Stock tank returns to the Circle Garden – as a planter!



January 18, 2023

Happy 2023! I’m back from a holiday blogging break, but during the past three weeks I wasn’t just baking, wrapping presents, hanging out with family, and putting away holiday decor. I’ve been outside. A lot. Ripping things up.

In fact the cool months are my favorite season for making structural changes to the garden. This winter I decided to redo — again! — the Circle Garden. I know many readers will find this funny, but I opted to bring back the stock tank, as a planter this time.

Three years ago — three! can you believe it? — I wanted a change and dismantled my iconic stock-tank pond. The announcement nearly broke the gardening internet, at least among Digging readers. But I didn’t look back. I wanted to try something different in that space, with one eye toward creating a lower-maintenance garden. Ha! Is there such a thing?

The next iteration was more classically Southern. I echoed the existing ‘Winter Gem’ boxwood balls with an inner circle of ‘Micron’ yaupon hollies, with a focal-point whale’s tongue agave elevated in a peacock-blue pot. But it just never came together for more than a few good weeks in spring (when annuals like tall verbena bloomed) and fall (when compact perennials like purple skullcap mingled nicely with foxtail fern). For long stretches of the summer and winter, it just looked straggly and unbalanced, thanks to differing levels of sun and shade during the course of the day.

Aggravatingly too, a border of ‘Southern Star Blue’ dwarf ruellia seeded like crazy between the stone strips of the sunburst path. Despite its prolific nature, it still wilted pitifully during the hottest part of the summer. It had to go. And so did the inner circle.

What I fantasized about was a circular Corten planter bed and background arbor at this christian_douglas_design garden in Northern California. Dreamy, right? But it wasn’t in my budget for a do-over with pricey materials and labor to make it happen. Instead my husband offered to help me with a DIY version. Which is more satisfying anyway.

Out came the shovels, and we dug up the plants, gave away some of them, and used a PotLifter (a simple hauling harness; you can find it online) to relocate the big agave pot. Then we excavated the mound of soil and moved it onto tarps around the circle. We dug until we reached the packed layer of decomposed granite that supported the old stock-tank pond.

In lieu of an expensive circle of Corten steel, I decided a galvanized stock tank would do the trick — plus it would coordinate, as the old pond tank did, with my other galvanized pots and the shed roof. My old tank was gone, so I needed another. (Three years ago, I tried to sell my old tank, but when I didn’t get any takers, I ended up giving it away. D’oh!)

I couldn’t stand to pay full price for a new 8-foot (actually measuring 7.5 feet) tank, so I scoured Facebook Marketplace for a used one. I saw lots of listings for secondhand cowboy pools, but I didn’t need or want to pay for the pump accessories, and I didn’t want a hole in the side. Eventually I found a tank about an hour away — someone had had a dream of a cowboy pool but changed their mind — and I got it for a song. We brought it home in our truck and rolled it right into place. Back in baby’s arms!

Immediately the tank gave the Circle Garden new life — and it wasn’t even planted yet. Just like the old pond tank, it makes the space live larger, it creates a substantial focal point, and it adds significant height, even at just 2 feet tall. We took turns standing in the tank, swinging our old pickaxe, and banged dozens of gaping holes in the bottom of the tank for drainage. We also removed the stopper that plugs up the tank for holding water. Good drainage is key for plants.

Once we’d made sure the tank was level on its compacted DG base, we shoveled the soil off the tarps and into the tank. One cubic yard filled it up about a third.

While waiting for another weekend to roll around, I dragged my rebar bottle shrub up the hill from the bottom of the garden and tipped it into the tank. It looked promising for a fun focal point.

The next Saturday, and the next, my husband picked up a load of Lightning Mix from Whittlesey Landscape Supplies. We hauled it by the wheelbarrow load downhill into the backyard and up an old sturdy metal pet ramp to dump it in the tank. I couldn’t have done it all by myself and really appreciated my husband taking on this project with me.

It took about 3.25 cubic yards, but finally the tank was full. It’ll settle over the coming months, and I plan to top it with an inch or two of decomposed granite. I cleaned the bottles and refoliated the bottle shrub, and I used leftover stone to better edge the uphill planting bed. Out came those troublesome ruellia too. I dug in yellow spider lily bulbs and purple skullcap among the golden yuccas. I hope for a good show next fall!

The variegated whale’s tongue agave put up a fight coming out of its big pot, and I had to saw off some lower leaves that got damaged. It should recover quickly this summer. My original idea for serene simplicity — the agave and a field of silver ponyfoot — may have gone out the window when I added the bottle shrub. One evening, nearly in the dark, I was out there scooping out soil by hand and burying dozens of newly divided rain lily and oxblood lily bulbs, not unlike an eager squirrel hoarding acorns for winter. Visions of spring, summer, and fall color are dancing in my head. What a joy to be back in the garden again, dreaming of the seasonal changes to come — and not sweating!

Next, the rotting side fence is getting replaced (that’s where my gardening budget had to go, alas), the metal arch will be moved somewhere else (too much going on there), and I’ll repaint the shed (maybe changing the colors ). In the tank, I’m debating using sedge or shaggy zoysia as a grassy groundcover to camouflage bulb foliage and add meadowy movement. If the bulbs don’t pan out, I can always go back to the ponyfoot and agave idea. One thing is for sure: the garden is always a work in progress. And I’ve never been afraid of the shovel.

So how about you? Are you digging into any gardening projects this winter?

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