Stone and Hypertufa Container Gardens

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Cigar Plant and Salvia Black and Blue

Container Gardens of Stone and Hypertufa

  •  Miniature gardens can be very satisfying elements in small personal landscapes.
    Stone troughs, hypertufa, copper and other non-rusting metal containers are among the very best choices for long term planting. Such things can make ideal small garden beds, but are hard to come by, so I would start with hypertufa containers which can be bought from Artisans or cast yourself with a good recipe. I have not found concrete planters to be as good for plants. Good drainage is essential to good growing, so one needs to be sure there are holes in the bottoms, whatever material it is made of. Any of these can remain in place outdoors through all the seasons and last for many years. I have had  hypertufa containers last more than 20 years in my landscape. If you are very fortunate, who knows, an old horse trough or some other serendipitous shapes may turn up.
    It turns out that there are a lot of perennial plants which are preadapted to the kind of life one can have in a trough in New England. Certain particular kinds of plants, many of which are choice and beautiful, will return on their own year after year within such outdoor containers, They do need to be sited well with respect to wind, hottest sun and drought but otherwise are without any protection in winter.
  • Floriferous annual plants and lots of useful herbs can thrive in these small habitats. I especially like copper and potmetal for these kinds of plantings.

Hypertufa is a man-made material, so named because it imitates natural lime-laden, porous Tufa rock in both chemistry and physical properties. Many kinds of plants grow well in this material just as they do in natural Tufa.
After a while, when in touch with the earth’s surface and organic materials, hypertufa containers gradually green up and come to resemble local fieldstone in color and character. Perhaps the nicest compliment mine have ever recieved is that “they look like God made them.”……

  • When you are choosing the plants for your container garden, if you will be having multiple varieties in a single container it will be important to find kinds which have similar biological needs since they will share this small ecotome. The little gardens also will usually look best and be most easily kept if the companions are chosen to be similar in scale and speed of growth.
  • For easy sustainability, the trick  is to choose appropriate plants for the ecological circumstances you can offer. When the troughs are planted to suit the place where they are sited, they never have to move. The tending maintenance of well planted and considerately located containers can be very minimal.

Siting Trough Gardens : Zone 5

  • Basically, these are self-contained ‘raised beds’. You can choose to keep them at a heights which allow you to easily see, touch and tend the residents. Located by design in places where you can get near to them, each trough can become a whole landscape picture, filling your close view. The container can stay there for life or move readily if that pleases you.
    If you have a stone wall, atop it may provide an ideal place to set them, but they can be sited on any sturdy shelf or structure that can support their weight.
  • The troughs allow their chosen occupants to avoid competition from other plant materials. Such miniature gardens can therefore be especially enhancing when sited under trees. With freshly beautiful colonies settled safely in their special ‘beds’, they can ornament rooty places where, otherwise, not many things could manage to grow.
  • It is perfect when, in their chosen locations, your containers get lightly watered automatically by in-ground irrigation, if you can arrange it. Even if you irrigate though, it is advisable to select sites where you can easily provide a little custom watering sometimes. Being small in volume, containers lose their moisture more quickly than earth places do. They don’t need a lot of water, but they need it regularly.
  • Locating your troughs where there is some shade at the hottest times of day will make things easier to manage. Too much sun may cause the containers to heat up and dry out too fast, even for sun tolerant plants.

    Saxifrages, mini Hostas and Thalictrum kiusianum
    Making Troughs

  • Hypertufa troughs and pots can be made in a great variety of shapes and sizes, custom to whatever your spatial needs may be.
    If you have the ambition and a largish place to make an outdoor mess, you can create your own containers if you wish to.
    Basically, the material is composed of a simple mixture of cement, perlite and/or very course sand, strained peat moss and water, whose proportions vary somewhat depending on whose recipe you use. When thoroughly moist, the composite material is simply pressed into a shape with a form or over sand, then allowed to set for a span of days in a shady place. The mixture will be stronger if it cures slowly, so it is kept covered in plastic sheeting.
    Although I may take the container off of its mold after a few days to use a wire brush or file on it for shaping and/or texturing before it sets up fully, after this touch up, I turn it upside down again in its curing place, re-cover it with the plastic, and give it a few weeks to sit quietly. At this point I turn it right side up and let it get rained on for a few more weeks, then it is ready to use.
  • An exemplary article by Helen Dawson about making  hypertufa containers, with images showing the details of the process, was recently presented by Fine Gardening (.com). The recommendations nearly match the recipes and procedures that I have used, except that I have not added fiberglass. I hope that you will look at her excellent instructions if you plan to do this yourself.
    The only additional details in method I might mention would be that I use type 2 Portland cement because it gives a deeper grey color, and I use less perlite and add some very course sand. This way I end up with fewer ‘white dots’ of perlite and so perhaps a more naturalistic appearance overall, but the sand adds a bit of weight to the structure.
    I like the walls to be at least 1 1/2″ thick, and in large containers, 2″ is good.
    When you cast upside down over a sand mold, it may also be nice if you can make a moat shape in a soft ‘base’ pad of sand where the lip of the container will be formed, so when you eventually turn it right side up, you will have a softly rounded rather than a flat upper edge on your container.
    I have made quite a few of these over time, but for the larger ones, I usually give the project over to a professional. Well constructed troughs and pots have typically lasted 15 years and more in my landscapes.

    Gypsophila muralis, Corydalis lutea

Considerations of Shape and Size

  • In my experience, the most versatile troughs are 12 to 18″ wide and 20”+ long with an interior depth of 7” or more.  I find my most popular shapes are a foot or so wide and 20″ to 36″ long, probably because those sizes sit nicely on many commonly available surfaces. A rough minimum for sustaining perennial plants over time would be an interior depth of 6”, with a 10” width or diameter.
  • Whether you choose perennials or annuals, good surface and bottom drainage will be essential.
    A fine ¼” stone mulch at the surface is often ideal. This also makes a receptive seedbed for your chosen things to seed into their home grounds.
    For Alpine plants, drainage is extremely important. Many Alpine plants are preadapted to the settings these containers can provide, but often they can’t withstand wet crowns for long, and so must  drain quickly when the snows or rains impinge. To this end, I embank the earth in the overall container so as to create a slope gently descending  outward from the center . I sometimes use stones in a few places to support this banked presentation to the view.
    Choosing your Trough Shape

  • In general, more kinds of plants can be sustained through the winters in larger containers than in small ones. Wide and deep containers provide more earth around the plants, which seems to help cushion the extremes of our New England weather.
  • For colonies of things, bigger is also better. It is just that there is more room for your various kinds of plants to develop gracefully into meaningful groups within your miniature gardens.
    Whenever the container is big enough, it may be esthetically interesting to give it dominant and subsidiary plants, perhaps choosing ones that flower in various times of year, as you might if you were organising a larger landscape, just on a smaller scale.….

    Earth for Sustainable Planters

  • I always mix perlite and ¼” stone into the planting substrates to help keep the mix perpetually free draining. I add some compost and slow release fertiliser too. Depending on who you will be growing, what else you use in the container to make up your planting ‘earth’ can be adjusted somewhat. Some kinds like lean earth and others prefer theirs to be organically rich. When the plants are generalists, they are easily kept, and there is usually nothing very exact about the mixtures.
    I usually choose the easy, adaptable plant varieties but there are even some easy Alpine plants requiring particular planting and special ingredients in their mix, but afterwards easily sustainable.In the end, you will know if things are fine by the apparent well being of your plant materials. When you need to add more earth or ingredients later, or you want to adjust the pitch of  the container’s surface, you can work a trowel or small spade underneath the plants. Cutting around the interior edges of the pots, release the plants and lift whole interplanted planted groups while tucking extra substrate into the crevices you create with the lifts.
    This way you won’t disturb the colonies too much, and surface seeds will not be lost. …..
  • For clues about the best substrate for your planter, you may want to Google your candidate Plants’ names to read about their original and preferred habitats. The North American Rock Garden Society has been helping people (including myself) to grow plants in rock gardens and troughs for a great many years. If you have alot of questions, you might want to join the Society. They have local chapters under whose auspices you can see and learn alot, and they will help you to locate plants that might be hard to find on your own. The level of knowledge within their membership is beyond amazing, and always has been.

    Babson Boulders, Dogtown, Ma.

    Babson Boulders, Dogtown, Ma.


             Tough Miniatures

  • Certain particularly durable perennial things can easily manage through the winters in very small troughs or pots.
    For example, most miniature Hostas are as easy to take care of and tough enough for just about anything. Like their full size Hosta relatives, as long as you avoid hot and sunny places and trim them twice a year, that’s that. There are lots of other easy care things that do very well.
    For a small or medium alpine trough with partial days of sun, the encrusted silver Saxifrages are very desirable. Many are beautiful, fully evergreen and fortunatelycertain kinds are also easy and reliable. Saxifraga callosa (lingulata), S. cotyledon and S. longifolia in variety have proved especially adaptable. Saxifraga apiculata, which is the first to bloom in spring, has returned here for 15 years.
    In shadier places, Saxifraga cuneifolia and S. umbrosa x urbium,  in both their green and their yellow variegated forms, are particularly willing and able.

Encrusted Saxifrages in Variety / Joe Puleo

  • Little containers can easily be moved to a wind protected place for the cold season, but I rarely find that I need to, if the occupants were chosen for their resiliency.
    Annual plants

  • The most important size consideration for the non-hardy decorative annual plants you choose may be that they are in scale with their container for good appearance. Nomatter what size of container they live in, most annuals will need some liquid fertiliser every couple of weeks.
    Some Easy Perennials

  • The ever flowering Corydalis lutea and C. lutea alba, the indefatiguable Kenilworth Ivy including a new pure white form, Cymbalaria alba compacta, Linaria Canon Went and the tiny Thalictrum kiusianum will be readily pleased in these semi sunny places, just to name a few of the easiest and longest blooming candidates.
    ….latives of the Japanese painted fern…….
  • Although containers in hot sun are the most difficult to sustain, but even there, the simple but beautiful Hieracium pilosella will enthusiastically decorate a container forever, though often too aggressive for much companion planting. The flowers are modest but my, what lovely silvery foliage it has..

    Clematis Betty Corning and Hieracium pilosella

Special Uses for Hypertufa Troughs and Pots

             Encouraging Propagation

  • When you have just one or two of something special, keeping these ‘parent’ plants in troughs or other permanent containers allows them to be protected and watched over until the time when they begin to self sow or are divisible.
  • If you locate a trough in a setting which has an inviting ecology for seeds, and you leave the ground around your container undisturbed, next year you may have babies appearing on their own. Many of the Zone 5 hardy annuals and perennials suggested in my articles will happily sow themselves in.
  • After a couple of years, when you have quite a few of your chosen kind established, you can put some of them in the open garden and feel safe.

  • You could decide to let only one beautiful kind of plant completely occupy a trough or pot, in which case the planting is a monoculture. With this method there is no risk of losing your unique kind of plant to other competing colonists. I keep a lot of very lovely containers this way, letting one particular kind of plant thrive and show well. These are perhaps the easiest kind of containers of all to manage.
    Mixed Colonies of Plants, some Admonishments

  • If there are multiple kinds of plants within a trough, without intervention, there will probably be winners and losers. As the mixed colonies develop, there will invariably need to be decisions about who has priority over whom.
    Certain plants can co-compete somewhat equally, but other types can easily lose their ‘ground’ to rootier or otherwise more vigorous things. If rambunctious plants land themselves in your troughs, you can’t let them stay or your other precious denizens can quickly be crowded out.
  • For each trough I simply establish rules of who gets to stay and who will be subtracted, and then try to keep to them. To be a good gardener, one has to learn to be a bit ruthless.

    Sculptural Forms

  • In winter, outlined in snow, the trough shapes show their sculptural qualities, and I treasure them for this too. They seem such protective places as I think of their sleeping inhabitants.

Snow BlanketMy Best,
Ellen Cool

Landscape Composition.
Stonework and Garden Design.

Unusual Plant Materials, Troughs
Tools and Antique Garden Ornaments


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