Make landscape containers that look like stone with hypertufa

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Last Updated: 
December 29, 2006

MCMINNVILLE - Do you like the look of the old stone troughs and planters in classic English gardens? You can make garden containers, birdbaths and plain or fancy landscape accents that look like stone, but are much lighter, with a material called "hypertufa."

Easily made at home, hypertufa recipes vary. But often a mixture of Portland cement, peat moss and perlite is used, according to Linda McMahan, staff chair and consumer horticulturist for the Yamhill County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service. Coconut fiber, vermiculite, and sand are also ingredients in some recipes.

"Hypertufa troughs are lightweight and the material itself is easy to work with, sort of like cookie dough," said McMahan, who has taught many workshops on hypertufa. "It is also amazingly inexpensive, and the possibilities for shapes, sizes, and colors almost endless. It's like making mud pies for adults. It's fun, low-key, great for patio parties – messy ones in jeans, that is."

And even if you've never made anything artsy-craftsy before, working with hypertufa is easy for the absolute beginner.

"If you make a mistake, so what?" said McMahan. "Just start over. It's about as expensive as spilt milk, after all."

Hypertufa works amazingly well as a container material for rock garden and alpine plants and for other fussy little plants, said McMahan.

"Inside hypertufa pots, you get good drainage," she explained. "Just raising the plants a few inches above the ground improves air flow and keeps the temperature higher."

"I have troughs all over my garden - on the front stoop, on the back patio, next to the small pond, in the middle of a flower bed," she said. "They are great to raise up plants closer to eye level. They can be stacked creatively to create a real garden focus."

Where did "hypertufa" originate? According to McMahan, European gardeners used stone troughs for planters for centuries. These planters were recycled stone coffins, bathing tubs and sinks, or animal troughs, rendered obsolete by modern times. These stone containers made such a splendid addition to ornamental gardens, they soon became a "must" have in the European countryside.

Over time, these stone cast-offs became rare, so folks turned to tufa rock, a soft volcanic porous rock that is easily hollowed and carved. By the 1930s and 1940s, tufa rocks became less available and expensive. So, creative gardeners decided to make their own "tufa," calling it "hypertufa."

"As you have already guessed, there are many recipes, all with plusses and minuses," she said. "When I mix, I add water just until it sticks together when squeezed and begins to glisten. It becomes sort of an art to learn when it is just right to make a trough."

Hypertufa troughs made with sand can easily stand up for 20 years, said McMahan. "The light-weight ones made with perlite, aren't quite as durable, but 10 years is pretty safe if they are not abused. Some of my larger, colored and coated troughs are now five years old and still looking great.

"I wouldn't say they last a lifetime, because they do weather. Since plant roots also make their way into little crevices, this makes the breakdown process even quicker. Some of the experts recommend replanting troughs every five to 10 years anyway, so maybe this isn't such a bad thing."

One caution from McMahan: Hypertufa troughs can break with rough use.

"Don't drop one," she warned. "Not only will it break, it might break your foot."

For more information on hypertufa, McMahan recommends visiting the Berry Botanic Garden's website at: http://www.berrybot.org/. And watch for hypertufa workshops near you. Also, see accompanying article on a recipe for hypertufa.

Author: Carol Savonen
Source: Linda McMahan