In the Garden:
Add architectural interest to the garden with sandcast concrete sculptures such as this "Swiss chard" leaf.
Fads and Fancies
We gardeners are just as susceptible to the latest fad as anyone else. See something cute, beautiful, unusual, or whatever catches our fancy on television, at the garden center, or in our neighbor's yard, and we want one, too. Soon momentum builds, and the item becomes a trend. Witness these three somewhat related aspects of gardening: hypertufa, succulents (which grow well in hypertufa pots), and concrete leaves. Granted, they've all been around for awhile, but I see more and more of them in gardens and for sale. Their appeal is not surprising as succulents are fascinating visually and usually easy to grow, while hypertufa pots and other objects, as well as the concrete leaves, add dimension and ornament to the garden. Plus you can readily make your own.
Concrete Leaf Sculptures
Cement and concrete have been around since the ancient Romans, so making garden objects out of them is certainly nothing new. As with many aspects of our modern culture, the renaissance of concrete leaves can be potentially attributed to Martha Stewart, who had guests showing how to make them on her show in 1999. At garden festivals this spring, I saw them in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Although the Rhubarb Man used only you-know-what type of foliage, other possibilities include rodgersia, gunnera, hosta, cabbage, plume poppy, elephant ear, and Swiss chard.
The basic principle in making a concrete leaf is that of sand casting. That is, form a mound of dampened sand, lay a leaf top-surface-down on the sand, then cover with a mixture of Portland cement, sand, and fortifier. After allowing the cement mixture to dry, the leaf is peeled off, revealing all the veins and textures impressed into the concrete. At that point, the "leaf" is either left plain or painted.
These naturalistic garden ornaments may then be used simply as an art object nestled among plantings or set on tree stumps or upturned pots. Or, thinking in a more functional vein, they serve as birdbaths or containers for succulent plantings.
For detailed instructions on how to cast concrete leaves, check out this column by NGA's New England regional editor: http://garden.org/regional/report/arch/inmygarden/2527
There are a number of other Web sites with instructions, too. Here are three that will provide good advice:
1. How To Make A Concrete Leaf: http://glorygarden.com/makeleaf.html;
2. How Do I Make A Concrete Leaf Casting?: http://faq.gardenweb.com/faq/lists/accout/2002072754010311.html;
3. Concrete Leaf Tutorial: http://www.concretegardenleaves.com/concrete-leaf.htm.
For those who prefer books, look to two by Sherri Warner Hunter, Creative Concrete Ornaments for the Garden: Making Pots, Planters, Birdbaths, Sculpture & More (Lark Books, 2005; $24.95) and Making Concrete Garden Ornaments (Lark Books, 2002; $17.95).
Sounding more like a medical condition than a chic garden item, hypertufa containers are popular because of their "antique" appearance, usefulness for growing small plants, and architectural dimension that they add to the garden. To understand the term, "tufa" is a porous limestone rock and "hyper" means "more than." Hypertufa containers evolved in England as a take-off on ancient stone watering troughs. Because of the weight, cost, and limited availability of the real thing, gardeners developed a technique for making freeze-proof facsimiles using Portland cement, peat moss, and perlite or vermiculite.
The size of these molded planters is usually 2 feet or less in length and width and a foot or less deep. A plastic tub can serve as a mold, or one can be constructed out of 2-inch foam insulation board, plywood, or cardboard. Those who get into "hypertufing" find they begin looking at all manner of materials and objects as potential forms.
Whether it's tomato sauce, pie crust, or hypertufa pots, there are endless theories as to the best recipe. Try different ones until you find what works best for you. My foremost recommendation is to include the use of concrete reinforcement fiber. This can be difficult to find but well worth the effort. Try going directly to a concrete company. Another suggestion is to first take a hypertufa class before striking out on your own. Check out local garden centers, botanical gardens, Master Gardener groups, or others for classes.
The hands-down best source for information on making and using hypertufa containers is Creating and Planting Garden Troughs by Joyce Fingerut and Rex Murfitt (B.B. Mackey Books, 1999; $21). On the Internet, try:
1. The Basics - Hypertufa 101: http://www.timpyworks.com/pamphlets/hypertufa-101/101.html;
2. Instructions for Making a Hypertufa Trough or Pots: http://faq.gardenweb.com/faq/lists/hypertufa/2003041457026765.html;
3. Make a Hypertufa Trough: http://www.taunton.com/finegardening/print.aspx?id=84064.
Gardening in Hypertufa Containers
Any plant that you would grow in a container can potentially be grown in a hypertufa pot, but these stone look-alikes are particularly suited for alpine plants, dwarf conifers, and succulents. Of these, it is the succulents that have most recently captured the imagination of gardeners. The "why now" of this is immaterial to this discussion, but the "why" is obvious. Succulents are not only considered easy to grow (not always the case) but their fleshy leaves, stems, or stem-root structures often have fascinating architectural appeal.
Those of us of a certain age who grew up around gardens probably had the childhood intrigue with hens-and-chicks, Sempervivum tectorum. Producing clusters of leaf rosettes, these mat-forming succulents are quite hardy and drought tolerant. As we become more conscious of the need for less thirsty plants, hens-and-chicks, as well as many other hardy succulents, have come to the fore. Although they can be grown directly in the garden or on green roofs, they manage quite well in containers, too. Containers that can be sheltered in winter give us an opportunity to grow the less hardy ones.
Local garden centers are beginning to offer a wider range of succulents, but specialist mail-order nurseries continue to be the source for the widest range of these plant forms. To learn more about succulents, one of the best places to begin is The Succulent Plant Page (http://www.succulent-plant.com/home.html). The author, Richard Hodgkiss, is a British cancer researcher with a passion for succulents. In addition to descriptions and photographs of the major succulent plant families, there is also information about growing succulents, sources for plants, an extensive list of books on the subject, and much more.
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