Stone troughs, impossibly heavy and rustically beautiful, have been used to house charming miniature landscapes for a century - ever since the English decided to create gardens in the containers they used for watering and feeding farm animals.
These troughs, now antiques, are hard to come by. But with a simple mixture of inexpensive ingredients found at the garden center and hardware store, you can make a lightweight version that looks like the real thing.Alpines, small plants native to alpine regions, and other rock-garden favorites are traditional in troughs; two classics include dwarf artemesia, which reaches a height of 6 inches to 8 inches and has exquisite silver leaves; and draba, with yellow or white flowers and rosette-like leaves. (There are dozens of alpines and rock-garden plants; look for them at your local nursery or consult a good catalog.)
But almost any plants of small stature will do well in a trough. Creeping thyme, miniature hostas and phlox, succulents and cacti, and annuals and small bulbs are all lovely. (Just make sure, when combining plants, that they all like the same conditions.) And a trough near the back door may just be the perfect place for an herb garden or delicious salad greens.
Tools and supplies
- Two cardboard boxes, one smaller than the other, to serve as molds for the trough (the lightweight concrete mixture will fill the space between the two boxes)
- Horticultural perlite
- Peat moss
- Portland cement
- 3/4-inch mesh chicken wire
- Wooden dowels
- Drop cloth
- Mason's trowel
- Mask to wear over your nose and mouth (to keep from breathing in hazardous cement dust)
- Work gloves
Casting a trough
Rough edges and slight irregularities in shape make these natural-looking containers appear at home in the garden, so don't worry about making your trough perfect. Assembling the mold and pouring the mixture will take just a couple of hours. The trough needs at least a day to cure before the mold is removed.
1. Wearing the mask and work gloves and working on the drop cloth, combine three parts horticultural perlite, three parts peat moss and two parts Portland cement. Add enough water to form a mixture that is the consistency of moist cottage cheese. It will appear darker than it will when it dries. The Portland cement will give the trough a wonderful aged look.
2. Place the larger cardboard box on the drop cloth with the opening facing up. Any tape or seams in the cardboard will appear as impressions on the finished trough, so be sure that the inside of the box is to your liking. (Keep in mind that some markings are desirable.)
To make the bottom of the trough, pour a 1-inch layer of cement. Cut chicken wire to the same shape as the box bottom, but 1 inch smaller all around. Place it into the box, on the wet concrete; it will reinforce the bottom of the trough.
Add another 1-inch layer of concrete. Lightly smooth the surface with a trowel to make it even.
3. To create drainage holes, push several wooden dowels, each about 4 inches long and at least a 1/4-inch in diameter, into the concrete, spaced 3 or 4 inches apart. They will be removed later.
4. Fold the flaps of the smaller box inward, and tape them flush against the sides. Place the box upside down on the concrete inside the larger box. Cut a layer of chicken wire and center it between the two boxes to reinforce the walls of the trough. The wire should be 1 inch shorter than the mold so that it will not poke through the top of the finished trough.
5. Use a mason's trowel to fill the sides of the mold with cement, creating the walls. Push a wide stick into the wet concrete periodically to tamp it down and eliminate any air pockets.
If you wish to give the trough a decorative touch, push seashells, stones, colored glass, pieces of ceramic or other objects down along the outside edges of the larger box as you fill the mold. Be careful not to put in so many items that the walls end up with more decoration than concrete. You can also embellish the top edge of the trough.
6. Smooth the top edges with a trowel. Cover the mold with a plastic sheet so that it remains moist while the concrete sets. Let the trough cure for up to five days but no less than 24 hours.
Once set, rip out the inner box, remove the dowels and tear away the outer cardboard.
Apart from developing an occasional crack or pit, which actually might enhance its aged look, the trough can last for years. Make repairs by applying a new batch of concrete to the damaged area with a trowel.