Gathering at the trough

Janice Wells
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All this thought lately of gardening with/on/around/in rock leads my mind one step further to trough gardening, especially as I have it on very good authority that the Botanical Gardens will have “some really exciting new developments” this coming season in trough gardening.

To my mind, trough gardening must involve a container that resembles stone or concrete, although if you look it up online, you’ll find sites with aluminum or wood or even porcelain “troughs.” To me that begs the question; when is a container not a planter but a trough?

Let’s be purists about it. Trough gardening is said to have come into vogue when old stone watering and feeding troughs were replaced by lighter weight, more modern versions and clever gardeners saw the possibilities and charm of the trough. Technically speaking, a modern trough is still a trough, but to me, if it doesn’t have a certain stony rustic look, it does not qualify to be called a garden trough.

With old horse troughs in short supply, most trough gardening nowadays is done in containers made of a substance called hypertufa. Hypertufa dates back to the early 1880s when some innovative farmer made it up because stone troughs were heavy to move to other places for the animals.

About a hundred years later, gardeners started experimenting with the process to make their own faux stone containers for growing alpine plants. They no longer had to be the size or shape of animal troughs, but the name stuck for planters made of that material.

I discovered hypertufa sometime in the ’90s. This was right up my creative alley, but the first thing I had to do was decide which recipe to use to make it. There are many variations of mixtures with perlite, vermiculite or sand, peat, cement and water as the ingredients. Some recipes call for equal portions, some call for fibre mesh or chicken wire. With some, the final product can even be carved. I thought, how hard could it be for a woman who’d mastered the art of mixing light-as-a-feather homemade bread at her mother’s knee?

Perhaps motivated by the baking analogy, I decided to go with the diva of domestic science, Martha Stewart. Martha recommended 3 parts perlite, 3 parts peat moss, 2 parts Portland cement, and water, a bit at a time, until the mixture had the consistency of moist cottage cheese. I should have known; why couldn’t she give the exact amount of water? Who ever heard of dry cottage cheese?

With visions of us maybe even getting into selling these things, I invited my friend Janine for a hypertufa making session and told her she just needed to bring something like a big mixing bowl or a dish pan, and rubber gloves, and I would assemble the ingredients.

Janine showed up with a dish pan, gloves and a bottle of wine. She seemed a bit confused when I started measuring out the peat, but gamely pitched in, stirring and mixing. Donning our rubber gloves, we carefully spread the mixture on our moulds, a la Martha’s instructions. Then I told Janine we had to wait a few days for it to set, and opened the wine.

It was on the second bottle that she started to giggle and confessed to me that she had thought we were going to be making some kind of tofu! Maybe we should have. The hypertufa never did set properly and as I never tried it again, I cannot with surety say it was Martha’s recipe that was at fault and not the ineptitude of the “cooks,” but if/when I try it again, I will not be consulting Martha, just in case.

(Of course, you can buy ready made concrete containers, and if you spray or brush them with some moss crumbled in milk, they will develop a nice aged patina, but concrete is so much heavier and not particularly hospitable to plants that like neutral or alkaline soil.)

I’m looking forward to MUN’s exciting new developments in trough gardening. I have nowhere to go but up.


Janice Wells lives in St. John’s. Her latest book, “Newfoundland and Labrador Book of Musts,” was published in October 2010 by MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc. You can reach her at Note to readers: please do not send thumbnail-size

photographs, as they are too small to publish.

Organizations: MacIntyre Purcell Publishing

Geographic location: Portland, La Martha

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