Homemade container called a trough is easy and fun to make
Al Deurbrouck’s love for rock gardening becomes instantly evident when pulling up to his South Park home.
Low-growing plants line the entryway to the front steps. A carpet of unique intertwined green foliage creeps along the border right next to the driveway.
“I like to collect plants,” he says of the rock garden varieties. “You can put so many in a smaller area, they are great.”
Deurbrouck is a spry 85 and has always had an interest in gardening. When he was working as a mining engineer, his desk was covered with close to 30 African violets, something his new boss actually embraced. In his home life, the first piece of furniture he ever bought with wife Nancy was a plant stand.
The couple’s enclosed porch — “A $10,000 greenhouse,” Nancy says, admitting they have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy when it comes to her husband’s obsession — is filled with low-growing, rock garden plants, most in troughs built by Al Deurbrouck.
“(Trough is) an exotic name for a container,” he says, “but unique in that most troughs are made out of something natural.”
Many of his are made out of hypertufa, which uses cement, peat moss, sand, perlite and water. Some are delicate artistic creations, with rocks and plants placed strategically to a miniature garden that is both intricate and beautiful.
Alpine plants, which are commonly used by rock gardeners, fill many of the troughs. Just about any plant, though, can be used for this style of growing as long as it’s not too tall.
“A rock garden plant is anything very small in stature,” he says. That means under 12 inches, but most of his plants are anywhere from 6 to 8 inches tall. Scores of Cyclamen hug the soil in troughs, each variety with a different leaf shape. Sedums and saxifrage plants in shades of grayish greens are identified with small hand written tags. Of the former, he says, “It’s extremely difficult to grow and I don’t want to tell you how many I’ve killed.”
Each trough has a plethora of other small plants. Deurbrouck is an ambassador for these little plants, telling anyone with a penchant for gardening about their merits. “I guess, if you like something enough, you feel it’s a joy you ought to spread,” he says with a smile.
He sets up in the garage to show a simple way to make a “pop bottle trough.” Wearing rubber gloves and eye protection, he uses a scoop to take equal amounts of cement, peat moss and course sand, then adds a cup of perlite and some water to make the hypertufa.
“It’s not tricky,” he says of how much moisture to add. “You want this to be a little bit on the fluid side of cottage cheese. Adding a little too much water, it’s not a sin, I can just add a little peat moss to it.”
When the consistency right, it’s important to keep it moving before it starts to set up, he says. He pushes the mixture into the bottom half of a 3-liter soda bottle that has been cut in two. The only place Deurbrouck has been able to find bottles that big is at a dollar store.
“You really need to press hard to get the mixture to the bottom,” he says. Once he gets a 3- or 4-inch layer in the bottom, he pushes a wine bottle into the center of the mixture. Then he continues to add the mixture around the glass bottle.
“As we build up layers of hypertufa, we keep it pressed so that the final product doesn’t have any gaps in it,” he says, while working the sloppy mix of ingredients down between the bottle and plastic form. Deurbrouck leaves a little gap at the top of the pop bottle, it’s easier to cut off when the project has dried. He dabs the top with toilet tissue to absorb excess moisture, allowing the trough to dry quicker.
In about an hour and a half, he removes the glass wine bottle from the center. In 24 to 30 hours, the trough dries completely and the plastic form is removed. Deurbrouck then uses a drill with a carbide bit to create a drainage hole.
The final step is to rough up the outside with a wire brush, which is purely for the look he wants. It exposes the perlite and gives the container a sort of rustic look.
Anything can be used as forms if bigger troughs are desired, using the same technique. There’s also a process used to transform Styrofoam into troughs.
“I like to do it, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “They’re useful and they are a good home for the plants. I enjoy making things.”
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.
Details: Deurbrouck is a long time member of the North American Rock Garden Society’s Allegheny Chapter. The group offers workshops, lectures, shows and much more. To learn more visit http://nargspittsburgh.wixsite.com/rock-garden.