No bull! Cattle troughs make great containers

Cattle troughs, or stock tanks, are popping up in public and private gardens all around Austin. They look great in many styles of gardens—informal cottage, sleek contemporary, rustic—and can be planted or filled with water to make container ponds.

I have a small, round one (3-ft diameter, 2-ft deep) in my back garden that holds a dwarf water lily, horsetail, star grass, and a few goldfish. It’s just like one I long admired at the Wildflower Center, only smaller.

This idea is catching on everywhere. Last year a group of students at my daughter’s school installed an 8-ft diameter stock-tank container pond. Cool!

Even gardeners in the distinctly non-Texas-y Pacific Northwest are using cattle troughs. See this month’s issue of Fine Gardening and the article on Buell Steelman and Rebecca Sams’s garden. To give Austin its due, this creative couple does hail from the River City. In fact, they met while working at Gardens, Austin’s premier garden-design firm. They use troughs both as planters on their deck and as a container pond.

Closer to home, my neighbors down the street have put a cattle trough to good use as a planter for bamboo against their contemporary, two-story addition.

All of this is to say that cattle troughs are hot. So a stock-tank container planting was the first thing that jumped to mind when I removed a huge bicolor iris last weekend and needed something to replace it. The picture at the top of this post shows the planter I finished today. For anyone else wishing to join the herd, here’s how I did it.

I drove to Callahan’s, a local farm-supply store, to look at their selection of stock tanks. They have a bunch of sizes, but I settled on a narrow, oval shape, 2-ft wide x 3-ft long x 2-ft deep. I leveled the ground under the tank, drilled a dozen holes around the base (use a metal bit on your power drill), unscrewed the stopper and covered the hole with a piece of wire mesh for drainage, and dragged the tank into place.

Since I don’t have a pickup truck, I can’t bring home an economic load of soil, so I bought expensive bagged soil. I needed a cactus mix, soil that drains quickly, because I planned to plant an agave and other xeric plants in it. At the Natural Gardener, where I was advised to mix their already loose, house-mixed potting soil with at least 1/3 decomposed granite for good drainage, I bought 6 bags of this stuff: Votex Potting Soil, “microbrewed in South Austin Texas.” Each bag contains 1.5 cu. ft.

At Lowe’s I picked up 9 bags of decomposed granite. Each bag contains .5 cu. ft.

I dumped the contents in and mixed them well with my shovel, turning and turning it until all the Vortex soil had a gravelly texture.

Finally it was ready to plant—the fun part!

I wanted something different for this planter, something not too tall, tolerant of partial shade, and xeric (not thirsty) because I don’t have time to baby container plantings during our brutal summers. By visiting both of my favorite nurseries, Barton Springs Nursery and Natural Gardener, I ended up with some fantastic new plants: a squid agave—love the name!—(Agave bracteosa ), a large manfreda (Manfreda maculosa ), and a euphorbia called Gopher Plant (Euphorbia rigida or E. biglandulosa ), plus a few trailing plants for the edges: purple heart (Setcreasea pallida ), silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea ), and black sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Black Heart’).

Here’s how it looks from the rear, as you walk down the driveway toward the street.

And as seen from above. I mulched the plants in more decomposed granite, watered it well, and voila—a water tank transformed into a dry-plant container. My back is aching, but I love my new planter.

23 Responses

  1. It looks great, and the description of the way you did it steered the herd to the right products, too. If I win the lottery I want a ton of John’s potting soil.

    Nice plant selection, Pam, and it gets along real good with the wahr fence.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    How long have you been here, Annie? Yer already talkin’ like a Texan. —Pam

  2. chuck b. says:

    Love the graphics on that bag of Vortex Potting Soil…very groovy! (Good blogging instincts on your part for taking that picture!)

    I see that sweet potato vine in all the garden magazines, but I never see it used in my neck of the woods. It’s nice to see that dark color threading itself through the all the green.

    The Natural Gardener is very groovy. And their soil is awesome. —Pam

  3. Susan says:

    Hey Pam, I could practically recreate your new planter with some of my recent plant acquisitions. I bought a squid agave and a manfreda (is that “Macho Mocha”? It sure looks like it) last fall (both are thriving in pots) and I just bought one of those euphorbia/gopher plants at the Natural Gardener on Thursday (did you see the one blooming in their display bed?). And I have clumps of purple heart all over my garden (if I’d known you were in the market I could have provided you with endless bits of purple heart, which spreads like crazy, at least in my back yard).

    I do love stock tanks (I’m a sucker for galvanized metal almost anywhere). We have some friends who have a large tank in their back yard, about 12 feet x 4 feet or so that they fill in the summer for their kids to swim in. And what about that cool oval tank/fountain at the edge of the parking lot at Gardens? I’m going to have to figure out a way to work one into my garden.

    — Susan

    I was at Natural Gardener on Thursday also. Yes, that’s where I saw the euphorbia and the squid agave in the display garden and decided I had to try them. They didn’t have the squid agave for sale though, so I went to BSN for it. I got the manfreda at Natural Gardener, but the pot didn’t mention the variety. Funny that you should have bought the very same plants. Guess that display garden looked pretty good, huh? —Pam

  4. Hi Pam,

    It’s great fun to see this modern take on such an oldfahioned idea of planting up troughs. They used to be made of stone of course and later of concrete. What kind of metal are these made of?

    Your selection of plants look very nice, lots of variety in shape and colour.

    Your pictures tell a good story. Love the small pond!

    These stock tanks are galvanized steel. You’re right that gardeners have been planting troughs for a very long time. I rarely see those gorgeous, old, stone troughs here in the U.S. (maybe it’s more of a British or European garden item?). One exception that comes to mind: a trough in the David-Peese garden in Austin, which I visited on the Open Days tour last fall. —Pam

  5. Trey says:

    I love the look! We have put water gardens in troughs and it works! It’s funny how a few years ago they would have been looked down on and now they are hip. Cattle troughs have a somewhat modern industrial look which seems to be very popular.

    If your display is attracting interest, maybe you should sell a few galvanized troughs at your nursery? —Pam

  6. Curtis says:

    Love the idea of gardening in stock tanks. I can get my hands on a old cement watering tank. Just how to move it though.

    Indeed! I always wonder how people move those terrific old millstones too. —Pam

  7. r sorrell says:

    I love that look. It seems like they started becoming more popular as Xeriscaping gained momentum. The more structural, drought-tolerant plants (agave,etc.) look great in and around the industrial-looking troughs.

    I agree. The other “industrial-style” garden feature that’s very popular right now is tall, rust-colored steel edging, which I’m seeing used to edge beds, make planters, and create stair risers. Tom Spencer has used it to edge his new raised patio. —Pam

  8. Kim says:

    What a great idea… that hasn’t caught on around here yet, but I would love to take some of those longer/oval ones and use them as planters against the side of my house now that I see how lovely they can be. (I have an old house, and the cement driveway abuts the house on the south side.)

    Funny, but I had seen your latest post first, and was going to ask you about the galvanized metal container in the background of one… I love the way that grass looks in front of it. And then as I scrolled down, I was rewarded with a whole post on the subject! :)

    I bet you can find one in a local feed, general, or farm-supply store, Kim (usually located outside of town). For their size, these stock tanks can be had for a pretty good price. —Pam

  9. […] The cattle-trough planter I made in March is filling out and looking good. That silver/purple/and cool-green combo is looking better and better the hotter it gets. Clockwise from left: squid agave, black sweet-potato vine, manfreda, euphorbia (gopher plant), purple heart, and silver ponyfoot. They’re growing in morning sun/dappled shade. […]

  10. Sharon says:

    Hello! I enjoyed looking at your photos of water gardens in galvanized troughs. I am currently planning a container pond and I would love to use a galvanized trough from my local feed store. However, I have been told (by the owner of a reputable koi/other fish pond supplier) that one must be very careful about putting fish into a galvanized container. The reason cited was that some galvanized containers will leak heavy metals into the water and poison the fish. Apparently it doesn’t affect livestock and horses because that water is consumed quickly and/or the water is changed. But with a pond, the water remains in long tern contact with the metal. Does anyone have any experience with this? Thank you! Sharon (from California)

    Hi, Sharon. I heard the same thing when I was thinking about making my container pond. So I called the Wildflower Center, where I’d seen a stock-tank pond with native mosquito fish, to ask them about it. They said they’d never had any problems, so I went ahead with my own pond. Some of my goldfish have died over the years, but others have survived quite a while. I would certainly use “hardy” fish like common goldfish and mosquito fish, not koi. The biggest concern, in my opinion, is remembering not to fill the pond or top it off with chlorinated water from the hose. I use rainwater from my rain barrel. —Pam

  11. Sharon says:

    Thanks Pam. I only plan to place mosquito fish. Thanks for the tips.

  12. Danny says:

    where can I get some of the stock tank in Dallas area…if you know any places…thank you!!!

    I do not know, Danny. Check with farm-supply or tractor-supply stores in the rural suburbs outside Dallas. Good luck. —Pam

  13. Rose Marie Tantillo says:

    I have a bad back and have been looking of good, durable and easy to set up raised beds. Is there any problem with planting vegetables in these planters – does the metal leach out any harmful elements that are taken up into the plants??? Also, should I be concerned about the soil getting too hot in these metal containers?

    I’ve seen galvanized tanks used for vegetable gardens in a newspaper article, Rose Marie, so it’s been done. I don’t know of any problems regarding chemicals leaching out, but you’ll have to consult elsewhere to know for sure. You need not worry about the soil getting too hot, however, as I have several stock-tank planters, and they do just fine in Austin’s summers. —Pam

  14. rachael says:

    hello! great website, i am stumbling on it for the second time looking for info on making a stock tank pond. i live in western north carolina and am wondering two things- do i need a pump to supple oxygen for the fish and plants? and also, with a 4 foot diameter tank, would freezing in the winter be a problem for the fish and plants to overwinter? i am in zone 6 and i get frequent snow in the winter though it usually doesn’t drop below 30 degrees. thanks so much!

    Hi, Rachael. Please visit my more recent post about how to build a stock-tank pond. Thanks for visiting. —Pam

  15. […] you’d like the specifics of how to make a xeric stock-tank planter, click here for a step-by-step post about one I made for my former […]

  16. […] already sung the praises of stock tanks and cattle troughs as striking yet easy vessels for container ponds and planters. […]

  17. Hannah says:

    Just a thought, if you live in a warm state, please don’t put fish in there, they’ll boil. Or poach…anyway. I have a few of those as planters b/c they were laying around not being used in our yard, and what I did was filled the bottom with foam packing peanuts topped with weed barrier cloth. It’s a great alternative to buying a ton of soil to put in such a deep, narrow container. Of course if the plants have really deep roots it may not be a great option, but it my case it works beautifully and it keeps the weight of the whole thing down so that I can switch up the look of my garden easily. I do mostly container gardening because of my completely untrainable dog. Anyway, just thought I’d contribute. I love your post btw, great pictures and great info.

    Thanks for your comment, Hannah. Your tip about using packing peanuts for shallow-rooted plantings is a good one. As for fish, they’ve done just fine in my stock-tank ponds, even in Texas’s hot climate. The key is to bank soil along one side of the tank or simply place it in partial shade to keep the water from getting too hot. —Pam

  18. Selina says:

    Hi Pam,
    I just found your blog (awesome work- I love your style!) and am catching up on all the posts on the galvanized tubs. I have a couple that I have yet to plant and am wondering first what you do as a base for plant-filled tubs. Since we are drilling them for drainage for our veggies, should we set them on blocks in the garden? I would prefer a crushed granite base, but we are in the midst of landscaping and not ready to lay down an area. My concerns are- corroding the tub and ants taking over if I put it down on the soil, or creating a snail farm if I lift it and make a shady, moist area underneath. Any suggestions would be appreciated! Now I’ve got to finish checking out your other posts. By the way, I’m mad about agaves too. Have you used ‘Blue Glow’ yet? It’s amazing.

    Hi, Selina. Good questions. I drill both the bottom and the bottom sides of my tanks, and I set them on a 4-inch base of leveled and tamped decomposed granite. The base is important because it keeps your tank from shifting with the soil, particularly clay soil. It also helps you get your tank level from the start. Drilling holes around the bottom sides ensures good drainage. Yes, the holes will cause some corrosion of the tanks, but I find that mine have held up for 7 years and counting. To keep ants out, cover your holes with a piece of landscape fabric before adding soil to your tank. As for ‘Blue Glow’ agave, no, I haven’t tried it yet, but it is a beauty. —Pam

  19. Selina says:

    Thanks Pam! We’ll do the granite in the future too, and for now try the fabric at the bottom. Great idea!

  20. Etienne says:

    Found this article today, got inspired and made one myself…

    Thanks for the idea!

    Very cool! Congrats on your new stock-tank planter. —Pam

  21. lisa says:

    That’s a lot of dang dirt for dry-lovin plants! Two feet deep! I saw a class on transforming tanks into raised beds and they used a sort of platform inside. Of course, this was for a garden–the bottom half of the trough held water and wicking tubes.
    I’ve also read about filling the bottom with 2 liter soda bottles (since they, ahem, never decompose!) to take up space without adding weight. Seems like a good idea except for the toxinleachingplastic part. ha!

    Good point on using fillers, Lisa. In fact, I do that in my troughs now too. Styrofoam peanuts (bagged, so they don’t mix with the soil) are another popular choice, as are old broken pots or rocks you might have lying around. —Pam

  22. […] to be careful about how you add water to compensate for evaporation. To top off small tanks like my old stock-tank pond, use rainwater or a bucket of tap water that has had time to de-chlorinate. Larger tanks like my […]

  23. Carol Dupras says:

    I am a Master Gardener in Central California where the summer temperatures are in the high 90s and low 100s. In the Master Gardens’ Experimental Garden galvanized troughs were used as a container for summer vegetables. Because of the extreme heat the experimental was a marginal success. Do you have any recommendations on how to keep the soil cooler? Wrapping burlap around the trough interior before putting the soil in is under consideration. I would like to try a winter trough garden when temperatures are not a concern. Thanks.

    Hi, Carol. Temps are regularly that high here in Austin too. I have had no problems, but then I only grow drought-tolerant, heat-loving plants like agave, yucca, etc. in mine. I feel that soil is a good insulator, and so long as plants aren’t placed right on the edge of the tank they should be fine. But it’s true that vegetables could be more sensitive to extreme heat in a planter (of any kind). Do you think the trouble was the material of the container, or simply that you were growing plants in high temperatures in a container of any kind? That might be worth another experiment to find out. Good luck! —Pam