Introduction: The 55 Gallon Drum Garden: We Have the Drums, Now What Do We Do?

About: I'm a gal who does a little of everything when it comes to creative and home arts, everything except fix things which is my husband's gift not mine. I have a penchant for wanting correct information, love to …

If you have access to food grade plastic drums they make great veggie garden containers. Usually they can be found for $10 to $30 per 55 gallon drum online from suppliers and on Craig's list. We were blessed to find some for FREE.
When my husband made the decision we were going to use 55 gallon food grade drums for our vegetable garden, we had to figure out how to make them work for our space.

First we took into consideration the amount of space we had before cutting them all in half and measured them so we sort of had an idea of the square footage, ballpark works okay at this point. We ended up needing to use 8 drums (16 half drum containers) for this garden.
We cut them in half by marking the mid-line of the drum and using a circular saw setting the drum on it's side and rotating it as it was cut. The edges weren't too rough and the areas that were, we just used a bastard file to shave off anything that might scratch us while we gardened.

With all of them cut in half, we set them out to ensure we that we liked how they looked and that we would still be able to move through them with ease before I started working on a concept drawing. By the way, even if you've drawn up a design to scale its a good idea to do this as what works on paper, sometimes needs a little adjusting to get it to work well and if there is something you didn't think of you can make adjustments.
NOTE: Do this BEFORE filling them with soil so you can move them around.

Step 1:

Using the Draw portion in WORD on my computer, I was able to come up with an initial concept drawing. I encourage you to give this a try if you have never done it before, it's easier than you might think. You don't have to add all the color I did. You can add a key to communicate what everything is to someone else who may be having to read your design, it is a form of communication. And don't do what I did and think you can remember everything either, it's surprising how quickly we forget things in a project like this. Notes on overall size of the space and other measurements are always valuable when planning. but just have it so you know what it is you are looking at. Landscape designs are just a way to communicate an idea so if you are working with someone, be sure they understand what they are looking at too. This will also serve as a valuable tool if and when changes need to be made.

Step 2: Prepping the Barrels to Paint

The next step is to drill holes in the bottom: 9, 1/2 inch holes is what we drilled. I recommend setting them in from the edge about 2" with 2 of them in the center about 6" apart. If you have a ridge along the bottom of the drum you can drill them there if you want, that's what we did. If you do it this way just be carfull as you begin to drill that the bit doesn't slip. These drums drill relatively easily but it does take some care. And the holes don't have to be "exactly" the same distance apart, just approximately. They aren't for show, they only have to do their job of letting the water drain out.

To prep the drums for painting they needed to be cleaned of dirt or other substances that wouldn't allow the paint to adhere properly. It was recommended they be cleaned with vinegar to cut any waxy finish they might have too, so for these drums it was a two part process, wash first with a good soap, rinse well with water, then spray with vinegar and rinse well again and turn out to dry.
For a drying platform to keep our washed drums clean, we set up saw horses with 2x6s on top, leaving airflow space between the boards to help the drums dry faster. This worked for the washed drums and for when they would later need to dry after painting.

Step 3: Painting the Barrels

Once the barrels were dry we could paint them. We did this using Rustoleum Painter's Touch 2x Ultra Cover Paint + Primer spray paint. It worked okay and the colors were awesome, brushing paint on all those drums would have been so much faster and easier. And because it was spray paint, they needed to be sprayed twice to give a good even coat. My husband is not as not patient when painting and certainly not as picky as I am, so he only gave them one coat. It made some difference to me, but not enough to make it worth applying a second coat. Once the soil was in them I could barely see the imperfections and could relax. Good enough is good enough sometimes.

Step 4: Problem Solving Our Container Garden

Once the barrels were dry it was time to set them up. We had some problems that we needed to solve in building this container garden.
Tree roots that invade the garden space every year
Moles that love nothing more than to create runs where ever the soil is watered
Making sure whatever the containers sat on would not back plug the drainage holes (I had this happen to a large ceramic planter once and the results were not pretty and boy did it stink when that muck was drained out!).

Our solution was the following:
Level the area as best as possible
Use landscape fabric on the bottom layer
On top of that we placed 1x1 foot square cement stepping stones creating a 2 foot wide pad to set the containers on. (see picture) 4 of the stepping stones form the perfect square pad beneath each container and allowed for the drainage we needed to occur. So this will work for one or one hundred containers, whatever your need is.

Another great thing about the stepping stones is when we get ready to redo this garden, and we are planning to, we can use them in a different configuration or for something else completely, like to create a walkway or small patio for the barbecue or a potting area.

Step 5: The Final Set Up and Some Lessons Learned

The final set turned out to b to have them with space between and colors alternating. This had draw backs and benefits. The benefits:

  • There was room to place smaller containers between each plant, which made it more interesting and less busy visually. (I'm not a fan of alternating colors like this personally, but to each his own.)
  • We could also get all the way around the plants in the barrels, making harvesting and grooming very easy. I suffer chronic back pain with some disability so this was awesome!
  • The soil warms faster in raised containers making it great for multiple season gardening.
  • Each container could be watered as the plants in it needed water so plants needing less water wouldn't be overwatered.

The draw backs:
In hot weather the soil in exposed containers heats up too much and plants go into stasis until it cools down to a temperature they can deal with. Some plants just fail completely when this happens so be fore warned. (If you live in a hot climate keep this in mind.)

If temperatures are above 90 F and stay that way for days it will negatively impact the growth and production of vegetables. They will stop growing and things like tomatoes will stop producing and their flowers will die (bud blast is the term for that).
Watering is harder to manage and keep up with. Overwatering and underwatering are more likely to occur so be careful to check the soil to see what is really needed. Also learn to read the plants for signs of stress.
Drip irrigation is a little harder to do than standard rectangular beds.

We had a very hot, dry summer that began early here. I became a slave to the hose because of the heat. Without shade cloth to cover the large area it was at least 10 to 15 degrees hotter than a grassy yard would have been. (dry bare soil, decks and driveways are notoriously hotter so take care where you site your containers and plan accordingly.

Step 6: Chosing Color

I want to back peddle here for a moment and as you a question and talk about color.
Who cares what color you paint your containers? YOU should. You have to live with the results so chose colors you like. Example, our cheerful blue and chartreuse containers were awesome and happy looking. My husband didn't like the chartreuse which he called yellow. Because I'm the colorist in the family and he decided how to set them up I gave that as my argument for me being the best one to make this decision. I was going to be the one out in it all the time; I know this. (Marriage is like that you know, so chose your battles wisely while planning.)

Two colors may not be enough. In decorating there are often several colors chosen, a major, a second and an accent color. My inspiration for the color in the first place was those two purple Adirondack chairs and I kept feeling the need to get that color into the working garden space somehow. So back to the store with the other two colors in hand I went and found the perfect purple!. The niggling thought of needing more color went away. It turned out fabulous.

If you are insecure about all this color stuff just remember, it's only paint and metal and plastic things are easy to paint again at little cost. When you do go to paint them be sure they are scrubbed clean of debris and loose bits of paint and go for it! It's one spray paint and you can paint them a different color if the first one doesn't work. The purple container is actually a metal container that was an indoor home decor planter in it's former life that I picked up for a couple bucks at a yard sale (SCORE!). Get creative, be brave, it can be amazing!

Step 7: The Cheerful Color Results

After everything was painted and set up this is what it looked like. It's a little busy for some folks I know, it is for me too, but it's cheerful and was such a happy looking garden all summer and we all need more happy in our lives right?!

Step 8: How to Place Arched Trellises (Pipe Arbors)

Because of our limited space we needed to grow things vertically, and also because I don't bend over well like I used to. I'd used those inexpensive wedding arches in the past and discovered they work super for growing cucumbers on. It was a total accident that I can't take any credit for. These sell at craft stores for under $15 new when they are on sale or far less at yard sales and thrift stores. I've seen them for free on Craig's list too.

To make this work properly we had to dry fit the arches in the containers. We set two containers side by side just far enough apart to place the arbor inside both and with just enough room to plant at the foot of the arbor on each side. This was going to be our measurement for how far to set the containers apart and the width of our path. This had to be done BEFORE we did anything else to keep from having to do things twice. (I'm not giving measurements here because not all arbors are the same width and you may chose to make your own to fit narrower pathways.)

Once the arbors were installed I wrapped twine up and around the cross members of each arbor to fill in the void space and add something more for the plants to grab on to as they climbed. The twine served as a way to wrap the stems of the cherry tomato stems, supporting them as they grew and keeping them going the direction I needed them to. It worked slick and looked amazing. It also gave our cucumbers more to climb on, allowing me to be able to train the lateral shoots they send out, keeping everything up off the ground.

(Note where the trellis is set in the chartreuse barrel and how the twine is wrapped around each cross section. )

Step 9: Cucumbers Growing on Arch Trellises

This is what the cucumbers looked like as they grew up. It is probably the best way I've ever tried to trellis cucumbers as all I had to do was go out every few days, harvest fruit and guide the stems to support. I really love the addition of the purple too. If you don't want to see the arches, paint yours black. Black disappears visually in the garden. It's a trick designers use often and works great.

Step 10: Hog Wire Tomato Cages for Containers

I've used a lot of different cages for tomatoes over the years, but I keep coming back to this basic wire cylinder cage made out of 6" square fencing wire, or hog wire as it is sometimes called. We cut it into sections and roll it up, securing it all up and down it's cut ends to ensure a good sturdy wire cage cylinder.

The hog wire is great with the larger openings you can get a hand through that make it easier to
access fruit. Because you don't have to reach through an opening that has been cut out, there is no danger of being lacerated by cut wire while harvesting. The only place that might be a concern is where the cylinder is tied together, so file those sharp edges down if you wish.

These cylinders fit easily in the barrels (see photo) and once in place are staked into place using 3, 12 inch wooden stakes. Drive the stakes into the soil at equal distances apart and lash them cage to using baling twine.
This will ensure the cage will stay upright in wind and hold up the taller indeterminate tomatoes.

We experience a lot of winds where we live in late August through the fall, and this is the only wire cage system that has EVER worked without collapsing.

Step 11: Taking Advantage of Pathways and Views

One thing I wanted to mention too is that, even though this is mostly about the technical aspects of construction and utility, I want to encourage you to also think about views, especially with respect of the pathways and if you use arbors. This might be a new concept for you but it's one that is worth exploring. This is a view of the whiskey barrels that hold my herbs, which are my favorite plants and something I wanted to capture a good view of in the design of this container garden. So see, it doesn't have to be all about utility. Make that path go somewhere, have it lead you on to other parts of the garden/landscape, a destination. Enjoy the journey.

Step 12: Some Afterthoughts and Encouragement

This has been an education for us this year as to what works, what doesn't and how much we actually want to grow. We have found ourselves faced with challenges that, sometimes have stolen time and energy from other things we needed to take care of. So as you get your barrels, ask yourselves this, how much time, how much strength, what do you want to grow and how much space do you have to grow in? These barrels can work for apartment balconies, for senior centers, for kids, who would love the bright colors and could have their own little container garden, as well as so many other things. But a warning here, if you get too excited, take on too much at once it can be overwhelming and be less fun and quickly become too much work. That was something we experienced this year or rather something I've been working on teaching my husband, who has never really done the real work of the garden himself.
So be kind to yourself, grow what you love, what you will use, and what brings you joy. And share what you grow and create with others. A shared garden is a blessed garden.