I love half wine barrel planters. At our house, we have challenging clay soil and a whole lot of slippery hillside to work with. The barrels are great because I can set them on our big, sunny deck and place them along hillside walkways. They make it easier to maintain the soil and they put my plants within easy reach.
The first time I planted a half wine barrel, I forgot to drill drainage holes in the bottom. Duh. But now that they are taking over our property — at last count, we had sixteen — I have developed a solid system for preparing them. Of course, there are many ways to handle the particulars, but I’ll describe the steps that work for me. (At some point, I got tired of reinventing my method every year and wrote it down in my garden journal. Do you keep a garden journal? It’s a handy thing.)
Where to Get Half Wine Barrels
Your options depend on where you live. If you’re in or near wine country, you can turn to the wineries themselves. (Is there such a thing as whiskey country? These barrels are also used to store whiskey.) I sometimes get my barrels from a winemaking shop in Berkeley. You can also find them at many nurseries and many big-box home stores. (Barrels offered by the latter are often of lesser quality, made to look like half barrel planters but constructed of weaker materials.) And I once found some genuine barrels outside a mainstream supermarket for an amazing price, so keep your eyes open.
If you can obtain a barrel at or near its source, it will be less expensive. When I get barrels from the winemaking folks, I pay half the price my local nursery charges. For me, the only advantage of getting them at the nursery or local lumber yard is that those places are closer and they’re willing to drill the drain holes for me — very expensive holes.
What You Need to Prepare a Half Wine Barrel Planter
Here’s a list of what I use to prep a half barrel, minus any kind of liner. (I discuss liners at the end of the post.)
- half wine barrel (you can also get a whole one if you’re up for cutting it in half)
- power drill with a bit large enough to make drainage holes the size of quarters
- apple cider vinegar in a spray bottle (to inhibit the growth of fungus)
- wire mesh to cover the drainage holes
- wire cutters to size the mesh
- staple gun to affix the mesh
- four casters or feet (depending on the surface the barrel will sit on)
- good soil (a standard barrel holds about 4 cubic feet of soil)
Five Steps for Preparing a Half Wine Barrel Planter
1. Drill drainage holes in the bottom. Even when I lived alone, I thought it was important to own a power drill. I’ve done this plenty of times myself, but a girl can get lazy about certain things when she has a guy around. Now I usually ask Stewart to drill the holes.
2. Spray the bottom and inside of the barrel with apple cider vinegar. If your wine barrel is the real thing — solid oak that was used to ferment grapes — it may play host to a fungus that will grow on the wood. If you put the barrel on a wooden deck, the fungus may begin to grow there, too. To inhibit the growth of stuff you don’t want, get some apple cider vinegar and a plastic spray bottle and go to work. Turn the barrel over and thoroughly spray the bottom, concentrating on the area around (and within) the holes. Then turn it over and thoroughly spray the inside of the barrel, too. Let the barrel dry and proceed to step 3.
3. Cut pieces of wire mesh to fit over the drainage holes. You can use any kind of strong mesh for this step, as long as the openings are small enough to prevent the soil from dropping through the drainage holes. If you have mesh made of strong fabric, you may be able to cut out a big circle with scissors and staple the whole thing to the bottom of the barrel. I use the heavy wire shown in the photos only because we have a bunch left over from an old drainage project.
4. Secure the mesh with staples. Again, you can adapt this step to whatever kind of mesh you’re using. I am a big fan of the staple gun.
5. Add casters if necessary. If your barrel will sit on a patio or deck, you’ll almost certainly want it to have a good set of wheels. To add wheels, we’ve taken a number of different approaches. At various times, we have (1) bought casters at the hardware store and mounted them to a wooden platform on which we set the barrel (see photo below), (2) attached the casters to blocks of wood and screwed the blocks into the barrel, and (3) screwed the casters directly into the barrel. But I rather like (4) take the easy way out and buy a ready-made wheelie thingw at the nursery or online. I like the ready-made wheelie things, which are actually called “plant dollies” or “plant wheel bases,” if you’re wondering what search terms to use. When you consider the cost of the casters and the time spent fussing around with them, the pre-made plant dollies really aren’t that expensive. You don’t have to get a huge one, either. The 16″ model works fine.
Of course, if your barrel will sit on the ground in your garden, you don’t have to worry about wheels. Just set it down where you want it and prop it up on some feet (bricks or blocks of wood are great) or at least put a good layer of drain rock/gravel underneath it — not inside the barrel, but underneath — to help with drainage. (My gardening bible, Golden Gate Gardening, by Pam Pierce, says, “Don’t put any gravel or pot shards at the bottom of containers of any kind; no matter what you’ve heard, research shows clearly that they will impede drainage rather than help.” I love this book. It has been helping Bay Area gardeners keep their dumb mistakes to a minimum for almost twenty years.)
A tip about placing your barrel. In some of the photos in this post, you can see that the lip of each half barrel has a round notch in it where the barrel’s spout used to be. If you use a drip irrigation system, this notch is useful — you can lay your irrigation hose right into it. Think about this when you place your barrel and orient the notch accordingly. You won’t want to be moving your barrel around a lot later, especially if it’s on feet rather than casters.
6. Fill your barrel. A standard size wine barrel (26″-28″ in diameter) will hold about 4 cubic feet of soil. How much you need depends on what you’ll put in it. If you’re planting a dwarf tree with a good-sized root ball, you’ll need much less. Estimate and adjust.
Adding a Liner to Your Barrel
Whether or not to line your barrel with plastic is entirely up to you. Many people feel that a liner significantly extends a barrel’s life — though how much is questionable. My lined barrels are decaying at about the same rate as those that aren’t lined. One way or another, if your barrel is solid oak, it should last for a good long time.
I like to line my barrels for a different reason, which is that it helps the soil to retain moisture. Even large containers can dry out quickly during a stretch of hot summer days. With a liner, I don’t have to water as often.
At first, I had some worries about chemicals leaching from plastic liners into the soil (and then into the plants and then into me) but I poked around on the Internet and talked to a lot of gardener folk and pretty much put my fears to rest. After all, I occasionally plant in heavy-duty plastic pots or even 5-gallon plastic buckets. But if you have any worries about plastic, skip it.
If you want a liner, you have to decide what kind. You can buy pre-made plastic liners for half-wine barrels. (Liners with a lip that goes over the edge of the barrel are the most protective because less water will get between the liner and the inside of the barrel.) Ready made liners are expensive, but if you’re not going to have a huge crop of barrels, they may be worth the investment. Myself, I have invented a goofy way of fashioning a liner out of a heavy-duty, 42-gallon trash bag. (This may explain why the liners aren’t doing a super job of preserving my barrels, but I do know they work for moisture retention.) All you need is the bag, a pair of scissors, your trusty staple gun, some patience, and maybe a sense of humor. (This post is already way too long for me to explain the specific steps, but there are some photos below to give you an idea of what I do.)
The most important thing about a liner? If you use one, remember to put holes in the bottom of that, too. They should match the holes you drilled in the bottom of your barrel.