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The lock, stock and barrel of wine-barrel gardening

“Death and life were not

Till man made up the whole,

Made lock, stock and barrel

Out of his bitter soul”

— W.B. Yeats, “The Tower,” 1926


This passage comes from one of Yeats’ longest poems, in which the Irish poet who had just turned 60 grapples with aging and failing health. His mention of “lock, stock and barrel” shows that the expression, meaning “everything,” was well known to readers.

There are dozens of common sayings that use the word “barrel,” including a barrel of laughs (or fun), one bad apple spoils the barrel, scrape the bottom of the barrel, sound as a barrel, more fun than a barrel of monkeys, like shooting fish in a barrel, cash on the barrel, over a barrel, barrel fever, and crooked as a barrel of fish hooks.

I could go further, but suffice to say that barrels have figured largely in the English language, just as barrels have long been used to age one of the world’s most beloved liquid refreshments — wine. I, too, enjoy drinking wine, and I also enjoy growing plants in wine barrels.

I’ve had success growing a variety of flowers, herbs, vegetables, shrubs and dwarf-sized trees planted in wine barrels in my garden at home and at The Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm. (Shakespeare also mentioned barrels a few times in his works, including a “beer barrel” in “Hamlet”). The aged oak and metal rings of a wine barrel create a rustic look, and I like the fact that I’m growing plants in a unique container that reflects Southern Oregon’s wine culture and my own enthusiasm for wine.

Like other containers, wine barrels offer a place for plants when space is limited. They look great with a mixture of ornamental and/or edible plants, particularly those that can be trellised, like my sweet peas, and those that trail over the sides of the barrel, such as strawberries. I like to place a tall plant in the middle of a wine barrel — I call it a “thriller” because it’s often the focal point of a container garden — and then I surround it with a variety of shorter “filler” plants and a few “spillers” around the edges.

A typical upright wine barrel cut in half is about 27 inches in diameter at the top and about 19 inches tall; it will hold about 4 cubic feet of soil. This will provide plenty of room for a wide variety of plants to grow well, from shallow-rooted salad greens to deeper-rooted plants such as tomatoes. The thick oak slats also provide protection from the heat and are frost resistant.

I don’t recommend using fake wine barrels for a container garden. The slats are not as thick and the barrels are not as sturdy as those intended to hold wine. It’s frustrating to have to transfer a mature plant out of a barrel that has fallen apart.

To create a healthy wine barrel garden, select the site where the barrel will be placed — they are very heavy when filled with soil. It’s a good idea to set the barrel on casters or feet to facilitate water drainage. Some gardeners recommend spraying the inside of the barrel with apple cider vinegar to prevent fungus.

Drill several 3/4-inch holes in the bottom of the barrel. Cover the drainage holes with screen, landscaping cloth or hardware cloth to prevent clogging and to keep the plant roots from escaping the barrel and rooting into the ground underneath.

Some gardeners suggest adding an inch of pea gravel, vermiculite/perlite or sand to the bottom of the barrel for extra drainage. You may want to add more if you’re growing shallow-rooted plants and don’t want to fill the barrel with soil.

Fill the barrel halfway with a mixture of soil and compost, press down gently, and then fill in the remainder of the soil/compost mixture, leaving 2-3 inches at the top. It’s a good idea to place the plants where you want them before setting them into the holes, keeping in mind that container-grown plants can be spaced together more closely than plants grown in raised beds. I like to add mycorrhizae, a beneficial fungus, to the planting holes to help the plant roots absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil. After planting, be sure to tamp down the soil around the plants so they are firmly grounded.

Providing adequate moisture is key to growing a vibrant wine barrel garden. Container plants usually need more water than ground-grown plants (unless you’re growing xeriscape plants); however, I recommend saturating the soil until water drains from the bottom of the barrel once or twice a week, rather than surface watering more frequently. Adding a layer of mulch to the topsoil helps to retain moisture and prevent weeds.

So if you’re over a barrel about where to plant more flowers, herbs or veggies, consider growing them in a wine barrel. The recommendations I’ve provided are sound as a barrel and you’ll have barrels of fun.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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