rain barrel

Repurposed: A New Role For The Barrel

For years, I had a funky wooden rain barrel, as well as a couple of plastic garbage cans that had been modified into water storage devices. The wooden one was more ornamental than practical, but was a fixture of the place.

After new eavestroughs and downspouts were installed, the wooden barrel no longer had a function as a “rain barrel.” For several months it sat there unused, until I decided, coincidentally, to try growing blue poppies (Meconopsis) in containers once more. The soil in my garden is sandy and too full of tree roots for these fussy (but gorgeous) plants. It’s hard to maintain sufficient nutrient levels without also encouraging tree root proliferation.

Several years ago, I tried growing blue poppies in 1 and 2 gallon plastic pots, but that attempt resulted in crown rot and failure. So as a last ditch effort, I decided to try really big containers that will have better internal drainage than the plastic pots. Enter the barrel, in the form of two half-barrels.

After sawing around the middle, each half was furnished with drainage holes.

Half barrel drainage holes

I positioned the half-barrels in semi-shady spots in the garden, setting them on chunks of concrete and making sure they were more or less level.

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Then I mixed up what I hope is a suitable growing medium — compost, sand, manure, peat moss, kelp meal, slow-release fertilizer, some actual soil (also known as “dirt”), and a bit of commercial container mix as insurance. The compost and soil are in the bottom parts of the half-barrels, with the other stuff on top. This is to avoid the prolific crop of volunteer seedlings that always sprouts from my compost.

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Once the soil was in place, I dug up the six surviving Meconopsis plants and removed astonishing mats of maple feeding roots from each root ball. No wonder there have been almost no blooms the last couple of years! The only roots in their new barrel quarters will be their own. I hope they appreciate this by settling in and putting forth some new leaves before going into dormancy.

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The trick will be overwintering the dormant plants. In their native environment, precipitation is lowest in winter, highest in summer — the opposite of what we have here. Watering containers in summer is easy, but keeping excess rain out of the half-barrels in winter will probably involve some sort of charming roof-like structures that will allow air circulation. Covering with (ugly) plastic sheets, I suspect, would ensure permanent dormancy, otherwise known as death.

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The pea-gravel mulch is intended to protect the crowns from excessive wetness and fungal evils, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s a good idea. That’s the thing about gardening — you do something that seems like a great idea, but as soon as it’s done, doubts creep in. Trouble is, you have to wait for months to see how things work out.

I’m hoping the barrel method will work. It has been done, in a garden just across Juan de Fuca Strait.

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