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Cactus Garden or Desert Garden?

( Originally Published 1942 )

ONE of the very important questions to be decided is what kind of garden we wish to have. The reader may be quite surprised that such a question should be raised, because he has probably been under the impression that the cactus garden is the only kind of a garden that can properly be considered in this discussion. We must plead guilty in having used the term "cactus garden" in a loose or popular meaning in order to avoid confusion, but we have now come to the place where we should be more careful and discriminating in the use of the term.

A garden may not properly be called a "cactus garden" just because it contains a few cacti among other plants any more than a farm may be called a poultry farm because it has a few chickens. It is the garden that contains cacti only which may be properly referred to as a "cactus garden."

There are many desert cactus-like plants and plants that harmonize so nicely with cacti that they are often planted in the same garden. When this is done, the garden ceases to be a "cactus garden" in the true sense, and becomes a "desert garden." It is necessary to decide which one of these types of gardens is desired before going further with the development.

The cactus garden is generally chosen by those persons living in a climate where the plants must be protected during the winter. Cacti are usually smaller than most of the other desirable desert plants, and they re-quire comparatively small containers. They are, therefore, more easily moved to sheltered quarters for the winter.

It takes much greater skill to plan an attractive cactus garden than it does a desert garden. So many cacti have a sameness in appearance that it is very difficult to avoid a flat, drab, uninteresting effect.

The monotony of the garden may be avoided by a generous use of medium sized individuals of such species as the slender stem cactus, "tasajillo," (Opuntia leptocaulis) the cholla cactus (Opuntia imbricata) with its cylindrical, branching stems; the blind pear (Opuntia rufida) and the common prickly pear (Opuntia lindheimeri) with their stems of flattened, slab-like joints. These are all common species, easily obtained, and they grow rapidly. Many new enthusiasts scorn such common species as being beneath their notice. They feel that only rare exotic species are worth their attention. They fail to understand the decorative contribution of some of these common species and their value in emphasizing the beauty of the rarer plants. The plants may be used as a background; they make splendid centers for generalized clusters or for special motifs. It is a mistake to feel that rarety is the only standard of value in cacti just as it is a mistake to feel that wealth is the only standard of value among our human companions. It is not denied that ownership of a rare specimen gives a thrill that adds spice and zest to the work of caring for a garden. Of course, every owner of a cactus garden delights in obtaining unusual and interesting plants, and we would encourage him to secure them when-ever possible. It is urged, however, that the desirability of the common species be not under-estimated, and that they be utilized to beautify and enrich the garden.

There are desert plants that have thick, fleshy leaves, and some of them have thorns which give them an appearance much resembling cacti. These plants, together with cacti, are often referred to as "succulents." Many of them are natives of regions similar to those in which cacti thrive and require the same moisture conditions and type of soil. They are often neighbors of the cacti, and, occasionally, seem to be actual friends since certain kinds of cacti are not infrequently found huddled close to them for protection from the scorching heat and from animals held at bay by the more robust spines of the larger plants. It is quite appropriate that these plants, so similar in habits and so neighborly in disposition should be grouped together in desert gardens.

Desert gardens are more practical in the warmer and drier sections of the country where the plants may be left outdoors all the year, and they are much more popular than the true cactus garden because the great variation of size and type in these plants affords a wealth of opportunity in working out delightful landscape effects. Only those who have had experience in planning both types of gardens can fully appreciate the ad-vantages of being able to use stately palms, tall deserty-looking yuccas and bear grass with its long gracefully flowing leaves. There is a multitude of similar plants that are equally effective and easily secured. As a rule, they are easily grown and do not re-quire the delicate care demanded by cacti. The loss of plants is, therefore, much less in this group than in cacti; and, what is more important, they will reduce the loss of cacti because the smaller cacti which cannot stand the heat of unbroken summer sunshine may be placed beneath the larger plants. A very considerable saving in the expense of both establishing and maintaining a garden may be effected when proper discrimination is exercised in the selection and use of succulents other than cacti, and the general result is even more satisfactory.

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