Joe Elliott's famous nursery for alpine plants at Moreton-in-Marsh, in the pretty limestone part of England known as the Cotswolds, will close within a few weeks, to the general sound of wailing throughout the island.
His bread-and-butter plant, which he grew as we grow marigolds, has been Gentiana verna from the Alps. "It's not difficult," he likes to say. "Full sun and a soil that doesn't dry out in summer, and a bit richer diet than you give most alpines. It's only good for about two years," but maybe no flower is so gorgeous a blue and few flowers are so striking.
Apart from his easy gentian (which other people consistently fail with, which is why it is his bread-and-butter plant) he grows, or grew, any number of rarities, and although he is now in his eighties, he must work 30 hours a day with exceptional discipline at that, since I have never seen a garden (his garden adjoins his small nursery) run by one man that was so stuffed with plants all in superb shape.
But one of the things he likes to play with is stone sinks and troughs. His father was Clarence Elliott, the famous alpine gardener. The son disclaims the common notion that Clarence invented the practice of growing alpine plants in stone sinks, but acknowledges he called them to everybody's attention with his displays at the Chelsea show (earlier at the Temple) in London.
Stone sinks were simply kitchen sinks made of stone. They were used before people had enamel sinks. Whether they were ever common in America I do not know; I have never seen them. The house I grew up in in Tennessee had huge sinks made of slate, down in the basement, and these were used for rinsing clothes after they had been boiled in big copper vessels. But Elliott's sinks are more the size of ordinary kitchen sinks, and made of sandstone or some other easily worked rock. The father used to display these, planted with different alpine flowers, some rare, some not; some easy and some difficult, and they were a great success at the London show.
Then one year it was decided this was not "gardening" in the Chelsea meaning of the word, and the wonderful sinks of alpines were relegated to the Sundries area of the show, a decision that irritated Clarence Elliott and he never showed them at Chelsea again.
Anyway, Joe Elliott has about 30 stone sinks in his small garden, some of them no larger than a quern (a grinding mill) holding two handfuls of soil, to a Saxon stone coffin.
He also has (if this is not wandering too far) a cracked ordinary flowerpot maybe 14 inches wide holding a decades-old willow (Salix reticulata) that covers the surface but is only an inch high.
Formerly building wreckers used to give you the stone sinks, to save the bother of breaking them up, but now the sinks are hard to find and expensive.
Concrete copies are not satisfactory, Elliott thinks, for two reasons: They look lousy, and roots of alpines do not seem to like growing in them.
On the other hand, hypertufa does very well indeed and many plants love it. This is an improbable material that you would think would fall apart the first winter, but it doesn't, and in a year or two it weathers so admirably that even Elliott has sometimes been fooled into thinking the hypertufa is an old sandstone sink.
His recipe is as follows:
Two parts (by bulk, not weight) of moistened sifted sphagnum peat.
One part coarse sand or fine stone grit.
One part cement.
These are thoroughly mixed together, dry, and water is added gradually while mixing continues. The great danger is getting the mixture too wet, really soupy, and you avoid this by adding the water carefully little by little, not adding more until the mixture is uniform. You do not want to make a puddle of water, give it a couple of whacks with the hoe, and start adding further water. No. You make your little puddle, but then hoe it (or trowel it) through every ounce of the mixture before adding more water.
It can be applied to enamel sinks, those glazed white things, provided you first paint the enamel with a bonding agent. Concrete-additive firms will know what you want. When the bonding material on the enamel is tacky, you apply your cement-peat-sand mixture by hand or any other way you can think of. You cover your handiwork and after a few hours you lightly mist it, the idea being to keep it from hardening fully too fast. The fall is a nice time to do all this, which is why I mention it now.
You can also cast the hypertufa into sinks, or boxes, or planters, but this involves forms and wire reinforcing.
The old sinks were shallow, many of them no more than three inches deep. In England plants grow fine in them, but in our more favorable and sunnier warmer climate in the summer, they would be more difficult to manage.
Our sinks are deeper, which is a good thing. I have no recommendations to make about alpines, like the gentians, since I would certainly forget to water them for a couple of days and they'd collapse on me. But surely a nice collection of sempervivums (hens and chickens) would grow admirably even in our hot summers, in such a vessel.
Elliott points out what is obvious, and therefore easily overlooked, that these stone sinks are extremely heavy. You may wish to raise them a few inches off the ground -- they look better that way -- and you want to work on them in place. You do not want to plaster the enamel with hypertufa and fill it with earth and plants and then start hauling it about, so it is necessary to think ahead, carefully, where you want it to rest forever.
Elliott says he plans to be buried some day in his Saxon stone coffin that weighs a ton, and required "six men and several gallons of beer" to haul.
He tried it out for size before planting it with little treasures. Well, I do not wish to pontificate what a man may or may not be buried in, but surely a fine Saxon stone coffin is much too good to be simply buried in the ground? And while the death of a man is always sad, of course, it seems ridiculous to tear up a nice planting for no better reason than to bury somebody. Possibly cremation would do, sprinkling things over the plants growing nicely in the stone coffin, as most alpines do not object to lime, and it would seem to me a gardener would rather do something good for gentians after his death than just sit down there doing nothing till Judgment Day.