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A collection of troughs

As I've become more interested in rock gardening, including tending to the diminutive plants that goes along with that corner of the gardening hobby, I have come to realize the need for container culture of these littluns. Until recently, I treated the rock garden plantlets just the same as any other perennials: I started them from seed in winter, hardened them off outdoors for a few weeks, and then stuck them into the orchard nursery area, where they'd have to fend for themselves through summer and winter. Sure, I prepared a special section of the nursery area with better-draining soil, and developed some rock mulching methods designed to provide cooler root zones and reduce the tendency for frost heaving. But still, I would lose a very large fraction of my plants every season: some in the heat of summer, some in the wet and cold of winter. After all was said and done, there were only a few survivors to actually go into the rock garden proper. There had to be a better way.

Alpine gardeners have known of this better way for years (it just took me a while to catch up): grow these plants, many of which are prima donnas, in containers designed just for them. Containers can be moved around: the amount of sunlight can be tuned to the plants' needs by selecting more or less shady locations, and they can be protected from the vagaries of winter weather. Many of these plants can easily cope with the temperatures our zone 6 climate throws at them, but are none too pleased with the wet conditions and frost heaving that are also part of our Pennsylvania winters. I haven't made the leap of constructing an alpine house (I'll leave that to the truly dedicated rock gardeners), but I do have the option of moving containers into the garage for winter, or providing some kind of cover to prevent excess rainfall if they are left outside. I do know from experience that I'll need to protect the containers from ravenous mice in the garage - so some kind of mesh cage construction will be necessary. I'll work on that later this year.

So what should I grow my prima donnas in? To be honest, I think many types of containers are perfectly fine, including plastic and terra cotta pots. But the container style of choice for many rock gardeners is the hypertufa trough, which not only provides a suitable environment (the porosity helps with drainage and root zone aeration, and the thick walls help keep the root zone a bit cooler in summer's heat), but also look the part. So after years of having hypertufa projects on my long-range to-do list, I finally took the plunge and gave it a try. I looked up various recipes and methods online (you can find some resources listed here), went out to purchase the ingredients (Portland cement, milled sphagnum peat moss, perlite, builders sand), made a separate run to the dollar store to obtain a selection of molds, and went to it.

Using my wheelbarrow as a mixing bin, I tried different proportions of the ingredients (some with, some without sand, and different ratios of cement to peat) to see which would give the best properties. The verdict on that is still out, since my troughs are still young, but I think I like the recipes that add in some sand and use a little more cement best, since they give a slightly stronger final product. Sculpting the containers turned into a bit of a family project, with both kids and Amy having fun playing around with the different molds, adding different materials to provide textures to the exterior surfaces of the troughs, and putting the finishing touches on the not-quite cured containers when they first came out of the molds. After they had further aged for a few weeks, they were ready for planting.

For the planting mix, I winged it even more than for the hypertufa recipe, combining compost, perlite, sand, and chicken grit to what seemed like a mixture with a suitable balance of moisture retention and drainage properties. I admit that I haven't yet attempted to taylor the medium to the needs of individual plants – perhaps one of these years I'll be ready to meet the needs of plants preferring calcareous soils, lean soils, or humus-rich soils. For now, they all have to deal with the random mixture I tossed together.

So now I had lots of new containers, along with lots of seedlings, and a few second-year plants that had survived the nursery area through a full season. How to go about placing the plants into the containers? I'll readily admit: my process was largely random. My goal was to place a few seedlings of many varieties in troughs (the rest still go into the nursery area, to increase my chances that at least one method will yield success), and to have a variety of plants in each trough. So most containers have an interesting assortment of succulents, tiny xeric species, ground-hugging plants, and ones with a more upright habit. We'll see how it all develops – one advantage of container culture is the relative ease of moving things around. Once the plants were put in place, I finished things off with a layer of small pebbles, which should serve as a mulch to preserve moisture and prevent soil from being splashed up onto the plants' foliage during watering or rainstorms.

Shortly after planting each of the containers, I took their pictures, so that I could observe their progress through the season. Of course many of the plants that die like clockwork in their first summer will do the same thing in the pots as they always do in the open ground. But maybe a few will find their alternative environment more to their liking, and stick around for a while longer. For now, the troughs are arrayed on our patio table, which provides some protection from roaming rodents and ducks. That's probably not a long-term option (Amy may actually have other purposes for that table), but it buys me some time to think about a proper solution. The patio is nice in that it gets sun during the morning and early afternoon, then gets some shade in the late afternoon and evening. If I were a plant, that's just the conditions I'd like!

For now, I'm including photos of each of the troughs in its initial state. I hope to provide some updates on how my troughs fare as I gain some experience in this area of gardening. Wish me luck!

Small Round Basket Trough

Small Square Trough – I didn't make this one; it came to us as a gift a few years ago, which accounts for its more expertly crafted shape, and the mossy growth

Big Oval Trough – this one has two second-year penstemons, along with a couple of Alyssum montanums

Square Bowl Trough – round at the bottom, square at the top

Rectangular Trough #1

Rectangular Trough #2 – this one made in the second batch, which included sand and a higher proportion of cement, yielding a stronger, smoother product

Flat Round Trough

Scalloped Round Trough

Square Trough

Oval Trough – made in the third round of hypertufing

Round Pot Trough – formed using a squat round nursery container

Tall Pot Trough – from a largish square nursery container

Tiny Square Trough – the littlest of the bunch, here seen with just two small succulent seedlings: Sedum divergens and Talinum calycinum

Willow Trough – so named for my attempt to impress a willow-twig pattern into the sides (mostly unsuccessful). Originally home to a tender elephant bush, since demised.

Basin Trough – one of a series experimenting with a mix higher in cement, hence the lighter color and smoother finish. A wash basin served as its mold, and a few rocks were added for visual interest and cooler root runs.

Rim Pot Trough – made using a rimmed nursery container.

Primitive Round Trough – an attempt to build a trough around instead of inside a mold, which turns out to be a good bit harder, hence the irregular "primitive" shape.

Primitive Rectangular Trough – same deal, just using a rectangular mold: the same one as used making the rectangular troughs shown above. For now, this one is used as a "keep them alive" container, more for providing favorable conditions to prima donnas than for creating a pleasing combination of plants.

Boat Trough – named for its shape, this one came through its first winter with most plants alive, and sported the first trough blooms of 2015: Townsendia rothrockii

Plants growing in our Small Round Basket trough

Aster alpinus (alpine aster)
Erigeron vetensis
Globularia nudicaulis
Sisyrinchium idahoense (blue-eyed grass)

Plants growing in our Small Square trough

Anemone x lesseri (windflower)
Bukiniczia cabulica
Draba sibirica
Rhodiola integrifolia (king's crown; roseroot)
Sedum valens (Idaho stonecrop)
Sisyrinchium idahoense (blue-eyed grass)

Plants growing in our Big Oval trough

Agave havardiana (hardy century plant; Big Bend century plant)
Asarina procumbens (trailing snapdragon)
Campanula zangezura
Delosperma cooperi (hardy ice plant)
Lavandula stoechas ssp. pedunculata (butterfly lavender; French lavender)
Lilium pumilum (coral lily)
Penstemon kunthii (Kunth's penstemon)

Plants growing in our Square Bowl trough

Acantholimon caryophyllaceum ssp. caryophyllaceum
Arenaria grandiflora (large-flowered sandwort)
Gypsophila franzii
Limonium gougetianum (statice)
Limonium minutum
Oxytropis multiceps (dwarf locoweed; Nuttall's oxytrope)
Phemeranthus brevifolius (pygmy fameflower)

Plants growing in our Rectangular #1 trough

Anemone multifida var. tetonensis
Erigeron compositus 'Red Desert' (cutleaf daisy; fernleaf fleabane)
Erigeron elegantulus (blue dwarf fleabane; volcanic daisy)
Oenothera perennis (small sundrops)
Penstemon euglaucus
Unidentified (unknown)

Plants growing in our Rectangular #2 trough

Anacyclus pyrethrum (Mount Atlas daisy)
Dracocephalum discolor
Gentiana dahurica (gentian)
Lilium pumilum (coral lily)
Potentilla porphyrantha
Sedum valens (Idaho stonecrop)
Talinum calycinum (large fameflower)

Plants growing in our Flat Round trough

Anemone multifida var. tetonensis
Arenaria 'Blue Cascade'
Chlorogalum pomeridianum (wild potato; soap lily)
Delosperma congestum (ice plant)
Dracocephalum forrestii (dragonhead)
Erigeron compositus 'Red Desert' (cutleaf daisy; fernleaf fleabane)
Erinus alpinus (alpine balsam)
Rhodiola integrifolia (king's crown; roseroot)

Plants growing in our Scalloped Round trough

Aethionema grandiflorum (stonecress)
Anacyclus pyrethrum (Mount Atlas daisy)
Anthyllis vulneraria var. coccinea (kidney vetch; woundwort)
Phyteuma vagneri

Plants growing in our Square trough

Asperula gussonii (woodruff)
Campanula portenschlagiana
Penstemon arenicola (sand penstemon)
Penstemon jamesii ssp. ophianthus
Sabatia kennedyana (plymouth rose-gentian)
Sedum ussuriense (stonecrop)
Veronica fruticans (rock speedwell)

Plants growing in our Round Pot trough

Campanula anomala
Pulsatilla turczaninovii (Siberian pasqueflower)
Salvia pachyphylla (desert mountain sage)

Plants growing in our Tall Pot trough

Aquilegia scopulorum

Plants growing in our Tiny Square trough

Rosularia sempervivum

Plants growing in our Oval trough

Adenophora tashiroi
Aethionema grandiflorum (stonecress)
Chlorogalum pomeridianum (wild potato; soap lily)
Dianthus species (pink)
Draba aizoides (whitlow-grass)
Gentiana dahurica (gentian)
Limonium gougetianum (statice)
Penstemon heterophyllus (chaparral penstemon)
Pulsatilla turczaninovii (Siberian pasqueflower)
Sedum divergens (Cascade stonecrop)

Plants growing in our Willow trough

Campanula zangezura
Penstemon wilcoxii (Wilcox's beardtongue)
Sabatia kennedyana (plymouth rose-gentian)
Salvia jurisicii
Scutellaria pontica (skullcap)
Sedum divergens (Cascade stonecrop)

Plants growing in our Low Bowl trough

Allium daghestanicum
Anemone lithophila
Draba norvegica (rock whitlow-grass)
Draba sakuraii
Draba sibirica
Erinus alpinus (alpine balsam)
Lewisia cotyledon (bitter-root)
Limonium minutum
Sedum divergens (Cascade stonecrop)
Talinum calycinum (large fameflower)

Plants growing in our Rim Pot trough

Delosperma cooperi (hardy ice plant)
Gypsophila franzii
Luetkea pectinata (partridgefoot)
Rosularia sempervivum
Sisyrinchium bellum (blue-eyed grass)

Plants growing in our Primitive Rectangular trough

Agave havardiana (hardy century plant; Big Bend century plant)
Asarina procumbens (trailing snapdragon)
Bukiniczia cabulica
Delosperma congestum (ice plant)
Edraianthus tenuifolius (grassy bells)
Lilium lankongense
Limonium gougetianum (statice)
Oxytropis multiceps (dwarf locoweed; Nuttall's oxytrope)
Penstemon arenicola (sand penstemon)
Penstemon nitidus (shining penstemon)
Salvia pachyphylla (desert mountain sage)

Plants growing in our Primitive Round trough

Bukiniczia cabulica
Limonium minutum
Penstemon confertus (yellow penstemon)
Sedum ussuriense (stonecrop)

Plants growing in our Basin trough

Alyssum stribrnyi
Cerastium alpinum ssp. lanatum (alpine mouse ears)
Erigeron compositus 'Red Desert' (cutleaf daisy; fernleaf fleabane)
Linanthus pungens (granite prickly phlox)
Oxytropis multiceps (dwarf locoweed; Nuttall's oxytrope)
Penstemon euglaucus
Rosularia sempervivum

Plants growing in our Cement rectangular trough

Chlorogalum pomeridianum (wild potato; soap lily)
Edraianthus pumilio (grassy bells)
Erigeron compositus 'Red Desert' (cutleaf daisy; fernleaf fleabane)
Phemeranthus sediformis
Sabatia kennedyana (plymouth rose-gentian)
Sisyrinchium idahoense (blue-eyed grass)

Plants growing in our Tinnel trough

Portulacaria afra 'Variegata' (elephant bush; dwarf jade plant)

Plants growing in our Boat trough

Anemone multifida (windflower)
Eremogone pseudacantholimon
Limonium virgatum ssp. dictyocladum
Penstemon nitidus (shining penstemon)
Rhodiola integrifolia (king's crown; roseroot)
Townsendia rothrockii

Plants growing in our Hanging basket trough

Aethionema grandiflorum (stonecress)
Aquilegia flabellata (fan columbine)
Cotula 'Tiffindell Gold' (creeping gold buttons)
Gentiana siphonantha (gentian)
Penstemon arenicola (sand penstemon)
Scabiosa japonica var. alpina (pincushion flower)
Sedum glaucophyllum (cliff stonecrop)

Plants growing in our Rectangular bowl trough

Acantholimon saxifragiforme
Delosperma congestum (ice plant)
Draba norvegica (rock whitlow-grass)
Elmera racemosa (yellow coral bells)
Erigeron elegantulus (blue dwarf fleabane; volcanic daisy)
Lilium pumilum (coral lily)
Penstemon procerus (small-flowered penstemon)

Plants growing in our Line rim trough

Astragalus utahensis (Utah milkvetch)
Dionysia aretioides
Minuartia laricifolia (larch-leaved sandwort)
Penstemon eatonii (Eaton's penstemon; firecracker penstemon)
Pulsatilla turczaninovii (Siberian pasqueflower)
Salvia roemeriana (cedar sage)
Unidentified (unknown)

Plants growing in our Lined trough

Dichelostemma ida-maia (firecracker flower)

Plants growing in our X trough

Codonopsis thalictrifolia
Minuartia laricifolia (larch-leaved sandwort)
Sedum divergens (Cascade stonecrop)
Sedum valens (Idaho stonecrop)

 

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Last modified: June 07, 2015
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