This guest post was written by Debra Prinzing, founder and creative director of slowflowerssociety.com. Thanks Debra!
Home gardeners are re-imagining corrugated steel agricultural troughs (also called a stock tanks) as raised planting beds for the veggie patch and flower garden. These non-traditional containers are readily available, plant-friendly and have a casual yet contemporary style.
In small gardens, the troughs are spacious enough to contain dwarf fruit trees. In places where you want to elevate crops to protect them from squirrels and other critters, the troughs become durable and affordable raised beds.
Adding Agricultural Troughs to My Backyard
I was inspired to furnish my Seattle garden with a few troughs after noticing how great they looked on local garden tours. I thought a long oval trough would fit perfectly in the narrow space between my 4-by-8-foot raised beds and the house. The foundation soil against our home is too compacted from recent construction for anything to grow there. The troughs offered a good solution.
A local feed store had plenty of choices and I purchased two 40-by-20 inch troughs that are 2-feet tall for about $125 each. With a 1/2-inch bit designed for use with metal, I drilled several drainage holes into the base. [Hint: Always wear eye protection and work on a tarp to catch the metal shavings. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to walk barefoot on your patio again!]
Before adding soil, fill the bottom of the trough with a layer of gravel topped with landscape cloth to improve drainage. Since it was May when I purchased my troughs, I planted three tomatoes in one and a huge crop of amaranth in the other. Those annual crops thrived all summer long. When they succumbed to the first frost, I replaced them with spring-flowering bulbs. You can see how easy it is to layer a mix of tulip bulbs in the trough, tucking them in for the winter months with a cover of six inches of potting soil.
I call this method the “tomato-tulip rotation.” In most parts of the country, the timing for alternating these crops is ideal. Note that my garden is in hardiness zone 8, where it’s warm enough to plant spring bulbs in outdoor containers. If you live in a much colder climate (hardiness zones 3-5) the soil in the containers may freeze and if this happens the bulbs will not survive.
Another Gardener’s Experience Growing Tulips in Agricultural Troughs
Alicia Schwede of FlirtyFleurs.com, also uses agricultural troughs in her home garden, which is located just north of Seattle. You can see some of her photos here, as well.
Alicia grows spring-flowering bulbs primarily for floral design videos, photography and workshops. These bulbs also make their way into the Flirty Fleurs Bulb Collections that she creates for Longfield Gardens.
A few years ago, Alicia realized that the stems and foliage would be tidier (and safe from pests and critters) if she could move the bulbs out of her garden beds and into the troughs that her husband Chad used for his tomatoes.
“I kept looking at Chad’s tomatoes and knew they would be coming out in October — right when I want to plant bulbs,” she says. “I pack the bulbs tightly into the trough and they look so great in the spring. The flowers are finishing up by early May, just in time to pull them out and get our tomatoes in.” Alicia and Chad change out the planting soil for each rotation. I haven’t done that, but it’s an idea I plan to try this year.
Two Different Planting Strategies
Last fall, I planted my troughs with what I would call an “eclectic mix of leftover red and yellow tulip bulbs.” Based on the quantities I had on hand, I placed about 50 bulbs in each trough, spacing them about 2-inches apart.
In contrast, Alicia plants her bulbs so they are almost touching each other. This allows her to squeeze in at least three times as many bulbs and I do. When her troughs are in bloom they definitely look much fuller than mine. She also brought her designer’s eye to her planting scheme.
“When I order bulbs, I choose tulip varieties in the same color tones,” she explains. “As I plant, I use graph paper to keep track of where everything is placed, including color and height. Last fall my mom helped me lay out the bags of bulbs. We started at the back of the trough and worked toward the front. I kept the taller tulips in the back so they wouldn’t block the shorter ones. The troughs are visible from my kitchen so I want to see all the flowers when I look outdoors.”
Protecting the Bulbs After Planting
Once the bulbs are covered with soil, both Alicia and I stretch a length of chicken wire across the top of the trough. This protects the bulbs from squirrels and chipmunks who might hop onto the 2-foot-tall container. You can anchor the chicken wire with landscape “staples” or make your own out of recycled dry cleaner hangers. “When the bulbs start popping up in the spring, I remove the chicken wire so they are free to grow,” Alicia points out. The critters seem to lose interest in digging once the bulbs are well-rooted and pushing out foliage.
Alicia shared another great floral designer’s tip that I plan to try next spring. When using these flowers for an arrangement, she pulls up the flower and its bulb. Then she rinses off the excess soil and cuts the stem at the point where it emerges from the bulb. “This gives you an extra two or three inches of stem length for your design,” she notes.
Do you have experience growing tulips in agricultural troughs or raised beds? If so, please share your suggestions below!