Barrels Bring Out the Best in Containers

Roll out the barrels for a different type of container gardening.
Barrels as Planters

Barrels as Planters

What's more fun than a garden full of barrels? Master gardener Paul James and landscape designer Ros Creasy discuss ways to recycle old wine barrels into new container gardens.

Combining the grace and beauty of aged wood with the charm and diversity of nature, wine-barrel container gardens are the perfect choice if you're looking to breathe new life into an old space. "We don't need to create something new to have something new to us," Creasy says. And by recycling old wine barrels, you can create a new garden space with containers that have a unique past.

Sure, you'll find beautiful flowers and bellowing greenery growing from Creasy's barrel gardens, but you'll also find a few surprises like bell peppers, blueberries and watermelons.

Something else that's fun about these unusual containers is all the different sizes they come in, from small custom-made varieties, to half barrels latched together with galvanized steel, to the much larger sizes for plants that need lots of root space - like trees.

This antique nail barrel would make an excellent container for a small tree, and all sorts of dwarf fruit trees such as fig grow beautifully in barrels. "I don't have room for a full-sized fig, so I'm looking forward to this," Creasy says. "But I could also grow a citrus, dwarf apple, pear, peach, plum, you name it; almost all fruit trees come in dwarf sizes." Creasy is even thinking of growing a dwarf avocado.

To get started, set the empty barrel on the ground upside down and use a drill to make several drainage holes. A barrel with a wide base needs about seven to eight 3/4-inch drainage holes. Remove any frayed wood from along the edges of the holes.

Attach screening by securing all four corners of the screen with heavy-duty staples and a staple gun. This protective screen will prevent the holes from clogging and keep pests out too.

Add store-bought potting soil to about the halfway point in the barrel. If you are filling a large barrel, however, place it at its final resting spot first before filling because a filled container can get extremely heavy. Mix 1/2 cup of organic fertilizer into the soil, and press the soil down to minimize settling. Add more soil and fertilizer, mix and tamp the soil down. Add several mycorrhizal tablets spaced evenly throughout the barrel. Mycorrhizae are beneficial fungi that help the roots absorb nutrients efficiently, and they're essential in any container garden. Fill the barrel with soil to the top, and gently mix in more fertilizer without disrupting the mycorrhizae. Plant seeds, transplants or cuttings in the container.

One of the keys to successful container gardening is providing adequate moisture. Circle the surface of the container with an emitter line, a thin tube with tiny holes that you can purchase at any plumber's supply store. Place the barrel in the landscape and connect the outer end of the tube to the main irrigation line.

Second to water, the growing garden may need some additional nutrients. For a nice nitrogen boost, Creasy adds some blood meal. Sprinkle blood meal over the entire soil surface of the container. Then, lightly rake the blood meal into the soil so it doesn't wash away. As the plant absorbs the nitrogen, the beautiful green color should return.

Not only are wine-barrel gardens transportable, meaning you can rearrange your garden or take it with you if you move, but they're less expensive than terra-cotta pots. For example, you might pay $100 for a large whiskey barrel, whereas the same size terra-cotta pot could go for $500.

The only thing left to pour into the barrel is imagination. Creasy suggests combining plants of contrasting color, foliage and height as long as they share the same growing requirements.

"So the next time you're in a barrel over what to do with your yard," Paul asks, "why not try barrel gardening?"

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