15 Tips for Trough Planters

15 Tips for Trough Planters

We recently concluded an exciting stint at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show to promote the educational mission of the Peterson Garden Project. The exhibit was a walk through the garden year as presented in our new book Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland – A Month-by-month Growing Guide for Beginners. We had over 20,000 people spend time in our exhibit asking questions, learning and getting excited for the 2014 growing season!

One of our long-time and beloved partners, Lake St. Supply, provided some animal watering troughs for us to use as supplemental plantings for all the gorgeous veggie starts another dear partner, Bonnie Plants, provided for us. And we were surprised by the number of questions we got about using troughs to plant veggies.

So, to respect the questions and inquiries for those interested in “trough gardening” here’s some important information you need to know about planting in a new or used trough.

  1. Troughs, also known as stock tanks, make a great and attractive alternative to wooden raised beds. They’re easy to use (no building required!) and cost-wise not a bad investment as they will last forever and keep burrowing animals out. If you pick one 36″ or higher, they’ll also keep bunnies out, too
  2. Look for used stock tanks at farm sales or on Craig’s list. New stock tanks can be purchased at farm stores or some city garden centers like Lake Street Supply in Chicago. If you don’t see them where you buy your garden products, ask the manager to special order troughs for you
  3. Troughs come in a variety of sizes, shapes and heights and the taller ones provide a great option for those who don’t want to bend down to garden
  4. You can get really creative with stock tanks – they don’t just have to be a single lozenge shaped tank. Use your imagination and have fun with the possibilities!
  5. trough3Troughs are heavy so think carefully about where you want to place it. It will be hard to move once filled
  6. You will also want to consider reflection from the sun hitting the metal tough when you’re placing them – they may look lovely out your kitchen window but if the glare is blinding you as you wash the dishes, that’s not a great thing
  7. Most of the principles that apply to container planting also apply to troughs
  8. Make sure you have good drainage! You’ll want to drill holes in the bottom of your trough to allow for drainage. You will also want to set your trough on cinder blocks or bricks to allow the water to drain out thoroughly. If you raise the trough to facilitate drainage, make sure you have enough support under the trough so it doesn’t buckle due to the weight
  9. You will want to put 3-6″ of gravel, broken pot shards or other material at the bottom of the trough to help with drainage. You might want to put a fine mesh over the drainage material to keep your soil from slowly leaking out (and potentially clogging  drainage holes)
  10. Like other containers, troughs can dry out faster than in ground plantings or raised beds in hot weather. Be sure to check if the trough needs water frequently by putting your fingers into the soil. If you detect moisture 2-3″ down, you’re good
  11. Don’t over compensate by watering too much. Plants don’t like their roots in soupy soil – it prevents them from “breathing”
  12. Soil rich in compost is great for veggies and works in a trough
  13. Your trough will warm up faster in the spring so you can plant a little earlier. But it will also warm up significantly in the summer so be careful when touching the metal that it isn’t too hot – ouch! “Hot crops” like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant will most likely love the extra soil warmth a trough will provide
  14. From a decorative perspective, troughs can be painted on the outside to match a color scheme.
  15. Troughs are great for water gardens too, although different rules apply. But, consider your trough a very large container and come up with all sorts of ideas that suit your particular gardening situation!




  1. Love it!!! I always keep an eye open for old holey troughs and they do make great planters. In winter time i hoist them up on a hand cart and carry them inside to keep our dwarf citrus trees alive. They are very heavy. The cascading troughs are so pretty and I’ve never seen that before. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Question about use of stock troughs as planting beds. How large should the drain holes be drilled?

  3. Thanks for the tips. I appreciate this one, “Troughs are heavy so think carefully about where you want to place it. It will be hard to move once filled” How many times we have made this mistake before placing the trough on the final place.

  4. Great Tips For Trough Planters. It’s very informative for us.

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