A Cook's Garden - Plant a Mini-Vegetable Garden in a Half Barrel

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 16, 2009

For those who garden in small spaces, whiskey barrels are the best thing since whiskey. A barrel sawn in half at its waistline makes a sturdy planter about two feet in diameter and 16 to 18 inches tall. There are plenty of pots and planters on the market, elegant enough for the choicest lily, but this homey container never seems to lose its appeal. Its depth makes it ideal for a mini-vegetable garden, with plenty of room for roots. Six half barrels on a terrace provide more growing space than a 3-by-6-foot bed.

If your barrel comes without drainage, drill a few half-inch holes in the bottom. Laying a scrap of fiberglass window screening or floating row cover on the bottom will keep the soil from falling through. I fill planters with a mix of one-third garden soil, one-third peat moss and one-third mature compost, plus a dash of lime, greensand and rock phosphate. (For clay soil, use one-quarter each of soil, peat, compost and sand.) If you farm a city balcony, with no good place to mix soil, it's fine to buy the bagged stuff, but add some good-quality compost. Soil for container plants must be fertile and light enough to resist compaction. Planters also need more-frequent watering than beds.

Tiny as your barrel garden might seem, you can grow a surprising amount of food in it if you master the art of succession planting. That means starting a new crop every time an old one comes out. Thus, early self-supporting pea vines might be followed by a zucchini plant. When that stops producing, sow or transplant in some Tuscan kale.

Interplanting, whereby crops share space and overlap, increases your harvest even more. Grow cut-and-come-again lettuce or mesclun mix around the edge of the barrel, then set a pepper plant in the center after danger of frost has passed. After that, in late summer, plant arugula around the edge to remain in the fall once the pepper has gone. Surround a tomato plant with basil, or eggplant with parsley. Encircle summer Swiss chard with fall carrots.

Other excellent pot vegetables include radishes, beets, scallions and chives. A tepee of three bamboo poles will give you a long harvest of pole beans. And don't forget the old trick of potatoes-in-a-barrel. Fill the soil to within four inches of the top and plant four whole, pre-sprouted potatoes two inches below the surface. As the plants grow, fill the soil to the top. Use an early type, such as Red Norland, and you'll get a fine crop of delicious new potatoes.

Most garden centers carry half barrels, either the authentic used ones or new ones built in that style. For the real thing, go to http://www.kentuckybarrels.com, a site powered by Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. It also sells barrel liners for water gardens and dollies for moving soil-filled barrels around.

Wake up, wake up, darlin' Corey. They've torn down your still, but there's gold in them thar barrels.

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