How to Make a Barrel Garden

   Sometimes starting a whole garden with kids can be a daunting challenge. If you start too big, they may lose interest or get burned out, and so can their parents! Why not introduce them to gardening with a small project that is fun to create and easy to maintain? A barrel garden might be just the thing. Using recycled whiskey barrels, found at your local garden center and sometimes on craigslist, you and your children can be planting in no time! Below are some easy to follow steps.

Step 1: Begin by creating a guild for your container. In permaculture, guilds are plant communities that grow in various niches and perform various functions to support the whole. For instance, fruit trees can be underplanted with comfrey, which accumulates calcium and other nutrients for the plants around it, yarrow, which attracts beneficial insects, daffodils, which repel rodents, and they can also be planted beside nurse trees, fast growing species that fix nitrogen in the soil and shelter the young tree. Once the tree is established, the nurse tree is cut back as needed for mulch, causing the roots to die back and release more nitrogen.
close-up of nitrogen fixing nodules on peanut roots
A barrel is too small for a fruit tree, although a small shrub, such as a sunshine blue blueberry, may work. Choose a variety of plants that will not only support each other, but feed your family as well. Strawberries, herbs, greens and nasturtiums are good choices. Cucumbers could climb up a trellis and a cherry tomato could scramble over the side. Even a small winter squash, such as table queen vine acorn squash, would do. Herbs are excellent guild companions, because their strong smell often masks your other vegetables from hungry pests. Snap peas are a good early spring crop that will help fix nitrogen for the next crop. Peanuts planted in early summer would enjoy the loose soil and also fix nitrogen for a fall planting of greens. Oats can also be planted in the fall as a cover crop that will winterkill and provide straw to feed the soil and mulch the strawberries. Plan a succession of mutually beneficial plantings for the whole year. 
 Step 2: Choose a color and paint your barrel. This is lots of fun for the whole neighborhood! Use exterior grade latex.

 Step 3: Not pictured, but fill the bottom third of the barrel with rotting sticks and small limbs. This is a strategy used in hugelkultur and helps keep the soil from drying out. The rotting wood acts like a sponge that holds water even in dry weather. Make sure to water these well.

Step 4: Fill the remainder of your barrel with garden soil.
Step 5: Carefully add transplants or plant seeds.

Step 6: Water well and enjoy! As you can see, this barrel garden is set close to the rabbit hutch, where it can easily be fertilized by rabbit droppings (a natural, slow release fertilizer that is safe to use directly on gardens). And the rabbits can be treated with occasional veggie tops and clippings. The more beneficial relationships you can design into your garden, the healthier the soil will be, and everyone else in the ecosystem as well!

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