Make your own hypertufa trough
Create a strong, lightweight, good-looking planter—it’s easy!
If you long for a rock garden but don’t have the space, or you want a home for some miniature plants that will look out of place in a big garden bed, or you are simply tired of looking at the same old pots, a hypertufa trough is right for you. These strong yet lightweight containers have a rugged, rustic look that complements just about any plant palette. They can be pricey at stores, but fortunately, they’re easy to make. Follow these simple steps to create your own.
Click here to download this article including how-to photos as a pdf.
• One 10-pound bag of Portland cement
(available at masonry supply stores)
• One 2-gallon bag of peat moss or coir
• One 10-pound bag of coarse sand
• Plastic sheeting or newspaper
• Large plastic tub
• Cardboard box (for mold)
• Drinking straw (cut into three pieces)
• Rubber gloves
• Dust mask
• Wire brush
• Potting mix
• Low-growing plants
Find a flat, broad surface in the shade and cover it with plastic or newspaper. In a large plastic tub, mix one part Portland cement, one part coarse sand, and two parts peat moss or coir (photo above). For our trough, which was formed around a box that was 5 inches tall by 8½ inches wide by 11¾ inches long, we used approximately 10 cups each of the cement and the sand, and about 20 cups of the peat moss. If your trough is bigger or smaller, adjust the volume of materials accordingly.
Add water and mix well.
Add more peat moss or water as needed until the material has the consistency of cottage cheese (photo above). If only a few drops of water run out when you squeeze a handful, it’s the right consistency.
Spread the mixture over your cardboard box.
Continue adding mixture until it is about 2 inches thick all around. Make corners and edges a bit thicker.
Insert three pieces of drinking straw in the center of the trough bottom to create drainage holes. When the material is dry, you’ll remove these straws.
Cover the trough with plastic and let it sit for 36 hours. Then test it. If you can make a scratch mark with your fingernail, it needs to sit longer. If you can’t, it’s ready for the next step.
Tear the cardboard box out of the finished trough. Using a wire brush, smooth the rough edges and corners. Then cover the trough with plastic again and leave it for another three weeks.
Before you plant, fill the trough with water and let the water drain out. This will leach out the alkali that’s in the Portland cement. Repeat this step several times within a 10-day period.
Now you’re ready! Fill your trough with soilless potting mix and add diminutive plants such as chives, baby beets, lettuce, radishes, alpine strawberries, hens and chicks, violets, and other low-growing species.
•There are many different recipes for hypertufa mix. Some call for perlite or vermiculite instead of sand. Others call for synthetic concrete reinforcing fibers. Just be sure not to substitute pre-mixed concrete or mortar for the Portland cement.
•Do this project outside. Wear rubber gloves and a dust mask.
•If you’d like a square or rectangular trough rather than the more casual shape shown here, simply use two cardboard boxes, one bigger than the other. Put the small box inside the large one, and fill the space between (about 2 inches for a medium- sized trough) with the mixture. After the material cures for 36 hours, carefully tear the boxes away.
•Bring hypertufa troughs indoors in winter. They may crack in freezing temperatures.
Elizabeth Noll is managing editor of Gardening How- To. Tracy Walsh is the magazine’s assistant art director. Glen Seibert is owner of GreenMan Projects, a horticultural media production company.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010 3:52 PM
What a wonderful article I made it right after reading and your instructions were excellent. I have 1 suggestion-specify a mailing-weight cardboard, as I used one lighter and the weight made my top (now bottom very thick in the middle so had to chisel some off to be deep enough for soil. Maybe this should have been obvious, but now I know. Also, I found a few alternative mixtures, as you mentioned, and plan to try the one with vermiculite next time. Thanks for the article and love the magazine. Sandra, Arizona
Sunday, September 26, 2010 11:02 AM
This might be a good wat to make some planters for along my patio.
I would build a wooden box with slanted sides about 10 " on bottom and 12 " on top by 3 0r 4 feet long.
Friday, November 19, 2010 9:21 PM
I've made these pots with all kinds of containers, just be sure that the top is larger than the bottom. I like to use an oval galvanize bucket, line it with plastic, then begin filling the bottom of the container (about 2 inches thick) packing it real tight. Then pack the sides, put in sticks for the drain holds, cover the whole thing with plastic, move it to a shaded area to cure.
Thursday, March 03, 2011 12:13 PM
I made some pots but with a different recipe. One thing I recommend is mixing all the dry ingredients first then adding the water. This will insure a even mixture. You can also use almost anything for a mold. Just use your imagination. Also use a cheap plastic drop cloth as a liner and it will make it easier to remove the mold. Also, one of the best material to use is plastic bins in the desired size. Just make sure the plastic is rigid enought to support the hypertufa and does not have too much flexibility.
Friday, April 01, 2011 11:45 AM
this will be perfect for my mini hostas, columbines and bleeding hearts
my husband is going to be very busy when the weather warms up !!!!!
Tuesday, April 12, 2011 9:31 PM
I look forward to making some of these and appreciate the comments with additional tips/suggestions for success. Thanks to all!
Monday, June 27, 2011 2:00 PM
You can use the same recipe with the inside of a garbage can lid, lined with plastic and sprayed with pam. When dry you'll have the begining of a great birdbath. If ambitious you can create a mosaic design, with broken china, clay pots, tiles or just about anything that can be set in thin set and then filed with grout.(marbles & shells would work also)
Monday, July 11, 2011 5:30 PM
I wouldn't plan on using hypertufa mixture to make a birdbath. It is a very porous substance and the water will run out of it. That is what happens when you set it outside when it is first made. Whether you run water in it or let nature's rain gather in it, the water leeches out the lime from the cement.
Saturday, August 13, 2011 5:01 PM
I also saw plans that called for thick styrofoam that can be taped together on the outside, making for easy removal when hardened...does anyone know of a source for the thick styrofoam?
Friday, August 26, 2011 9:52 PM
My husband and I did this one year for our anniversary, he surprised me with a class, a gentleman took the day to teach us how to do it. The gentleman made containers to sell at gardening events. He had wooden boxes he had made for forms so the sides are pretty smooth. He just took screws out of the sides to take the boxes apart when it was time to take off the form. Also, we used shredded paper rather than peat moss, as paper is renewable.
You CAN make a birdbath, after it cures put a coat of concrete on the inside, it doesn't have to be too thick, to hold the water. The birds love it.
Tuesday, October 04, 2011 1:44 PM
I cant wait to try this. I love containers and these seem so easy to make and you can personalize them unlike the store bought ones.
THANKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Let you know how it went.
Sunday, October 09, 2011 6:04 AM
adding vermiclite give the piece a more expensive realitc like like old stone & glisten alittle like minerals-i cut a piece of strofoam the size of the cardboard box -cut off corners & put the mix inside =creates four triangle legs on containers=have to pack it 2in thick inside box helps it dry slower-which makes it stronger!
Sunday, March 18, 2012 11:32 PM
I used this idea to make stepping decorative stones. For looking at not for real use. I used some old tiles I had from My cruises to Mexico, (one of a kind tiles at the local Home Depot, Lowes or Menards works too) and a 5 gallon bucket. Just put the tiles in upside down and pour the mix on top about 2 inches. When cured tip over bucket and clean off excess. If you want color in your stones get colored sand or clay at your local nursery or above mentioned hardware stores.