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Getting the Garden Ready for Winter

Dianne Westlake

If you are discouraged over the lack of moisture or if you live in an apartment with a balcony facing the hot sun with no room for a garden, take heart there is a solution. First, you need to think small and secondly, you need to think about plants that love it dry. Alpine plants might be just the ticket and stone troughs are a great way to grow them.

You might be thinking that these plants are difficult, perhaps finicky but there are many of them that are easy to grow and take very little care. While you are watering your existing pots of petunias daily, instead of enjoying all the summer has to offer, you could plant hens and chicks (Sempervivium) or sedums, only watering them when you get around to it.

Many plants do well in dry conditions and prefer well-drained soil. We planted donkey-tail spurge in our garden on a dry slope but it never did well until we tried it in our scree garden. Growing in a foot of pea gravel, it just took off. We had to cut off the seeds before it spread like wildfire. Over time, alpine plants have adapted to growing in gravel and drying winds at the top of mountains. There are many plants that like these conditions.

One of the best ways to grow alpines and other small drought tolerant plants is in troughs. A long time ago it was the possible to find abandoned stone troughs used by farmers for feeding and watering livestock. Because of their age they have great character wearing mosses and lichens and hundreds of years of age and hard use. But now they are nearly impossible to find and if you are fortunate enough to find one, it would be outrageously expensive.

There is a way to simulate the appearance of stone troughs by making them out of a cement mixture called hypertufa. This concrete is light so that the average gardener can carry it around. Hypertufa has many formulas but here is a typical one that should work for you:

Make sure that you screen the peat moss or you will have voids that will let moisture in that will crack with the frost. The mixture can be coloured using powdered colorants that can be found where you buy cement. Mix the dry ingredients together then gradually add water until the mixture is damp. When you squeeze some of it in your hand, it should not crumble but you will just be able to squeeze out a few drops of moisture. There are many ways to make the form but here is one. Screw a plywood box together (without a bottom) and place it on a garbage bag. Pack hypertufa in a layer about 1-2 inches in the bottom and stick a couple of dowels in the centre standing upright for drainage. Now pack the sides with hypertufa and fill the centre with sand as you go. Finish off the top and let set for 4-5 hrs. Carefully remove the sand, unscrew the sides, and carve off the edges cutting in a few irregularities. Cover and let set overnight. It will continue to harden over the next two weeks. New cement gives off lime for a while so that if this may affect your plants, you should leave it outside and rinse it for a few months before planting.

Here is a quicker, easier and less expensive way to make a trough. Go to the fish department of your local supermarket and ask them if you can have one of their Styrofoam fish boxes. Wash the box before you start because they usually are a bit ripe. Remove the top lip with a sharp knife. Be sure to create enough drainage holes in the bottom. Carefully take a plumbing torch and lightly touch the outside with the flame. It will bubble and become irregular just like a real stone trough. Here is a safety tip. This process gives off harmful gasses and there is a danger of fire. Make sure that you do this outside with a wet rag and a pail of water handy. Then using acrylic paints in gray and other subdued colours, dab on layers to make it look like stone. These boxes are surprisingly durable – we have had them in our garden outside year-round for several years. If some of the Styrofoam should happen to chip off, use a little dirt to tone down the white spot or repaint. You need to be support them well when on the ground and when you move them because this type of trough is fragile.

When preparing to plant your trough you can use a mixture of one part play sand, one part garden soil and one part chicken grit. Fill the trough mounding slightly in the middle. Add small rocks to simulate mountainous terrain. Remove the potting soil from the roots of the new plants. Dig a hole in the trough, place and spread the roots and backfill with the trough soil. After planting, water well and make sure there are enough drainage holes. If the drainage holes are on the bottom, raising the trough using small stones will ensure that the water can escape. Mulch with small stones or gravel. There are other potting media depending on what you are growing.

Water twice a week until the plants are established then decrease the frequency of watering.

Our favourite plants for our troughs continue to be hen and chicks and low growing sedums. Use low growing sedums on the edges so that they will spill over and soften the look of the trough. When designing your trough, take advantage of the fact that these plants come in a variety of colours, sizes and shapes.

Maintenance consists of brushing away stray pine needles or leaves, removing the odd weed, topping up the mulch alternate years, deadheading spent flowers and watering every week or two.