Designing Cowboy Gardens
The western style garden shows two influences, that of native plants and the antiques of early America.
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By Maureen Gilmer
DIY--Do It Yourself Network
Visions of the Old West are filled with cowboys and cattle drives, wood frame farmhouses and log cabins. We who love all that is western surround ourselves with the art, artifact and architecture that has epitomized this golden era of America's youth. Yet rarely is that romance taken into the garden to extend this ambiance.
The western style garden responds to two influences, that of native plants and the antiques of early America. The plants are those found from Montana south to Texas and west to California. Their names come up time and again in cowboy songs and poems.
The Texas bluebonnet is the lupine of California. Oklahoma redbuds and osage orange, mesquite and cottonwood are familiar to anyone who has read the classics. Even the prickly pear and jumping cholla are entrenched in our folklore and belong in this garden as well.
The Old West garden is as simple as the wild land it came from. There is no room for fussy plantings because the West was a place of brutal reality. The western redbud, (Cercis occidentalis) is a fabulous tree for ranch or home. It bursts into bloom in early spring cloaked in magenta pea-shaped flowers. These yield to lovely, round, heart-shaped leaves that turn sunset colors early in the fall. Touchy about root disturbance, they adapt well to gardens provided there is adequate drainage.
If you look closely at the blossom of lupine wildflowers, you'll notice they are shaped just like those of redbud. It's because they both fall into the pea family of legumes. These plants don't require soil nitrogen because they obtain it from the atmosphere — a most unique characteristic. As a result, they thrive in less than ideal soils of the arid West where other nitrogen-needy plants don't stand a chance.
Prickly pear cactus, (Opuntia) is about as western as you can get. With hundreds of different varieties, it's difficult to tell them apart. But some native to North America can range north into Utah, proving their cold-hardiness. The Mexicans carved saddle trees out of the trunks of old cactus trees but the wood was so soft they had to make the horn much larger than the American saddle for added strength.
The best way to collect prickly pear is to take cuttings of those growing close to you. These have proved their adaptability. There are round paddles and longer flat ones known as "cow's tongue." Cylindrical, cigar-shaped prickly pear are cholla, which bear the most wicked spines of all.
But when these cacti bloom they are incredibly beautiful and the fruit that ripens in summer is delectable. To harvest the fruit use a pair of barbecue tongs to break it off, then hold over a stove flame to burn off the thorns and painful microscopic glochids.
The cowboy garden enjoys art just as any other style. The quintessential decoration is an old wagon wheel, which can still be found at antique dealers. Stout buckboard wheels and delicate buggy wheels each contribute a slightly different look. Even hubs of very large wheels make super stools or pedestals for potted plants.
Split rail fences are the uniform boundaries of the Old West beyond the ubiquitous barbed wire. Hand split rails or lodgepole pines produce a charming, rustic character whether you use two rails or three. Even if you use just a single span flanking a gate, the effect is unmistakably western.
(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardener on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.moplants.com or www.DIYnet.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)
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