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How-To: Gravity Irrigated Barrel Garden

Barrels can only be used for so long before they become unfit for making wine, so every year wineries get rid of their old barrels and make room for the new. In wine country this abundance of barrels prompts people to get creative with these beautiful industry relics. I decided, like so many others, that I would like to turn a few into planters. Just one problem though: I live on a hill without any water. Carrying water up the hill all the time or lugging a super long hose up each time would be impractical, so I devised a gravity irrigated planter system. That way I only have to fill up the barrel about once a month and in wetter seasons I can also catch rainwater. I thought I’d do a little how-to article for those of you inspired to build a mini-garden yourself!  The total project cost was less than $150 and took me 8 hours to complete.

Note: At the bottom of the article is a link to a printer friendly version if you want to take the instructions into the backyard.

I was able to get all these parts at my local hardware store. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • At least 3 barrels (I used 4 but you can also just build a platform to elevate the water barrel, or just put it on a hill!)
  • 1 silicon barrel bung
  • 1 ¾” hose Pressure regulator (I used a 25psi regulator)
  • 2 ¾” mesh screen filter
  • 1 ¾” hose Y valve
  • 1 ¾” hose valve (like a faucet)
  • 2 adapters to convert ¾” hose to ¼” irrigation tubing
  • 100 ft. ¼” irrigation tubing (I actually only used about 60ft. Make sure not to get the dripping kind!)
  • 6 Tee joints for ¼” irrigation tubing
  • 8 inline drips for ¼” irrigation tubing (1/2 GPH drip rate)
  • 8 end of line drips for ¼” irrigation tubing (again ½ GPH drip rate)
  • 16 irrigation stakes
  • 4 small clips with nails (used to nail TV cable into place)
  • 2 small hook screws
  • Black electric tape
  • Silicon glue
  • 12 cubic feet of potting soil
  • Enclosure to protect against deer and birds (may not be an issue in your backyard but I definitely needed this part)

o   3 10ft. redwood benderboards

o   4 2x2 cedar stakes – 6ft. long ea.

o   ½” Staples

o   ~16 nails

o   Deer netting (I used Deer X brand – 1 package of 100’X7’ was more than enough)

  • Tools:

o   ¾” hole saw and drill

o   Skill saw

o   Hammer

o   Staple Gun

o   Barrel driver (this tool is used to remove the hoops from the barrel, you can use a small crowbar or probably a very large sturdy screwdriver)

o   Measuring tape

I was able to get my barrels for free and you probably can too. My tip is to call wineries around June or July, when they’re cleaning house for harvest. Some wineries have prearranged solutions to deal with their barrels but you’d be surprised how many people would be more than happy to have someone just take them off their hands. Ask for an old bung while you’re at it!

Ok. Now for the how-to part:

Part I: Making the water storage barrel

1.       You’ll need to remove the hoops from one side of a barrel to take the head (end piece) of the barrel off. With the barrel upright, use the barrel driver (crow bar) and hammer to knock the hoops off of the end on the ground (it’s easier to strike down than up), starting with the largest hoop. Move around the barrel in a circle, tapping in different spots on the same hoop as you go. You can watch this episode of Cellar Rat TV, where master cooper Francis Durand, of Radoux Tonnellerie, builds a barrel, to see the technique.

2.       Once the hoops are off you should be able to easily remove the head from the barrel. It’ll probably even just fall out by itself.

3.       Flip the barrel over and now replace the hoops in the same fashion. You’ll need to start with the largest hoop again and start banging it into place before the smaller ones will fit on.

4.       Now that the barrel is back together, with the head off you can drill the holes at the bottom for the valves. Use the ¾” hole saw to drill out two holes on the side of the barrel on the opposite end from the side that you removed the head from. Make sure that these holes are above the head of this end so that you don’t drill into it. You may have to drill the holes slightly above the actual bottom of where the vessel retains water because the metal hoop may be in the way. If the bunghole of the barrel is at 12 o’clock drill one of the holes at 6 o’clock and the other at 9 o’clock (or 3 o’clock depending on whether you want your water barrel to be on the right or left of your planters – you want this hole to be on side that you work on the planters because it will be a work faucet).

5.       Firmly insert the bung into the bunghole (twist it in, don’t bang it in) and seal it with the silicon.

6.       Spread some silicon around the pressure regulator and then bang it into the hole at 6 o’clock from the inside of the barrel (you’ll need to climb in) – it should be a very snug fit. Then seal both inside and outside the barrel with more silicon.

7.       Do the same for the ¾” valve (not the Y valve) into the hole at 9 o'clock.

8.       Allow the silicon to dry for at least an hour.

9.       Insert the ¾” inch mesh filter screens into the end of both pieces on the inside of the barrel.

10.   Screw the ¾” Y valve onto the pressure regulator so that it fits very tightly.

11.   Screw the 2 ¾” to ¼” adapters onto both of the Y valve ends (I needed a wrench to prevent leakage).

12.   (Optional) Take the skill saw and cut a few staves (pieces of wood that make the barrel up) out between the two center hoops of ANOTHER barrel to have a little storage space for your garden tools.

13.   Stack the water barrel on top of the barrel you just cut a few staves out of. I used a couple pieces of wood from the head of the water barrel so that the barrels could be stacked stably. Make sure that the barrels are level and stable. Be careful that they don’t tip over on you or that you don’t pinch your hand. You might need two people for this part. Point the Y valve towards the planter row and the regular valve towards the front (where you’ll work on the planters).

Part II: Making the planter beds

1.       You may want your planters to be bottomless so that the roots can grow into the soil below. If that’s the case then remove the heads first like you did with the water barrel. Do it one at a time, replacing the hoops before you do the other end, otherwise the barrel will fall apart and you’ll never get it back together.

2.       In order to cut the barrel straight across you need to measure. Measure between the two center hoops and divide by two. Then measure that length along the line between two staves and make a mark. Go around the barrel doing this every 2 or 3 staves. Then connect the dots using your measuring tape. You should have a line around the circumference of the widest part of the barrel.

3.       Put the barrel on its side and be extremely careful using the skill saw to cut down the line. I recommend cutting a length, stopping the saw, rotating the barrel a bit more and then resuming – turning as you cut is VERY dangerous.

4.       If you left the heads on, depending on what you intend to plant and what climate you’re in, you may want to drill some holes in the bottom of the planter for water drainage. You can use the hole saw for that.

5.       Arrange the planters in a row right next to your water tower with the Y valve facing the row.

Part III: Making the enclosure - This part is only necessary if deer and birds are an issue in your garden, but if they are I recommend you do this before you hook up the irrigation to your planters.

1.       Cut the bender board into 2 ten foot long pieces and 2 four foot long pieces.

2.       Nail boards to the top of the cedar stakes to make your frame.

3.       Place the frame over the planters and mark where the posts will go.

4.       Dig holes for the posts in the spots that you marked.

5.       Put the posts in the holes and pack in the dirt firmly.

6.       Take the deer netting and staple it around the frame. I used one piece to cover the back and sides and one piece to cover the top. For the front where you work, staple the netting along the top edge only. Then screw the small hook screws into the base of the two posts on the front side. This way this piece can just swing up and out of the way, letting you have full access to your planters, and when you’re done, just fasten the bottom of the net to the two hooks on the bottom of the frame.

Part IV: Hooking up the irrigation

1.       Cut 2 lengths of irrigation tubing long enough so that the tubing reaches from the Y valve to the inside of the netting enclosure.

2.       Cut one end of each tube at a 45 degree angle and insert each tube into each port of the Y valve with the adapters.  Stick the tubes through the netting.

3.       On the inside of the enclosure, take two of the T joints and insert the base of each tee joint into both tubes.

4.       Now insert one end of the irrigation tubing onto any one of the four ports. Run the tubing to the back post, closest to the water barrel, and use a piece of tape to hold it in place. Then run the tubing down the post and use a piece of tape to hold it in place a few inches below the top of the planters. Then run the tube over to the nearest planter bud, and up over the top of the bed, into the center about 6 inches and cut the tube (more is better because you can always go back and trim later).

5.       Repeat this process to measure each of the rest of the tubes to each planter. You should have all four main lines hooked up now.

6.       Use the electrical tape to neatly bundle all four lines and also to attach the lines to the post in both spots you used during the measuring process.

7.       Now take the 4 small clips and nail the irrigation tubing for each planter into place just below the edge of the back of the planter.

8.       Pull the slack out of each line and use more electrical tape to make the tubes neat in the back.

9.       Cut all of the tubes to the same length on the inside of the bed – about 6 inches.

10.   Insert the base of the remaining 4 tee joints into each tube.

11.   Cut 16 6 inch long pieces of tubing.

12.   Attach two pieces of tubing onto each of the 2 ports of each tee joint.

13.   Now attach an in-line dripper onto the end of each tube. Make sure you follow the directions on the package for the correct way to attach the drippers.

14.   Put another length of tube on each dripper.

15.   Attach the end-of-the-line dippers on the end of each of the tubes.

16.   Attach the irrigation stakes next to each of the drippers.

17.   Fill the planting beds with the potting soil and tamp the dirt down.

18.   Set the stakes so that each drip head is about halfway to the center of the planter in each quarter of the barrel.

19.   Pat yourself on the back.

Now go pick out your favorite herbs and veggies and get those beds planted! I did a test and found that you’ll have about 15 hours of irrigation time before you need to fill the barrel again. I think about an hour of drip time per day is enough so that means you can go two weeks without having to refill your system (or more if you get rain)! The faucet on the side is good to fill up a water can to get the leaves wet or rinse your hands after working in the soil. I hope all you do-it-yourself types have fun with this little project. Let me know if you dream up any improvements or awesome variations! Next I’m going to build a little fence out of barrel staves.