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October 11, 2018

A New Book on Alpine Trough Gardening May, and Should, Change How You Container Garden

'Hypertufa Containers - Creating and Planting an Alpine Trough Garden is a new book by Lori Chips that addresses a very specific gardening method which while old-fashioned, may have found its time given climate change and a gardening audience which is growing more and more aware.

I'm excited to be introducing you all to a terrific and useful book; Hypertufa Containers - Creating and Planting an Alpine trough Garden by my good friend Lori Chip's. While some may struggle to get past the title with  'Hypertufa', as good, decent garden folk - we should all know about by now. I just hope the title doesn't scare off the mass market who could benefit from this book.

The visual design of the book will help attract curious gardeners as it is modern, smart and visually interesting.  But this book is so much more than just a good looking book. It does something rare in many gardening books today, for it has real content that is useful. Sure it will inspire, but even if you know nothing about alpine plants or rock gardenings, I guarantee that once you see the photos in this book that you will want to make a hypertufa trough garden.

This hypertufa trough is round and 24 inches deep - like a barrel. The hair-like root systems on these tight and dense saxifrages run all the way to the bottom planted in  pieces of real tufa rock, they bloom in late winter often when snow still sits on them. Talk about hardy.

If you don't know what hypertufa is...
It's a concrete/organic mixture which was designed to mimic Tufa rock (more about that rock, later).
It's a product well known to rock and alpine gardeners, but beyond that small and geeky world, few know about it.


Hypertufa is not a trendy trend.  It's far more horticulturally sound than let's say real trends like Hay Bale gardening or Lasagna gardening.

Hypertufa is more sustainable.
Gardens planted in it are intended to live a long time nd not be disposable.
Hypertufa is frost and freeze tolerant if made properly will last for decades.
Hypertufa in your garden will make you look like a serious plant person.

Here are some saxifrages planted in real tufa rock and sandwiched in Clay. A method only shared with a few folks a few years ago by rock gardening guru Josef Halda from the Czech Republic is a few workshops he did on the East Coast. We were fortunate to host him for a few days that year and he showed us a completely new way to grow alpines - sandwiching them in pottery clay between split pieces of tufa rock.  The troughs planted in the manner are about ten years old now and still growing strong. Lori shares this method in her book a well - this alone is worth the price!


Proper trough gardening has for years been defined as essentially 'planting alpine plants as long-term gardens in containers', but it can be so much more. Hypertufa itself is a substitute material for real rock troughs (which are virtually unaffordable to most).  It's where the name 'troughs' came from though- as alpine gardeners in the 19th and early 20th century started to use real stone farm sinks and troughs for their alpine plants. Today's troughs can be made in any shape, round, bowls, irregular, square, tall, deep, short or even looking like a piece rock - and Lori shows us all how to make them.

Hypertufa makes a sturdy stone-like container which can either mimic an ecosystem or a specific cultural need for a challenging plant.  This means that one can grow many plants that won't grow anywhere else. Look at it this way - if this was the world of aquaria, hypertufa trough gardening would be akin to keeping an authentic, sustainable fish tank of rare species intended to live long and not just bowls of goldfish that will die -which is how many of us treat our containers today. Disposable flower arrangement of plants.


Hypertufa troughs don't need to be large, this one is only 10 inches long.


I think that the challenge in the past was the while only serious plant geeks planted hypertufa containers, they rarely looked good which didn't help their cause. Most troughs ended up looking like cheap, concrete planters with rocks. But Lori's book proves that that doesn't have to be the case. Even my hypertufa troughs seen in the images throughout this post don't look as good as hers do -I am so inspired.

Trough gardening can be as simple recreating nature in miniature or as complex as recreating a bit of ecology from a very specific mountaintop in which to raise an endangered plant in.  While some are known to drift dangerously close to fairy gardening, most will fall somewhere in between.


Primula marginata blooming in March in a hypertufa trough that I bought at my first NARGS meeting 18 years ago but that still grows great plants.

Trough gardening has a history though, growing out of the Victorian rock gardening craze as enthusiasts in the late 19th century and early-to-mid 20th century found that it was even easier to raise these often difficult plants in containers and that large, rock sinks and stone horse troughs were common back then, and these sturdy containers were naturally considered as containers for these plants. Remember - back then most if not all containers were clay - a material that would crack in winter frosts. Rock was the only other option aside from wood.

There are many groups and types of saxifrages but the encrusted ones (dense rock-hard growing high-alpine ones) which tended to be only for specialists with alpine houses seem to thrive if planted in trough gardens. This one came from Wrightman Alpines already rooted in a piece of real tufa rock making me look like a genius with a green thumb.


I suppose that trough gardening just never took off in the US as it did in the UK, at least it never moved beyond the rock gardening world. The reason may be that there were only a few stone farm troughs to go around, or simply that homemade hypertufa troughs never looked attractive. If a large container company designed them professionally it may have helped. but the hurdles to creative containers - that would be unrealistically heavy and then to raise the proper plants for them not to mention soil mixes I can understand why it all seemed like too much.



'Trough gardening' includes most any container - not only stone sinks. This is one I made out of a 1950's cooler that I designed to look perfect on the steps of a ski lodge. A little crazy, but I loved making it and planting it with high-elevation mountain plants.

Today we are different. Many folks have no problem making their own kombucha or attempting to make puff pastry at home. We have access to more materials and curious, smart people are always on the lookout for something new, authentic and interesting. Raising alpine plants in hypertufa troughs checks off all of those.


Since many true alpines are difficult to find, seed-raised plants are easier to obtain - and these are often available once or twice a year at local NARGS plant sales and seedling exchanges such as these yellow draba and white pulsatilla which I raised from seed and shared with my local chapter. Super-rare plants are often only a couple of dollars each when purchased as seedlings. By the way - Pulsatilla is so hardy in my troughs that I have them planted in most everyone- never losing one to winterkill or summer drought. They don't live in my garden, though! Only on my deck in hypertufa troughs.


Yet it's not about rarity either. Trough collections make a statement. They can be planted just for pure beauty alone or as a way to display a collection of plants. Clever gardeners like the artist and author Abbie Zabar keeps a curated collection in which she has planted only the prettiest forms of sempervivums - hens and chicks, which are true alpines by the way. These live on the ledges and rooftop in her New York City penthouse garden. She is somehow able to cultivate a spectacular collection which thrives in a number, tiny, stone and hypertufa troughs that Abbie has collected over the years. These troughs flourish high above the city - and I am certain that her plants believe that they are growing high on a mountaintop in the French Alps.



Lori shows all types of hypertufa troughs in her book, but also she outlines everything that you would need to know about rock gardening - from planting and designing with real tufa rock to choosing the right plants and where to find them. My troughs, which are all hypertufa sit all over my garden - on walks, near doorways and on the deck. Most are just planted and then left alone aside from a bit of weeding now and then. They are very long-lived and are essentially little ecosystems.

In a way, troughs can whatever the garden creator wants them to be. From the tiniest zoos - little environments for only the hard-to-grow plants to just lovely containers for a few dwarf trees and easy growing woodland plants.

Of course, you can plant anything in a trough. I often plant a few of mine with just an interesting annual of one type like Monkeyflower (mimulus) or California poppies just to be different. Californian annuals that I buy from Annies Annuals that wouldnt survive our winter often do very well in them if planted early in spring. Two of mine have a dwarf Japanese Black Pine planted in them.


Primula marginata selections blooming in late February on a mild day outdoors, unprotected in a hypertufa trough. Better than crocus or pansies as few people (or even botanic gardens)  have these rare plants in their colelctions, but you can.


LoriChips' book is thorough and comprehensive which isn't surprising as alpine plants are her life. The reader will find everything one needs to know about trough making and designing. This is a book that is jam-packed with information. It's will be useful for those new to gardening to those who are experts. Regardless of your level of experience this book will excite and inspire you.  It's  design is fresh and modern,  attractive enough to be a picture book alone but it is much more than that.

What I most appreciate is that this book is loaded with step-by-step pictures which frankly illustrate tips and steps which are not even found on the internet as few people grow plants in troughs.  All levels of gardeners will enjoy it.



One of my hypertufa troughs planted with various high-elevation alpine plants from the Pyrenees.  I like to choose mountain ranges that I've explored and then recreate them in miniature in troughs, but you dont need to be that geeky. Still, this Primrose marginata from the Alps will grow terrifically if planted in a trough, while in the garden it may sulk. Once planted, these troughs are rather carefree. Sure you might lose a plant or two each year, but that only makes room for others.

What should make trough gardening attractive to most gardeners though is that troughs are designed for long-term planting which is the smartest way to plant them. Consider trough plantings like bonsai for perennial plants for a well curated trough can last a decade or more. A trough could contain a mini-meadow or prairie, or it could be planted with woodland ferns and ephemeral wildflowers or miniature hardy perennials.




A row of alpine plants in troughs on my deck (and a few window boxes planted with a tender South African bulb that does well in troughs in zones 7 or higher - Rhodohypoxis sit on our deck. The hypertufa troughs are lined up in the winter so that I can cover them with either a hoop of fiberglass roofing material or an old storm window - just to keep the worst of the wet winter weather off of them, they are left open on the sides for cold breezes and blowing snow.


If you want to learn more beyond Lori's book, I suggest joining the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS). NARGS clubs are local too so look for a chapter near you and just show up at a meeting as see if you like it then join. Members are super friendly and love new gardeners, and I can't think of a better place to get started (at my first NARGS meeting in 2001 I came home with a car laod of plants and a trough!). NARGS isn't just about alpine plants though, most members are passionate plant people and gardeners with all sorts of interests from orchids to ferns, woodland plants, woody plants, bulbs, trees, shrubs, rhododendrons, conifers. cacti and succulents. and many wildflowers. There are local chapters all over the country and many international members as well. Join for their seed exchange in winter and their 4 color quarterly journal which is one of the finest plant geek magazines. Join!



This tiny Primula allionii 'LismoreTreasure' is growing in a real piece of tufa rock, not hypertufa. While hard to find and costly, pieces of this porous limestone rock are often for sale at meetings of local rock garden societies. I planted this hard-to-grow plant as a seedling into a hole that naturally appeared in the rock, and then just left it alone. It rooted through the rock and as the rock is set into a gravelly mix in a large hypertufa container, it's on its own - and thriving. 



As for finding the right plants, this might be the hardest part. The truth is that the finest alpine plants though are hard to find.- of course, this adds to the overall appeal. What I don't get from NARGS meetings and members I order from Wrightman Alpines in Canada - great friends of mine, and they ship throughout the US). Shipping just ended for the autumn but early spring is a great time to stock up on these rare plants. Other alpine nurseries include Arrowhead Nursery in Michigan but many specialist nurseries carry plenty of rare and interesting plants that could be considered 'rock garden plants' (plant descriptions will often say 'great for troughs or rock gardens'. Oliver Nursery in Faifield, CT where Lori works sells alpines to but only direct at the nursery. They have a fine collection.

Also try rare plant nurseries. Try Plant Delight's Nursery,  Sequim Rare PlantsThimble Farms, and Digging Dog. All good nurseries will have plants that might be appropriate for troughs, but my big secret tip here is again to join your local NARGS or Rock garden Society as most have bi-annual plant sales, and a membership in the national club allows you to purchase seeds from one of the finest seed exchanges with rare seed collected from all over the planet. These seeds become available every December and often shares seed from expeditions to remote areas all the way to members secret collections.





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