Hypertufa troughs easy to make and allow for assortment of special plants
By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger
Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 9:26 pm
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in passing the hypertufa troughs I use to plant an assortment of dwarf, and dwarfed, trees and shrubs.
The dwarf ones are those that will grow slowly and reach an ultimate size much smaller than their more normal counterparts. The dwarfed ones, on the other hand, are those otherwise normal plants that, by dint of their confinement in those troughs, will likewise be unable to gain the stature they would attain if growing free in the open ground.
I have success with both kinds. An advantage of growing the full-sized ones is generally lower cost, dwarf plants taking longer to grow to marketable size in the nursery and thus more costly. My oldest “bonsai” is a Mugo pine I purchased at a bargain (seems like it was $1) and potted up in a small trough. It must have been eight years or so ago.
The plant had been abused in the nursery, lying on its side for so long a time it had grown crooked and with many of the roots exposed. A bonsai waiting to happen, and just what I wanted for immediate effect in the trough. The nursery personnel couldn’t imagine what I wanted with such a cull.
That plant, which would have probably grown to 6 feet across by now in the open ground, is no more than 14 inches wide and 6 or so tall, spreading and with those exposed roots giving the effect of some ancient specimen.
Enough of the plants. What about the troughs?
Visitors to our garden seem favorably impressed by our collection of troughs, most containing those ersatz bonsai, and we are often questioned on how to make them.
Really, the troughs are imitations of the real things, watering and feeding troughs that were originally made a century or more ago and hewn from solid blocks of stone. These are mostly found in the British Isles and European countries and command such exorbitant prices that only bluebloods can afford them.
I well remember our visit to Rodmarton Manor in England, an arts and crafts mansion about 100 years old. There the “troughery” was a collection of dozens of the real things, troughs ranging in size from a foot square or so to three or four times that. All were filled with the choicest of alpine plants and dwarf shrubs.
Hypertufa copies of those antique troughs are easily made, and closely resemble the real thing. The word hypertufa is not in the dictionary, but it is the material the troughs are made from. My formula for the material is easily remembered, equal parts of Portland cement, perlite and sphagnum peat. Just remember the three p’s: Portland, perlite and peat.
I blend this mixture well in a wheelbarrow, then add one other important ingredient. It is shredded nylon that reinforces the final product, preventing cracking from freezing in extreme cold. The Portland cement and the shredded nylon reinforcement can be had from ready-mix concrete companies. The other two ingredients are sold at garden centers and discount stores.
Enough water is added to the mixture to reach the consistency of cottage cheese. This is then poured into a mold. Almost anything of a substantial nature can be used for the mold. Cardboard boxes will work, but should be reiforced with duct tape to prevent the whole thing from bulging outward under weight of the mixture.
A second, smaller, box inside the outer mold forms the inside wall of the finished product. The interstice should be at least three inches thick for strength, and the bottom should be that thick as well.
The bottom of the trough should have drainage holes. A series of 3/4-inch PVC pipe pieces, wood dowels or, in my case, empty shotgun shells, work well. Plants used in troughs demand fast drainage, so an adequate number of holes is needed.
In warm weather the finished product should set up enough to handle in a few days. If covered with a wet cloth, setting will be slower, and that is good; the slower it sets up, within reason, the stronger the product will be. Cooler temperatures will slow setting. In any case, the trough should not be allowed to freeze until it is thoroughly cured.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 10.14.08