert. This statement applies with equal force to the building of the cactus garden and the desert garden.

Having decided whether our garden shall be given a formal or a natural setting, the following chapter should prove interesting and very profitable.



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