Using stock tanks in the garden


Lately an unassuming container made for ranch life has been appearing in creative and stylish urban gardens: the stock tank, or cattle trough. It’s Old Texas meets New Texas, and boy howdy, it works.

Warehoused among poultry feed, hog fencing, and deer corn at farm-supply stores like Callahan’s, stock tanks of all sizes can easily be converted into planters that shine in the landscape. Literally shine—they’re silver. Freeze-proof and rust-resistant, these sturdy, galvanized-steel containers make attractive, affordable substitutes for perishable terracotta and cast-iron vessels.

Their simple, sleek lines complement many styles of gardens, from cottage to rustic to modern minimalist. They mix particularly well with the rusty steel edging, corrugated siding, concrete flooring, and recycled-glass mulch that define the Texas contemporary look, increasingly popular among local builders and garden designers.

But it’s not just a Texas look. If garden photos in national magazines are any indication, stock tanks are enjoying creative reuse all over the country. Even the New York Times recently featured a San Francisco rooftop vegetable garden entirely planted in a grid of stock tanks—an idea easily adapted by Austin gardeners hampered by thin, rocky soil. Rather than jack-hammering through rock or building raised beds, make a kitchen garden out of stock tanks by setting them in the yard and filling them with soil. As an extra benefit, their height makes weeding and harvesting less of a strain on the back.


Stock tanks are ideally suited for ornamental plantings too. Hot summer days can cook plants in small pots, particularly porous terracotta, and require watering once or even twice a day. A bigger container needs less-frequent watering. Filled with tough, drought-tolerant, deer-resistant plants like salvia, nolina, opuntia, and artemisia, for example, an established cattle-trough planter won’t need watering more than once a week in summer. To allow drainage, be sure to remove the metal plug and add a few extra drainage holes with a metal drill bit at the base of the tank before planting.


Galvanized stock tanks also make easy water features, resisting rust and holding water for many years. Before filling, rinse out any dust or dirt, and securely tighten the drain plug at the base to prevent leaks. Take the time to spread a 4-inch base of decomposed granite or coarse builder’s sand in order to make the tank perfectly level; an uneven tank, when filled, will be obvious because of the off-kilter water line. Once the base is level, roll the tank into place and fill it up from the hose. Let it sit for a few days so that the chlorine in the water evaporates and the water temperature equalizes with the air temperature.


Now comes the fun part—choosing pond plants. If your tank is at least two feet deep and situated in full sun, you can grow a water lily; a dwarf variety like ‘Helvola’ works best unless your tank is very large. Be sure to add some submerged plants like anacharis to help keep the water clear of algae. A couple of goldfish or gambusia fish add color and life, plus they eat mosquito larvae, preventing your tank from becoming a breeding ground (or you can use mosquito dunks). Add a bubbler pump if you wish, and you’ve got a beautiful container pond with no digging required.


Other ideas abound. Sink a stock tank into the ground to create a small reflecting pool or to contain bamboo or other “running” plants. Use a shallow tank to elevate and showcase a dramatic plant like an agave.


Create a living screen to hide the garbage bins by inserting a trellis into a long, oval tank and planting an evergreen vine on it. Or make a welcoming entry by placing a tank on either side of a pathway, connecting the two containers with an arched metal trellis, and growing a climbing vine on each side. A few more perennials and a potato vine or silver ponyfoot spilling over the edge of the tanks completes the look.

Gardeners have long appropriated old stone troughs from Europe as planters, recognizing the beauty of honest, workaday containers. Now the humble ranch trough of the American southwest has found its place in the garden as well.

Plant them until the cows come home.

This article first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, August 16, 2008. —Pam

All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

23 Responses

  1. [...] you’re visiting because of my article on the gardening page of the Austin American-Statesman, welcome! Regular readers of Digging know that I’m a huge [...]

  2. Dave says:

    Great ideas! I like the use of the tanks for the water feature/water garden.

    That was my first stock-tank creation, Dave. From there it just snowballed. —Pam

  3. arythrina says:

    You make a very compelling case! Indiana has to have some good suppliers… don’t you think?

    If you’ve got cows or horses in Indiana, you’re bound to have some stock-tank suppliers. I hope you can track some down. —Pam

  4. I ADORE those tanks in your photos! Absolutely genius! As I’ve mentioned before, I want to use stock tanks for the containers, filled with tropicals, to create a privacy garden around our outdoor shower.

    Thanks for sharing this story again. Do you have a copy that you could email to me for my personal garden inspiration files?

    Cameron

    I’m flattered that my stock tanks have given you some ideas for your beautiful garden, Cameron. I can’t wait to see how your tropical privacy screen becomes reality. Why not just print out this post, Cameron, to put in your idea file? That way you’ll have the pictures too. —Pam

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This is great Pam. I am glad you published your article here. It seems like I saw it way back but not sure. You have made my mind start spinning with ideas.

    Aren’t they fun? I can’t resist these silver tanks. I have one in my new garden, but I’m already plotting where I can use more. —Pam

  6. Chookie says:

    That’s a great range of uses listed, and I love your illustrative photographs! If only I could find them here in the middle of Sydney…

    Hi, Chookie. If you can’t find them in the middle of Sydney, perhaps in a small town in a more rural area? Or maybe Australia has its own “vernacular” where planting containers are concerned? —Pam

  7. Gail says:

    Pam, I love(d) your stock tanks and look forward to any new ones you create! Gail

    I have one, Gail, and am looking for ways to incorporate others. —Pam

  8. Racquel says:

    They really do make nice containers for plants or fish. The last photo with the arching vines is beautiful.

    Thanks, Racquel. Let me give credit to the folks at Bark ‘n Purr pet-supply store on Burnet Rd., who designed that archway and container screen to green up an unplantable parking lot. —Pam

  9. Bob Pool says:

    I think gardeners are the only people that call these stock tanks. I’ve lived in rural Texas all my life and always thought a stock tank was a pond dug in the ground that stock watered at. I’ve always heard these referred to as water troughs.

    Either way they do look good with plants in them. I have friends in Wahlberg that have around twenty of them in their yard used as planters. It made me wonder as they have plenty of dirt so I asked about them. Marla told me “After the bottom rusts out, what else can you do with them”.

    I also call them cattle troughs, but stock tank rolls off the tongue easier. ;-) —Pam

  10. Gunilla says:

    Yes I like the ideas of using tanks. I have used an old parabol (TV-antenn) I dont know what it´s called in english.

    Gunilla

    I know what you mean—a TV antenna dish. That would make an interesting container for planting. —Pam

  11. Pam — thanks! Will do. I like to ask permission for these things.

    Cameron

    Thanks for that, Cameron. —Pam

  12. Robin says:

    I was just in Tractor Supply a few days ago and can’t believe I forgot to look at the stock tanks. Thankfully it’s not far from my home and I can stop in again another day. I’d love to do a water feature like yours.

    It would be appreciated by the birds, I’ll bet. I used bricks to build up a shelf for a flat piece of rock right at the water’s surface. The birds used it as a bathing platform. —Pam

  13. meg says:

    I plan to try the water garden idea!

    Cool! I hope you’ll let me know if you post about it, Meg. —Pam

  14. Genevieve says:

    Gorgeous, gorgeous photos. I love the cool silver of the tubs with the lush greens and that variegation – lovely!

    Thanks, Genevieve. I love pairing that shiny silver with purple foliage, and it does look great with the greens too. —Pam

  15. Philip says:

    Hi Pam,
    I enjoyed your article. You have a wonderfully engaging style. I especially like the stock tank as a pond. I have seen one in a San Francisco garden. I was located in South of Market around warehouses, old factories. The stock tank was filled with Koi, turtles and plants. It was so much more effective in this setting than if they tried to create a naturalistic pond. Also, my own garden is at the top of the hill, so a rocky pond would be silly here. The stock tank would be just the thing! If we put this up we will say inspired by Pam!
    I think it will be great in the sun by our lemon tree.
    Best regards,
    Philip

    Thanks, Philip. I agree that it isn’t always easy to make an in-ground pond look natural. The stock tank solves that problem neatly, plus it brings the pond up closer to the viewer. If you build one, please let me know if/when you post about it. I’d love to see it reflecting the sunshine and the lemon tree in your garden. That sounds absolutely delightful. —Pam

  16. Brenda Kula says:

    Oh, Pam, I absolutely must do this! Beautiful displays!
    Brenda

    Thanks, Brenda. Maybe you’ll find a place for one where you can see it through your new French doors. That way you can enjoy it indoors and out. —Pam

  17. Karrita says:

    Great and informative article with great examples of using these troughs. Thanks!
    Karrita

    My pleasure, Karrita! Thanks for visiting. —Pam

  18. Pam says:

    I hadn’t thought of one for a water garden – I really like that idea. I have a few of them (smaller ones) that I use to fill up with ice to keep drinks cold in when I have folks over. I’ve never planted in one – but the water garden idea – I really like that! Thanks.

    You’re very welcome, Pam. I could see one of these in your lovely, green garden. FYI, stock tanks come in diameters as large as 8 feet (and maybe bigger), so you can make a big pond if you want and have more room for water lilies. —Pam

  19. Aiyana says:

    Years ago I bought a small watering tank to soak gourds in when I was into gourd crafts. I put it away in my husband’s shop, but now I may take it out and use it as a planter, somewhere in the shade. I think think the metal would absorb too much heat here in the summer without full day shade. Sinking the tank may be a better idea, now that I think about it.
    Aiyana

    That’s a good idea, Aiyana. In fact, I saw a sunken tank on a garden tour this summer. When I constructed my container pond, I worried about the heat here too, especially its effect on fish, so I took a page out of the Wildflower Center’s book and heaped up soil against the back side of the tank. That helped greatly to moderate the temperature whether it was hot or cold. —Pam

  20. Hi Pam: I’ve just discovered Digging, and am enjoying it mightily.

    Bloom Day posting? I’m on it; stay tuned for January 15.

    I garden in almost-Zone-7 of southwestern Rhode Island, (see dirtonthekeys.blogspot.com) as well as via my clients from Manhattan to Boston, the Cape to Maine to the Berkshires (see rgardening.com). That’s from the bottom of Zone 4 to the middle of Zone 7. A wonderful range, but still, so many of the plants in your delicious pictures can only be in containers for me, and in the greenhouse all Winter long. Oh the pain and pricks of moving heavy potted agaves! How I envy yours, in the ground year-round. Sigh.

    Stock tanks! I’ve been a huge fan of stock tanks too; we’ve got a nice rural component to our little state—cows, horses, goats, the whole barnyard—so the tanks are locally available. And so economical too. I use mine for small stand-alone water gardens, and also for instant bog gardens when placed in my 70′ X 8′ reflecting pool, which is a formal rectangle that otherwise wouldn’t welcome pondside plantings.

    The stock tank is higher than the water in the pool, which is only 16″ deep, so the crowns of the plants are above water. I remove the cap for the drainage hole at the bottom, so the roots are always in the muck. I also used galvanized wash tubs, with holes drilled in the bottom, for smaller bog plantings.

    And, just like your pictures show so dramatically, the galvanized is such a sparkling ornament itself, as is the contrast of the sleek curved form with the billowing horticulture it contains.

    I also use a four-foot tank in the back hall of my house as the container for the firewood for our two wood stoves. (Hey, this is New England!) Then I can bring a whole day’s worth of wood in the house at once. We still get the occasional blizzard, and it’s such much tidier and easier to fill up the tank with wood in one session, traipsing back and forth out to the wood crib and back into the back hall, all the while in the heavy outdoor shoes and clothing. (Good exercise too.) Then I can bring the wood from the tank to each stove in my clean indoor shoes and clothes. Whew.

    Thanks again for such a colorful, genial, and content-rich site. It’s a pleasure to visit!

    Kind regards, Louis
    Dirt on the Keys

    Howdy, Louis, and welcome to Digging. I’m so glad you introduced yourself via this comment and let me know how you’re using stock tanks in your own garden. I’m off for a visit to Dirt on the Keys right now. Cheers! —Pam

  21. I have an area that needs camouflage. Thanks for the ideas.

    My pleasure, MNG. Have fun! —Pam

  22. [...] Look too at the materials builders tend to work with. In Austin, in addition to traditional wood siding, you see a lot of limestone exteriors, cedar posts, and galvanized and corrugated metal, plus an industrial-Texas look characterized by COR-TEN steel and concrete. Using these materials in your garden can tie your landscape to your region’s design vernacular. Even the decor you choose can reflect the local scene, like this galvanized stock tank used as a planter. [...]

  23. Pam,
    I’m going to be growing my veggies in them for the first time this year. I love these tanks, so economical and they’re stylin too!

    Hey, Christina. Veggies in stock tanks are a natural. I hope you show pics of yours—more stock-tank love! —Pam