Rock Gardens forum: Alpine Troughs

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Name: Lori
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Plant Identifier
growitall
Jan 17, 2014 12:24 PM CST
The topic of alpine troughs really deserves a thread of its own. Trough growing is a great way to create the special environments needed by "rock garden plants"/alpines. Here are some examples of alpine troughs: http://garden.org/thread/view_post/529540/
http://garden.org/thread/view_post/535980/
Name: Lori
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Plant Identifier
growitall
Jan 18, 2014 9:34 PM CST
More examples:
Dianthus myrtinervius ssp. caespitosus and Aubrieta 'Blue Indigo' (or so the label claimed, rather redundantly) - it should be noted that the Aubrieta does not have large flowers. Smiling
Thumb of 2014-01-19/growitall/76ad45

Thumb of 2014-01-19/growitall/9cf7eb Thumb of 2014-01-19/growitall/e0f7f1

Thumb of 2014-01-19/growitall/ef8175 Thumb of 2014-01-19/growitall/7d525e




Name: Dirt
(Zone 5b)
Plant Lover: Loves 'em all! Garden Photography Bee Lover Region: Utah Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Celebrating Gardening: 2015
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dirtdorphins
Jan 20, 2014 2:23 PM CST
growitall said:The topic of alpine troughs really deserves a thread of its own.


Indeed!

Since I have little shame about my own ignorance, here come the questions...

What is the deal with troughs???
What is the difference between a trough and planter?
Where does the word trough come from and why is it that alpines are planted in troughs as opposed to containers or planters?
Why couldn't one create sharp drainage, lean soil, or special conditions in general in something other than a trough, per se?
What are the mystical/magical properties of tufa troughs or hyper-tufa troughs? Could one use a concrete trough? (I planted stuff between the rows and in cracks of concrete in my old barn foundation--some were raised/some were not--were these troughs and crevices?) Could one use other soft stones i.e. pipestone or really soft sandstone?
What are your troughs made of? (They look like they've held up well for many years. I've heard that hyper-tufa can fall apart after a winter or two. What can you tell us about 'winter-hardy' trough construction?)
Do the toughs have drainage holes or do they just 'leak' some other way?

Well, that's a start, anyway (more where that came from)
Name: Lori
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Plant Identifier
growitall
Jan 20, 2014 9:39 PM CST
dirtdorphins said:
What is the deal with troughs???

They are a classic method of alpine gardening, and a great way to create the sharp drainage, lean soil, or particular special conditions* needed to grow certain plants that require it, without having to resort to building larger scale, in-ground beds.

* E.g. To create acidic conditions in an area with alkaline soil and groundwater, where in-ground beds could not be maintained, as they would become alkaline with time due to the groundwater (or vice versa - alkaline beds in acidic areas).

dirtdorphins said:
What is the difference between a trough and planter?

Both are "planters" but troughs have the advantage of durability (for decades* or centuries**) as well as providing mass for insulation. Size ( perhaps better stated in terms of volume and vertical height) is also a factor in providing the necessary insulation in a cold climate... and I suppose also in warmer climates, to reduce temperature change effects there too?

* E.g. Hypertufa troughs, if made properly.
**E.g. Stone troughs, for those so fortunate as to have such things.

dirtdorphins said:
Where does the word trough come from and why is it that alpines are planted in troughs as opposed to containers or planters?

In the UK, in the heyday of the alpine gardening craze in the early 1900's, when plant explorers were returning from collecting trips with exotic alpine species, stone troughs (for feeding and watering livestock) and discarded stone sinks began to be used as planters, presumably for the same reasons as stated above (creating a small area of special conditions; durability and mass).

dirtdorphins said:
Why couldn't one create sharp drainage, lean soil, or special conditions in general in something other than a trough, per se?

Sure, no reason why not, while keeping in mind the benefits of durability and insulation.

dirtdorphins said:
What are the mystical/magical properties of tufa troughs or hyper-tufa troughs? Could one use a concrete trough? (I planted stuff between the rows and in cracks of concrete in my old barn foundation--some were raised/some were not--were these troughs and crevices?) Could one use other soft stones i.e. pipestone or really soft sandstone?

The mystical/magical properties are mainly drainage (troughs are elevated above the ground surface) and the essential fact that it is a separate container that allows you to create conditions that may not be naturally present in your area. Hypertufa troughs can be made to look quite a bit like natural stone, which is also very desirable.
An actual "tufa" trough would be a real stone trough made out of a particular type of very porous limestone deposit (tufa)... these are probably rare as hen's teeth, since tufa deposits are similarly rare in the UK (where the benefits of alpine gardening in troughs were first realized).
The linkage of the word "tufa" with "troughs" refers to man-made troughs, where one is using a "hypertufa" mix to try to achieve the porosity and relative light weight of tufa, while getting the other benefits of a real stone trough (durability and mass). The use of hypertufa mixes make the troughs a little lighter and easier to move around (but don't kid yourself, they're still bloody heavy when filled with soil and rocks!), as well as the trough itself being permeable due to the somewhat porous material which helps drainage.
All hypertufa recipes contain cement (and the crappy ones don't contain enough!!) Sure, you could make troughs of cement and aggregate - concrete in other words... just don't ask me to help move 'em. Big Grin (My hypertufa ones are heavy enough Rolling my eyes. ).

Sure, cracks in your concrete barn floor could be thought of as crevices (though I imagine any roots would have very quick access to regular soil beneath) but they certainly weren't troughs.

Yes, one could use soft stone to make troughs. With all the effort it would take, you'd certainly want to choose the right stone. For example, a sandstone that was soft because it was very muddy and poorly lithified might actually break down surprisingly quickly (there are some deposits here that are poor material for construction and even for rock gardens due to this). By contrast, a highly-quartzose and well-lithified but porous sandstone would probably make a really good porous and durable trough.

dirtdorphins said:
What are your troughs made of? (They look like they've held up well for many years. I've heard that hyper-tufa can fall apart after a winter or two. What can you tell us about 'winter-hardy' trough construction?)

Yes, crappy hypertufa can indeed fall apart rapidly... and unfortunately, has given hypertufa in general a bad rap. Good, durable hypertufa depends on two things - the hypertufa recipe (the proportion of cement to other materials) and how the mix is handled (as I mentioned previously in answer to a question from Fixpix in the Photos thread).
We have hypertufa troughs that are perfect after 16 years outdoors in a zone 3 climate with frequent freezes and thaws. Other alpine gardeners here have older ones. These would be examples of using both a good recipe and good handling of the mix during construction.
We also had the "chocolate brownie trough" - a crappy hypertufa recipe off the internet that DH used against his better judgement. (He couldn't fathom how the recipe could be claimed to make anything durable, so he gave it a try...) Not enough cement in the recipe - you could crumble the sides with finger pressure - and an overdose of brown concrete colouring gave the trough its nickname. Even so, I did plant it up, and it took many years of slow decomposition before I finally figured I'd best move the plants out. In retrospect, it may have been largely "angle of repose" holding it together. Rolling my eyes.
We also have a couple of troughs that have spalling occurring at the top edge - these are examples of good hypertufa mix but bad handling. We ran out of mix while filling the forms and had to mix up another batch to fill the last couple inches, which did not bond completely to the first one (a bit of a flaw in the volume estimation there, I guess...) So, to repeat, durable hypertufa troughs are very achievable but depend on the proper mix and proper handling.

Re. recipe, can't remember but I'll get it from DH and post it here later.

dirtdorphins said:
Do the troughs have drainage holes or do they just 'leak' some other way?

Hypertufa troughs are normally made with drainage holes in the bottom. (I presume that real stone troughs were probably drilled through to provide drainage prior to planting use.)

Fish-box troughs are another version of alpine troughs that many people find useful and durable. I have no experience with them, but maybe Rick can talk about them?

Edit: I realized I transposed "cement" for "concrete" and went back and corrected it... and then thought of other things to add.
[Last edited by growitall - Jan 21, 2014 8:46 PM (+)]
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Name: Rick R.
near Minneapolis, MN zone 4a
I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Garden Sages The WITWIT Badge Garden Photography Region: Minnesota Plant Identifier
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Leftwood
Jan 20, 2014 11:00 PM CST
Really great explanations, Lori.

Gee Dirtdorphins, do you know of some secret stash of pipestone? A piece large enough for even the dinkiest trough for sempervivum would be hundreds of dollars at least, if it were obtainable at all!

I'll start a new thread about Styrofoam (Fishbox) troughs.
Name: Dirt
(Zone 5b)
Plant Lover: Loves 'em all! Garden Photography Bee Lover Region: Utah Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Celebrating Gardening: 2015
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dirtdorphins
Jan 20, 2014 11:26 PM CST
Applause!!!
Wow--very well done. Thank you.
Yes, please--recipe and handling instructions, and construction instructions would be much appreciated!
Plus, and Fishbox ? troughs

How do you elevate them? and do they have to be on a level surface?

I used to have a 'secret stash' of pipestone--well okay, just two great pieces that I got down around Pipestone a long time ago...
I made some sculptures; would never have thought to make a trough back then...
Name: Calin
Weston-super-mare UK (Zone 7b)
Bulbs Lilies Plant and/or Seed Trader
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fixpix
Jan 21, 2014 1:28 AM CST
Great answers Lori!
Thanks.
My 3 and only troughs (so far) look OK but we haven't had really freezing temps YET!
I love them.
Each time I am in the kitchen I look through the window and try to figure out if the sempervivums in them got any bigger from previous look Smiling
I am a bit concerned abut their insulation as they are rather small and narrow (and the walls are also kinda narrow) - I wanted more space inside them.
Well, we'll see!

I am really wondering whether in my parts of world I'd be lucky enough to find some real stone troughs.
We used to be (and still are) mainly into agriculture, farming, and so on.
And I doubt people have shown any interest in the troughs.
Hmmm...
Name: Lori
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Plant Identifier
growitall
Jan 21, 2014 9:00 PM CST
Calin, sempervivums are very hardy and awfully hard to kill other than by rotting/drowning - they'll probably be fine.

Dirtdorphins, when I said "troughs are elevated above the ground surface", I meant that the soil in them is sitting above ground level, which forces drainage to occur. Troughs don't need to be sitting on blocks (if that's what it sounded like I was saying) but they can be. In cold climates, I think there may be some limit to how much air circulation one wants around the trough, so most of mine are sitting on the ground.
Name: Jo Ann Gentle
Pittsford NY (Zone 6a)
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ge1836
Feb 2, 2014 5:13 AM CST
I am looking for tufa troughs. Does anyone know of a good source?
Does this material really last thru a freezing winter?
I was looking for troughs and found a 250 pound granit one $$$$$$$ moooocho bucks.Too steep for me.
[Last edited by ge1836 - Feb 2, 2014 6:00 AM (+)]
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Name: Lori
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Plant Identifier
growitall
Feb 2, 2014 9:36 AM CST
Jo Ann, please read the entries above your posting in this thread. They will answer your questions, except as to where you could buy hypertufa troughs in your area.

The North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) journal has some ads in it. There is an ad for a place called "Benedicts Nursery" (sic) in Nappanee, Indiana (574-773-2254) that says troughs are sold there, as well as tufa. (NB. This is just info, not an endorsement of this business, as I know nothing about it, or the quality of the troughs sold there.) I thought there used to be a vendor in New York state - I'll look around a bit.
[Last edited by growitall - Feb 2, 2014 9:47 AM (+)]
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Name: Lori
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Plant Identifier
growitall
Feb 2, 2014 9:52 AM CST
Here's the hypertufa trough source in your neck of the woods (Rochester, NY) that I was thinking of... http://betsyknapp.wordpress.com/

If you look under "About Betsy", you can find an e-mail address. (Again... not an endorsement, just info.)
Name: Dirt
(Zone 5b)
Plant Lover: Loves 'em all! Garden Photography Bee Lover Region: Utah Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Celebrating Gardening: 2015
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dirtdorphins
Feb 2, 2014 9:52 AM CST
growitall said:
Re. recipe, can't remember but I'll get it from DH and post it here later.


Given the plethora of crappy hypertufa stories, please-oh-please give us a good recipe and instructions...when you can

Thanks much!
Name: Jo Ann Gentle
Pittsford NY (Zone 6a)
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Cat Lover Heucheras Hellebores Container Gardener
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ge1836
Feb 3, 2014 4:16 AM CST
Lori: Thanks for giving me some direction. My experience with hypertufa goes back many years. I made several out of the perlite,cement and --?--. I wrapped it in plastic for the winter the first season ,it was fine but the following year it disolved so I gave up on desert plants in a northern climate.
That was 15 years ago now I am revisiting semps and alpines. I like the troughs and will continue my search. Betsy looks promising.
Name: Michele Roth
N.E. Indiana - Zone 5b
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chelle
Feb 3, 2014 7:28 AM CST
Thanks, Lori.

Benedict's isn't far from me at all...and I had no idea they were there. I'll definitely call and ask about a tour. Hurray!
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Name: Jo Ann Gentle
Pittsford NY (Zone 6a)
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Cat Lover Heucheras Hellebores Container Gardener
Birds Region: New York Irises Garden Ideas: Master Level Avid Green Pages Reviewer Lilies
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ge1836
Feb 3, 2014 9:17 AM CST
Lori, I checked Betsy and her work is sold at my favorite garden center.
editing to say. Becky called me and I bought 3 tufas. a 12"x5" round
9"x12" oval
12x9x5 rectangle
I'll spend the day planning plants just to have something to do. we are snowed in again.
[Last edited by ge1836 - Feb 6, 2014 3:30 AM (+)]
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Name: Jo Ann Gentle
Pittsford NY (Zone 6a)
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Cat Lover Heucheras Hellebores Container Gardener
Birds Region: New York Irises Garden Ideas: Master Level Avid Green Pages Reviewer Lilies
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ge1836
Feb 6, 2014 11:18 AM CST
O M G I had no idea succulent and semp websites would be sold out.
Mt Crest and Youngs is down to nothing.
Name: Lori
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Plant Identifier
growitall
Feb 6, 2014 11:57 AM CST
Good news, Jo Ann! Are the troughs made of tufa (carved out of natural rock, a specific type of limestone deposit) or hypertufa (a man-made mix of cement with other materials)?
You are in a much milder climate than here, and I imagine the trough dimensions are suited to your climatic conditions.
For people in colder zones, though, I would really recommend that troughs be deeper than the 5 inch depths described. In zone 3 and colder, many people would be taking the precaution of sinking shallow troughs like that into the soil for better "insulation" over the winter... which, to me, sort of defeats the purpose since troughs can otherwise be a very low-maintenance way of growing hardy alpines. (Extra fooling around is not of interest to me. Rolling my eyes. ) This is especially a precaution for bowl-shaped troughs, since the soil is very thin around the edges due to the curvature of the bottom of the bowl. Just something for those in cold zones to consider...
Name: Jo Ann Gentle
Pittsford NY (Zone 6a)
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Cat Lover Heucheras Hellebores Container Gardener
Birds Region: New York Irises Garden Ideas: Master Level Avid Green Pages Reviewer Lilies
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ge1836
Feb 6, 2014 1:30 PM CST
growitall: that is good advise.One garden center said to take the planters into the garage.These are hypertufa.Tufa stone is too expensive for me.
Name: Lori
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Plant Identifier
growitall
Feb 7, 2014 7:04 PM CST
Here are photos of the incredibly beautiful alpine gardens and amazing large troughs in the renowned Lowry garden in the Renton area, Washington:

Thumb of 2014-02-08/growitall/6d3622 Thumb of 2014-02-08/growitall/36c949 Thumb of 2014-02-08/growitall/c0f04b

(Note: These photos are from very early in the season - mid-March. It would have been wonderful to see this later in the season, when more was in bloom.)
[Last edited by growitall - Feb 9, 2014 1:50 PM (+)]
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Name: Calin
Weston-super-mare UK (Zone 7b)
Bulbs Lilies Plant and/or Seed Trader
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fixpix
Feb 10, 2014 1:20 AM CST
Very nice pictures Lori. Thanks.

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