March 31, 2012

AlpineTroughs, Pie Authenticity and Snobbery

Troughs were invented by Victorian gardeners, turning stone sinks from old farms into gravelly filled containers in which they could grow plants collected from the high mountain peaks - rage in England around the turn of the centruy. Today, real stone toughs are too costly, but ones called 'Hyper-tufa', constructed out of concrete and other materials are used by enthusiasts who want to master growing high elevation alpine plants such as this primrose from the alps, Primula marginata, which is growing in a piece of real tufa rock, a limestone rock that is porous enough for roots to pass through it.

A "hyper-tufa" trough planted with alpine plants.

I have never received so many emails than I have about my last post where I confess that I have a case of 'trough snobbery'. My intention was not to piss off anyone,  I encourage anyone to practice creative gardening, and although there are rules in gardening, like cooking, rules can be broken - so go for it. But I would like to remind you that my blog is a personal venture which focuses not on common practices, ease or about short-cuts. My blog has to honest, and authentic - and I let's face it - Joe and I are not about common gardening! We're kind-of experienced, both of us are nearly life-long gardeners and plant collectors, and to anyone who has visited us - our gardens and greenhouse hardly represents the average gardener! I am beyond being a geek with many types of plants, from vegetable culture to bulbs and specialty gardens. I try to make this blog to be more interesting, more informative, to share not only experience and knowledge, but also to inspire both new and mature Gardners to try somethings new, to  retry something that they may have failed at with before.

Many primula species are alpine forms, but even though this Primula auricula has relatives that come from the Alps, this one is considered a 'Show Auricula', and requires a little more care than even a trough can provide due to the white farina that appears on the petals which the rain can damage. Still, this Auricula grows fine in many of my deeper troughs, as long as they don't freeze and thaw too many times during the winter. It's not the cold, for P. auricula can be mastered in Alaska, it's more about the thaw, refreeze cycle that damages roots.

With gardening, you can choose to be casual, or serious - it's up to you.  There are plenty of very nice blogs out there about which document new gardeners as they learn, try, and sometimes even fail with their gardens. All essential in growing as a gardener, but my blog is not really about that.

Another alpine form of primrose, Primula allionii, grows from a cutting that rooted in a hole that was drilled into a soft tufa rock, and refilled with tufa-rock powder. This method keeps the plants tight and 'in character', which means that they look like the ones growing in the wild. 

Today, we live in a sound-bite culture. A culture of dumbed down, easyfied segments that are simplifying everything down to three sentences, or 5 easy steps - from cupcakes, to windowboxes. And that's OK, but for some of you, it's just not enough information for me, or for my readers - that's just he position I take with this blog.  Sure - other blogs might just tell you that poppies are huge this year, or they may show you how to use poppies in your wedding bouquet, but I know that many of you are running out there buying poppy seed, but a little confused on where to turn on how to grow them. I am here to tell you the truth - that sometime they are hard to grow. That sometimes, you might be disappointed with the results; but most importantly, that I will at the very least, try to grow them the right way with you if I have not, or, share with you how I grow them, in case you want to try that method.
There are gentians for the rock garden, and then, there are some that really thrive in troughs because they are too small and can get lost in the garden. Gentiana verna grows well in troughs, and will form a nice clump with care. It's not easy, but after a few failures, you will find the right place, I assure you.
The reason why many blogs are now so popular is that you the reader can choose what you want to learn about, since sadly, the corporate direction that mass media is moving towards, and a more simplified message. I love Martha Stewart Living, but you may have noticed how the focus has moved from authentic gardening, to simplified gardening. I get it, surely there is research that shows that viewers want more step-by-step easy solutions rather than a detailed exploration of let's say, Iris species, as the magazine once focused on when Martha herself was in charge. I work for a large Fortune 500 design company, so I know that the bottom line always trumps a singular creative vision. The fact is there are more viewers who want to pop a pansy out of a six pack, and shove it into an Martha Stewart at Macy's  Easter bowl for their table, than there are those who want ( or can afford to) plant 600 varieties peonies in their cut flower garden.

An alpine primula and a Saxifraga longifolia with encrusted limestone edges to the leaves, are two authentic alpine plants best grown in troughs where one can appreciate their characteristics up close. Plus, these are two plants which often appear together in the wild. I planted this trough to mimic a scene that I saw in the Italian Alps a few years ago.

If I am going to write about troughs for example, it would not be honest for me to show you how to plant a trough without providing you with more information - I think you deserve the whole story- not just "here is how you plant a hypertufa trough with easy-to-grow-succulents". Pick up ANY Better Homes and Garden magazine, watch Martha Stewart on TV or flip through REAL SIMPLE, and there are plenty of short-cut, attractive, sound-bite features about planting a container to look like a trough - but what makes this blog different ( and the reason why I hope you enjoy it) is that I try to show you a more informed way to approach a subject.
You may hear that Saxifrages are good for troughs, but it is helpful to know that there are broadly speaking, three different types, but the high alpine  types are most treasured ( above) - these remain tight, dense and bun-like, if not almost rock-like. They are hard to find, but mail order nurseries sell them who specialize in alpine plants ( Wrightman Alpines is my first choice since they grow theirs already rooted in tufa rock, which makes them more growable.).

If this was a cupcake blog, I would probably not show you how to make a cupcake with a boxed mix and canned frosting ( hey, I still might do it) - this blog might take a more "authentic" approach. Really, I don't look at this as snobbery - and I may never understand why people quickly turn-off when someone suggests a 'proper way' to do something. My mother always made pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, and we never opened a can of prepared pumpkin. We grew cooking squashes and pumpkins all summer long. Then, in the autumn, we would harvest hem and store them. In November, three days before Thanksgiving, my dad would peel them outside ( they were huge), and cut them into chunks on newspaper. we would steam them in old clam steamer kettles over the woodstove out back. Once steamed, we kids would have to strain them through sieves forced through with mallets ( no food processor), we then would used canned milk ( cheat) and a recipe that my mom had from her mother. The pastry crust - from scratch too.

Show Auricuala's are everyones favorite, but you can cheat the look a little with an easier to grow garden or alpine auricula. Amongst primroses, the Primula auricula also come in a few different categories like 'alpine' 'garden' and 'show' auriculas. Join the American Primrose Society to learn more - they are a fabulously active group and you will learn a lot.

Trough culture comes with some cultural baggage, for alpine plant gardeners are amongst the most informed and experienced gardeners in the world, for alpines are not easy to grow. Clubs for people who grow such plants attract a unique breed of people - somewhere between dog show people and orchid people - rock gardeners and alpine plant growers are plain experts, no two ways about it. Which makes learning about such things like trough culture a little difficult, for many average gardeners are too intimidated to join and attend a rock garden meeting, or an alpine plant society ( which is crazy, since these gardeners are very welcoming, as well as experienced, and not just tollerant of newbies, but truly love helping new members learn - join! Check out the sites for NARGS or the ALPINE GARDEN SOCIETY or the SCOTTISH ROCK GARDEN CLUB and find out more - it might be the most exciting jolt of energy you've had in a while when it comes to gardening.

Which brings me to pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving as they panic about preparing the dinner - I try not to sound too -snobbish when I see the canned pumpkin on the endcaps along with the prepared crusts, and the same people freaking out about "making a pie from scratch". If they only knew. Look - mom's pumpkin pies always tasted awesome, but here's the kicker. about 5 years ago, after hosting my family for the 15 years since my mom died, I decided to reduce the stress I was having about keeping a full-time job, and still making pumpkin pies from scratch for holidays. It started  few years earlier - I stopped growing the squash, opting instead to buy an interesting heirloom squash to cook. I switched from the chinoisse sieve, to a food processor; the next year I switch from using home-made pastry crust, to a commercial frozen dough; the next year finally gave in and use  canned pumpkin - and you guessed it - no one knew. >sigh<.

We were never rich, never snobs and never a family that insisted on the "right way", but there was a cohesive thread that connected things together, and sometimes, it's nice to know the 'proper way' - and believe me, there are always more than one 'proper' way too! Today, I sometimes grow my own squash, I sometimes just buy a nice heirloom variety or use a yummy Butternut squash that I cook ahead of time - I almost always buy my pastry, but try to buy a good brand. I may use canned milk, or cream, and still - no one can tell the difference, but I know the difference, even if it is just in my head. I've learned over the years that it's more about the process, enjoying it; it's a little mix of nostalgia, what we remember from past experiences, and sometimes about trying something new - and I think gardening is the same way.

 was thrilled last spring with the performance of this Saxifrage, which frankly, can be fussy to grow even if you know what you are doing. Yes, sempervivums sometimes look like saxifrages, and yes, they even grow can grow with them in the wild, but because sempervivums  ( hen's and chicks) are easy peasy, experienced gardeners sometimes poo poo them as being a cop out for the real thing. OK, I admit - I keep a few troughs of semps and yep, I like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese as much as home made ( sometimes even more). I am only human....give me a break!

I want you to know that "sure, you can grow sempervivums in a trough, but I also want you to know that there are some very serious gardeners who do know the history and influences of trough culture, who know why they were created, and what plants grow best in them ( besides semps), and my mission with this blog is to share that journey with you, just in case you want to explore and grow your knowledge bank. Promise me this - if you fail with true alpines three time, then plant hens and chick's, but be sure to get the real alpine forms, for they really are so much better than the large rosettes that we often see at garden centers. They will perform better, and be in scale to the rocks.
Saxifraga ( in the front) to Androsace species in the rear, a tough can bring a bit of the high alpine meadow down to eye level. This one I planted in a contemporary slate compound trough for our deck. It provides a tiny bit of Tibet on the deck.


  1. I think it all comes down to this: "but I know the difference, even if it is just in my head. I've learned over the years that it's more about the process, enjoying it; it's a little mix of nostalgia, what we remember from past experiences, and sometimes about trying something new"

    Well said.

  2. Anonymous4:14 PM

    your blog is one of the Best for serious educated gardening people. i love it!

  3. Without reading this I never would have known that troughs HAD any sort of history beyond the 1960s (I always assumed they were some sort of product of the 1960s...there is just something so 60's seeming about containers that often look like concrete). Knowing that there IS a stories history to trough-keeping makes the desire for purity-in-planting a lot more understandable. Is it going to stop me from growing my succulents in hypertufa troughs? Probably not, but I do like to hear the back story.

    The pictures in this post DO make me want to go out and get a trough to try some alpines in...though I'm not sure my landlord would appreciate it.

  4. Three cheers for plant snobs! My favorite bit of plant snobbery is to correct the way people pronounce botanical names.

    And as far as I am concerned you can be as snobby as you like since your blog is far more interesting than any of the blogs that offer step by step "how to" advice.

  5. ivorygardens3:30 PM

    I LOVE this blog, it's exceptional - a perfect storm of stunning photography, knowledgeable narrative, and uncontained passion for the minutia of nature.

  6. Keep up with what you are doing Matt, you always have useful information and always inspire. Are any of the trough photos recent? We had thoughts to plant Alpines from places we had visited in our troughs(not collected on the trip), but plans don't always come to fruition.

  7. Tom, I never ever thought they looked lik3 1960's or 70's containers, but now that you say it, I can see it. The stone ones from the turn of the century are so nice, but the cheapest one I could find was $2000. so that ended that! They were once used as horse watering sinks, or outdoor sinks. Well made hyper tufa mimic's true tufa, which is a porous rock, but there are plenty of poorly made home made ones out there that look like concrete. Look for a professionally made one - I suggest getting one from Becky Knapp in NY state ( no web site). That's where I get mine. Hers look like stone.

  8. This is great. I'm a complete snob when it comes to pie or any food. I always use the best ingredients and make everything from scratch because to my refined taste buds nothing else will do:) I'm not so snobby when it comes to plants. I live in zone 3 and trying to grow things that are borderline hardy is just plain stupid! I do love primroses. Last year I got a Primula vialli, rated at zone 4 I guess I lost my senses because I planted it anyway. I'm still waiting for the snow to melt so I can see if it survived.

  9. I love your blog because you grow so many things I will never be able to do. I like to learn about all your unusual plants and I think your new project series is a great concept. I became interested in gardening through Elizabethan textiles so I particularly appreciate the garden history and experience you bring to every post. And I agree about Martha's mag and so many of the garden magazines today. I loved Horticulture when I barely understood what the articles were talking about, but reading them was a continuing education.


It's always a good thing to leave a comment!