Growing Alpines in Troughs, Planter and Containers

Growing alpines in troughs or planters is another common method that may be used in addition to rock gardens and alpine homes. This was something that I first became aware of when I visited the nursery owned by Joe Elliott in Gloucestershire, England. In the 1920s, his father, Clarence Elliott, was instrumental in helping to make this kind of gardening more well-known. At Joe’s nursery, he had a wide variety of authentic stone troughs and containers, one of which was a Saxon coffin that he had previously examined and determined was the appropriate size for him.

Growing plants in troughs offer a number of benefits, including improved drainage and the ability to easily monitor even the most finicky of seedlings and plants. Even during the cold, you may cover them. Additionally, they have a really appealing appearance. These kinds of stone containers are difficult to come by in today’s world, and when they are found, they may easily weigh a ton. A concept that fell somewhere in the middle was to cover a glazed sink with something called “hypertufa.” On the other hand, you will need to track down a glazed sink, which is not easy to come by these days, cover it, and cross your fingers so that the hypertufa doesn’t break off (which may happen years later), and pray that it weights a ton.

These days, you can buy lightweight imitations of stone troughs. They are not exactly inexpensive, but they are straightforward and simple, and they are lightweight, at least until they are filled. Throughout the years, I have fashioned a number of hypertufa troughs, and now that I have moved into this home, I have a true stone one that is fastened to a wall (unfortunately the drainage is wrong, it actually slopes away from the drainage hole but as it is cracked surplus water can drain a little).

Why grow in troughs?

There are several advantages of growing in troughs or other containers;

  • the drainage and other soil conditions can be tightly controlled – (e.g of a very free drainage scree type mix or a lime free compost)
  • you can keep an eye on small or difficult plants that would otherwise get lost in a rock garden
  • they can keep plants (further) away from slugs and other pests
  • they can be covered in winter giving a drier environment
  • they bring plants closer to eye level and can be kept just outside of windows or doors for easy viewing

Types of troughs and containers

Stone sinks, sinks for pumping water, and receptacles for animal salt, water, and feed were the first forms of troughs. These kinds of stone containers are difficult to come by in today’s world, and when they are found, they may easily weigh a ton. People utilized glazed sinks and covered them with “hypertufa” throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During this time period, glazed sinks were common. This “hypertufa” was a mixture of cement, sand, and peat or vermiculite that was used to make something that, after a few years, would seem like aged stone, including the fact that it supported the development of lichens and moss. However, in accordance with Mrs. Beeton, “first catch your sink” (which is not a typical practice these days), after which you should cover it and hope that the hypertufa does not break off (sometimes years later). Even after all that, it weighs a tonne. You can get lightweight faux stone troughs in stores nowadays. They are not exactly inexpensive, but they are straightforward and they are lightweight, at least until they are filled. That is the method I would employ if I were to begin all over again.

Throughout the years, I have fashioned a number of hypertufa troughs, and now that I have moved into this home, I have a true stone one that is fastened to a wall (unfortunately the drainage is wrong, it actually slopes away from the drainage hole but as it is cracked surplus water can drain a little).

Naturally, you may also use huge play pots (pans), and there are even strawberry pots available (pots with large holes in the sides..can be ideal for growing sempervivums)

Sites for your container.

This will depend on what you want to grow, where you are in the globe, and what resources are accessible at the time. Full sun is recommended, although this recommendation is based on observations made in the UK. If you are located somewhere else in the globe, this may not be the best option for you. Find out how other gardeners tend to cultivate plants that are similar to yours and use that as a general guide. If these are plants that thrive in rock gardens and the majority of people in the area keep them in full sun, then you should do the same. It is possible that the location of the container will be determined by the amount of space that is available; but, if you are prepared to be flexible, you can often find something fascinating to grow in any position. Avoiding being under trees is a common piece of advice, mostly due to the fact that condensation might form there during the winter; however, the weather in your area can be different. Even in the United Kingdom, I believe it is possible to cultivate cyclamen in a container and place it behind some trees.

Filling the container

If you want to cultivate alpines, then drainage is an essential consideration. It is important to ensure that the drainage hole in a trough or planter is elevated above the surrounding soil. This is often accomplished by elevating the bottom of the trough with a couple of bricks. Adjust the position of the drainage hole in the trough so that it is at the lower end (be sure to verify this before planting!). Be sure the drainage hole can be maintained free from the inside by placing broken pots or big stones, and watch out that the hole doesn’t become accidentally blocked. If you are making a container that is somewhat deep, it is recommended that you fill the bottom with gritty pebbles. What you are attempting to plant and the container itself will determine the kind of compost that should be used. Traditionally, if you are growing high alpines, sedums, or sempervivums, you will want a gritty mix. This mix may consist of fifty percent compost that is based on loam and fifty percent fine grit or coarse sand.

Adding rocks to the surface will not only provide an aesthetic look but will also produce fissures that some plants find more favorable for growth. Take precautions to ensure that the rock in question is acceptable; those who dislike lime should not use limestone; instead, sandstone would be a better choice.

If you have access to it, tufa is an excellent material for troughs. It is a porous limestone that, when it is originally mined, is so soft that holes may be readily dug into it with a hand drill, and then plants can be planted directly into the holes. These plants must be able to thrive in the crannies and cracks that are naturally found in limestone. Pick seedlings, cuttings, or very young plants and gently feed the roots into a hole that is between three-quarters and one inch broad and around three inches deep (for a list of acceptable species, see below). Plants that like the presence of lime should be used. One thing to keep in mind with tufa is that if it has been removed from the ground for an extended period of time, it will harden and become difficult to drill holes into. This will also make it challenging for plants to grow into. It is possible that when it is originally mined, the stone is so fragile that it crumbles apart when holes are drilled into it. When it has been above ground for some time, ideally, it will have a tough exterior and a tender inside. This is the ideal state. It is important to plant the tufa so that it has a sufficient quantity of the material in the compost so that it can absorb the moisture. Again, you should keep this in mind since tufa might either dry out too soon or be moist all the time, depending on the temperature where you live.

What kinds of plants?

Troughs and containers are going to be something exceptional for you unless you don’t have a garden at all, in which case the trough will serve as your garden. I have given some thought to the possible topics that you will be discussing in your presentations.

troughs for plants native to a certain region; for instance, I have a trough for plants native to New Zealand that, in my opinion, create a nice aesthetic when grown together. Among the plants that will be planted are two Raoulias, an Ozothamnus coralloides, a Helichrysum plumeum, and a Clematis marmoraria.

troughs designed for a certain plant family or even a specific species. When in bloom, Joe Elliott’s two troughs of his favorite plant, Gentiana verna, which looked like something out of a fairy tale, were a sight to see (not so good for the rest of the year but these supplied the seed for the nursery stock). A trough planted with sedums or sempervivums would provide interest throughout the year.

Plants either requiring or not requiring lime should be grown in troughs. Whatever will have the opposite effect on the natural conditions of your soil.

receptacles designed specifically for uncommon specimens. A mixed trough of delicate plants that are too valuable to risk losing in the garden is perhaps one of the most typical applications. You may also make a covering for the trough if you have a problem with moisture in your garden and want to provide the plants more protection from it. Before I gave up, I had one that was specially designed for me with a wooden frame and sturdy polythene, but I had to keep putting it on and taking it off over and over again. It’s possible that covering will enable the growth of plants like smaller androsaces.

Decorative channel or trough Simply choose plants that you like and that coexist well with one another; the focus here is on aesthetic effect.

Troughs that are just temporary. My own contribution to this. Typically, people plant troughs, and once they are established, they are considered “permanent.” As I deliberated what to do with one of my troughs, I came to the conclusion that I could put two “plantings” in it (the plants never actually left their pots). It featured a collection of Cyclamen coum throughout the winter, while during the spring and summer months, it included the planting of Rhodohypoxis (you can see this easily on my Cyclamen coum pages, less easily on the Rhodohypoxis page).

General Planting tips

My years of experience have taught me the following things:

  • Don’t overplant; if the trough is going to be useful for a number of years, then you need to make sure that the individual plants have room to grow, despite the fact that in the early days the trough might look like a little bare. If you don’t overplant, the trough will remain viable for a number of years.
  • Always keep the trough in mind throughout the year. It is not difficult at all to go to a nursery and purchase all of those “must have” plants while they are in full bloom. The question is, what will the remainder of the year look like? Are there going to be any evergreen bushes or plants there?
  • Check to see if there is nothing that is very active. Because the trough is comparable in size to a very tiny pond, the word “vigorous” takes on a different connotation here. Since it is so challenging to grow outdoors, the Lithodora (Lithospermum) oleifolium plant is often described in the literature as being one that is best suited for alpine residences. I experimented with it using a trough. It came to dominate. I moved it to a herb garden that was surrounded by bricks. When I left that garden, the plant had grown to be six feet wide, it had gotten beneath the bricks, and it was sprouting up in the grass and heathers; and sure, it was the authentic plant. This brings us to our last piece of advice…
  • Always be prepared for the unexpected. Some of the plants that are considered to be “sure certs” will not thrive. Others that you gambled on will be successful as a result of your actions. Some of them may eventually seed or produce suckers, and they may choose to dwell in a location different than the one in which you planted them. Prepare to step in if necessary.

Individual plants

This could be an extremely lengthy list, and once again, it will depend on where you are, but here are a few random ideas.


If I were in your position, I would not. I have dug up and removed every dwarf conifer that I had previously planted. Which includes cutting down an Abies balsamea var. hudsonia that was around 20 years old. (it was locked in a power struggle with a 25-year-old Daphne arbuscula, and I was unable to dig the Abies up because of this) I dug out several other dwarf conifers, including the real Chamaecyparis obtuse “Nana” (the real plant, not “Nana Gracilis”), and was able to successfully replace them in another location. Unless the trough is going to be planted for fewer than ten years and you are willing to risk the possibility of losing a plant, I would not propose any conifers, even though I am aware that this goes against the conventional wisdom on aesthetics. There are certain conifers that would be suitable for more than 10 years, but you would need to seek them at nurseries that specialize in conifers in order to find them. At that point, you would be considered an expert on conifers and would no longer require any assistance.


Shrubs could make up the majority of the vegetation in an ericaceaous trough, with some smaller phyllodoce, cassiopes, rhododendrons, and Kalmiopsis interspersed throughout. (this is something I have not yet attempted). In the case of the neutral or limey trough, I believe that the available selections are a little bit more restricted (I still haven’t gotten past the Lithodora).

Some of the Willows that are more compact in size are often recommended as suitable plants. The origin of Salix x boydii is intriguing, considering it was discovered just once in Scotland by Dr. Boyd (who strangely also discovered Sagina boydii, another plant only collected once by him in Scotland). It is just a few years old, yet it stands erect and has the appearance of being extremely ancient. The Slaix reticulata plant has neatly rounded leaves and creeps along the ground. Both of these trees are deciduous.
Even though Ozothamnus coralloides and selgo are excellent whipcord plants, you need to make sure that they “fit in” with the other plants since they appear so different.

Daphnes. Those that are quite little, and maybe even some of the more recent hybrids. Hebe buchananii “Minor” A “bun” or cushion made of evergreens.

Genista delphinensis – possibly, never tried it but I’ve heard it suggested.
Ilex crenata “Mariesii” is one more plant that has been suggested to me, but I have not had the opportunity to cultivate it myself. It is described as a small holly with black berries, which sounds fascinating.

I’m sure there are a lot more, and if/when I come up with any more, I’ll add them to this list.

Plants for growing in tufa

  • Silver and Kabscia saxifrages
  • Potentilla nitida
  • Smaller alpine dianthus (e.g microlepsis)
  • Smaller sempervivums
  • Small campanulas like C.zoysii, C.raineri (true), C.morrettiana
  • Smaller drabas
  • Smaller Asperulas like nitida, arcadiensis (was suberosa) and the recently introduced daphneola.

This is a work in progress; if I decide to make any changes to it, you will find the updated version on my website.

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