How to Make a Space-Saving Barrel Garden Using Junk

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It seems as if I’ve been on a mission of late to show you how to grow plants and to use scrap materials to do it. I hope you’re not offended, but then again why would you be? It’s slowly becoming my life goal to grow my own food and to do it cheaply, and I guess since I’m pretty passionate about it I thought you might be interested in it as well. Even if you’re not, maybe you’ll at least be inspired to try something unique. This oddity, a barrel garden, I first saw on an hour-long YouTube video that I honestly only skipped through in order to get the highlights.  Let’s face it, if a YouTube video is over 2.5 minutes long, you’re fast forwarding to the end. Who really has the time to watch some guy opine about Jersey Shore? I just wanna see the fight and move along.

Anyway, the video, while incredibly thorough, was quickly abandoned by yours truly, and only after some serious searching did I find another video with brief clips from the original and a link to the barrel garden website where you could buy the video and a enormous pamphlet with a bunch of pictures. However, since I’m both cheap and lazy, as you may remember, I decided to just shoot for the stars and make my own design for a barrel garden. While it’s not exactly like the original, I think it’s going to be pretty super and work just fine.

My Own Design For A Barrel Garden

The barrel garden pictured here can hold a minimum of 50 plants – 49 around the sides and at least one on top. That’s pretty great considering that it takes up less than 3 feet in diameter of actual ground space. At the bottom of this article I’ll give a brief list of some of the plants I think will work well in this planter, along with some other recommendations.

Building Materials You’ll Need

What you need (besides a couple of hours and maybe a friend-  and not a Facebook friend – don’t even get me started on that):

  • A plastic barrel
  • Saws – I suggest both a circular and reciprocating saw
  • Tape measure
  • Marker or grease pencil
  • Heat gun
  • 7 or 8 wedges
  • Drill and 1/4″ drill bit and a 5/8″ drill bit (optional)
  • Drip hose (optional)
  • Dirt/potting soil/compost/sphagnum moss

Just a Mere 11 Steps to Make Your Barrel Garden

One of the barrels in action
Step 1: Get a plastic barrel. This is the most important step and not only for the obvious reason. Note that the barrel really needs to have held a food grade substance. Think about it – you don’t want to try to grown yummy veggies in something that once was used to store Methyl Ethyl Death do you? Lucky for me, where I work we have an abundance of toxin-free barrels. However, such barrels are easy for anyone to find if you know where to look. Try feed stores.   You know, animal feed stores for horses or cows. Often they get food and goods in these barrels. If you don’t have a feed store down the street, ask around.  These barrels are plentiful if you know where to look.

Step 2: Using the reciprocating saw, cut the top off the barrel. There are two reference-ish lines available just below the top that you can use as a guide to give an even cut. I recommend the reciprocating saw here because it’s easier to control and gives you the depth control that a circular saw does not.

If you want to, you can save the top and hang it up as a conversation piece. See, the holes in the top of a barrel like this are called… tee hee hee… bungs. “Look at those bung holes I got over there.” I know it’s a bit middle school-ish of me, but still it’s kinda funny.

Step 3: Mark out lines for what will be your pouches. Now, here is my first derivation from the original. Somehow the original model has space for over 72 plants. I can’t figure it out at all, but I got 49 spaces with 7 rows and 7 columns.

Start by marking a line four inches from the bottom with your marker or grease pencil. Make that mark four inches wide. Next, make another mark eight inches from the bottom, but offset it from the end of the initial mark. This gets you a staggered appearance. Continue staggering every four inches all the way to the top of your barrel. Then work around the barrel, creating four-inch-long lines spaced so that they are offset from the rows below and above them, all the way around. This should evenly space them all around the barrel, giving you 49 lines in total

Work that wedgie...

Step 4: Using whatever safety measurements you feel are needed, use the circular saw to cut each line from end to end. Here’s a hint: Set the depth of the circular saw blade to just deeper than the thickness of the barrel wall in order to minimize the undercutting of the corners.

Step 5: Cut your wedges. OK, technically this could be any step from 1 through 5, but here it is. I found that the longer the blocks and slighter the angle, the easier they were to use and the better the blocks stayed while the slots were setting up. The easiest way to do this is to cut a 10- to 12-inch block of 2 x 4 diagonally from corner to corner. I suggest at least seven of these so you can do an entire row all the way around before you run out of blocks

Step 6: Get that heat gun running. High density polyethylene, or HDPE, the plastic that makes these barrels, starts melting at about 250° F, so you could set your heat gun somewhere there and just wait, or… crank that sucker up to speed up the process. Make sure that you move the tip back and forth to spread the heat about and diminish any melting. This movement will really help you expand the slot. Heat the bottom more that the top, because you want the bottom to stick out more than you want the top to curl in.

First row started

Step 7: Here’s where your buddy comes in handy. When you know the plastic is hot (you can see a minor color change, or just have your buddy stick his tongue to it), take a wedge and jam it down into the slot as far as you can and hold it there for a couple seconds while the plastic cools down. This will allow the plastic to re-form around the wedge set in the slot.  When the plastic is relatively cool, move on to the next slot.

Step 8: Repeat steps 6 and 7 around the barrel. When you’re ready to start on the second row, the first block you set in the row below should be ready to be pulled and used again.

Step 9: If you want to, paint the barrel. I know when I showed my wife a picture she said, “Huh, its blue… Well that’s nice,” and a few hours later I was spraying the outside with a terra cotta spray paint.

Step 10: Drill a few hole in the bottom for drainage. The water will need to go somewhere when you water it or it rains, unless of course you want to grow rice.  In that case, leave the bottom solid and have at it. But for non-rice growing, you will need a few holes.  Around 6 holes 1/4″ in diameter will be enough to allow drainage.

Step 11: From here on out it’s all optional and open for variation. The original barrel garden I saw had two different methods that you could use for insuring water distribution: a center slotted screen that disseminates water throughout the planter, or a drip irrigation hose coiled up through the barrel. What I’m going to do is drill a hole big enough for a drip hose to fit through, and coil it up through the barrel as I add my soil mix.

Voila – you have a great space-saving garden made from a barrel.

Some Quick Recommendations

The original barrel used primarily potting soil, vermiculite and a variety of plant minerals mixed in for good measure. I’m going to get a supply of compost from a local company and mix it with some sphagnum moss and add it to the whole mix to help with water retention.  I might also add a little top soil just for good measure.

Plants For Your Barrel Garden

Iit should be pretty obvious that you’re not going to be able to grow grape vines or apple trees in the slots. Smaller stemmed plants are the way to go here. Strawberries, herbs (like chives, cilantro, and parsley), leafy lettuces, or spinach would work great on the sides. On top you have a few options since it is open, so if you want to go big there, you can plant something pretty sizable in the center and it should avoid any interference with the side plants. Happy planting!!!

Photo of author

About Leroy

LeRoy was born into a long line of contractors/carpenters/missing links which maybe why he fell naturally into tools and fishing with his paws, errr, bare hands. He has since punctured, stabbed or electrocuted every appendage that can be discussed in mixed company. Given his natural fur vest, he has never been cold. In his parallel life he is a mild mannered environmental scientist where he builds, destroys and builds again. Which let’s face it is much cooler than Superman’s parallel life.

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13 thoughts on “How to Make a Space-Saving Barrel Garden Using Junk”

  1. Mid Summer Update –
    I have two barrels going – potatoes and general.
    Potatoes – not the best results but the vine is still growing. I haven’t harvested anything larger than a baby potato, but it’s not over. I will probably convert this to vegetables/herbs next year.
    General – I have this problem with settling. This makes sense even with compacted contents (tho I kept it loose) as the worms make their way through the compost and ‘soil’. I used about half coco coir and will use more perlite next time as it has a longer stable life.
    The best producers so far have been an onion (from a set) that was about 18 oz and too big to come out thru the hole – I had to bring it out the top- and two volunteer tomatoes (i think they are the ‘ripe on the vine’ type from the store. The are actually very tastie, prolific and last over a week on the counter (which is probably why they are in the store). But, I didn’t plant them. I haven’t had a lot of success getting things to grow in the slots – and with the settling problem the plants in the top few rows of holes would slip anyway.
    Also, initially, when I watered (about a 3 gal watering can per day), the water would seep out the bottom – but no longer. Every ten days or so, I give it a good soaking with the garden hose.
    Worms – seem to be very happy and prolific. I am amazed at how much garbage they can consume – particularly melon rhine that seems to disappear in two days reducing volume immensely. I dump everything from the kitchen that doesn’t have dairy, citrus, meat or oil in it. And, I have another bucket (and worm farm) to dump excess garbage when I have it.
    to date Plusses – Things grow and very well. it ‘consumes’ lots of garbage. My tomatoes are growing well off the ground so things are easy to pick.
    to date minuses – there are actually too many holes to manage. Even with the small % that are working for me, I have things going to seed. If it all bloomed, I would be overrun (is that really a minus? See future plan below). And, the settling problem needs to be addressed. I have probably added 50% more material than when I started. Where does it go? In the gullet of the worms? Strictly compacting? if compacting, it would be really dense and not much will grow in the lower levels. And, it looks functional (ie, not pretty). the holes are uneven. I thought this would be a non-factor as it would be covered by greenery – but it is not.
    Going forward – my next effort will be to convert the potato barrel to a veggie/herb barrel with the modified compost tube as in the previous post. Then, with another whole barrel, my plan is to make two ‘half barrels’. half as high – 100% around. half the holes. Maybe I will use taller legs – it will weigh about half as much when filled – why not have the lower level up higher. This will also give me two ‘tops’ which is the biggest single growing area and always gets sun. And, I may put the holes farther apart. So rather than having 6 rows of 8 holes (in a whole barrel) I am thinking of two rows of 6 or 7 holes. There will be less weight to compact the bottom levels of soil, less for the water to penetrate, still plenty of garden space, more ‘top space’, and shorter worm tubes, but the red wrigglers will have work more of the ‘ground’ as they stay shallow and there is more shallow volume than in the whole barrel. It will take twice as many pipe plugs, a little more pipe length (because of the pipe sticking out of the top and the bottom), probably longer legs (maybe 30 inches each rather than 18″) and it will take more ground space for two units rather than one, but no more filler soil than a whole barrel. And, I think I have a chance of it being more cosmetically pleasing.

  2. two built – second being used for a potato crop (experimental). potatoes are growing, but straw may have been the wrong medium. I used a skilsaw for all holes and top. worked fine. Third barrel is waiting. I think I am going to cut little arcs from pilot hole to pilot hole so the lip coming out is bigger than the one going in. I am having trouble getting things to grow in my slots – many are empty. But, the onion (18oz) wouldn’t come out the slot and the volunteer tomato is going crazy. The worms seem to be going crazy. I am using red wrigglers that stay in upper part of tube – and maybe I should get another breed that will work the lower parts. It seems that there is continual settling (my top level keeps sinking) and I am concerned that the soil is compacting. Cleaning out the worm tube revealed a lot of roots in it – I guess that cannot be helped. All in all – a great result and worth repeating. Lots of potential.

  3. The original design had a 6 inch pvc pipe worm tower. I built one using 4inch pipe (couldn’t find 6″ at a reasonable price – and not at all at my local big box store). It seems to be working well, but I think I have much more soil inside than needed for my 45 plants. Next barrel will have two 4″ worm pipes joined at the bottom (inside the barrel) but the outlet will be to one side of the bottom. This doubles the compost capacity (worm food) and reduces the soil required at start up. My guess is that for some of the holes, there will be less ‘depth’ (when measured to the center) of soil: only 12″ to pipe rather than 16″ to pipe, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

  4. I’ve been obsessing about how to make this for ages, so thank you.
    I plan on adding a worm tower right down the middle though to get rid of my veggie scraps and encourage the worms!!


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