Create Beautiful Barrel Planters in a Weekend

With all the time on my hands due to the COVID-19 quarantine, I decided to start a vegetable garden. Now, I am not known for my success with plants (at all), so this was a new experience for me. From my research, I love the look and idea of raised beds and container gardens, but the expense can be astronomical. So, I looked into some inexpensive ways to grow a garden in a small space but still, reap lots of veggies. After some research, I landed on the idea of barrel planters.

Finding Barrels

Facebook Marketplace ad for a food grade 30 gallon barrel selling for $10

The first task in starting this project was to find the barrels to work with this project. I started by scouring Facebook Marketplace. Facebook marketplace is my goto place for looking for low cost or free raw materials for my projects.

I wanted to make sure that the barrel was used (in order to align with my no-waste wishes) and was food grade since I was going to put plants that would be eaten.

The ones I found close by were $30 and up so I expanded my distance on the search and found one that was about an hour away for $10. I bought two of them. If you are looking for barrels to use, just be patient and flexible and you can find them.

Equipment Needed

In order to remove the top and create the pockets, you will need the following:

  • Measuring Tape
  • Permanent Marker
  • Drill with 3/8″ or similar sized drill bit
  • Jigsaw
  • Heat gun
  • Garden Spade
  • Several 2″x4″ in about 3 ft lengths (if you can use your jigsaw or a miter saw to taper one end to a point (see photo), it is easier. Also save the small pieces of the tapered ends that you cut off.

Removing the Top of the Barrel

The first step is to cut off the top of the barrel (this will make cleaning it out much easier as well). I used a large 3/8″ drill bit and created a starter hole in the top and close to the side lip. Once the starter hold was there, I took my jigsaw with an all-purpose blade and started cutting the top off.

Jigsaw cutting off the top of the barrel
Cutting off the top of the barrel

Measuring the Barrel Planters

I know that I wanted the rows of the pockets about 8″ apart in height so I calculated that leaving about 6 inches from the top and bottom, it meant I could get four rows in. The pockets themselves should be about 4″ wide (makes it easier to use a 2″x4″ to help form the pockets, and it is a good width for the lettuce plants). I measured the circumference of the barrel and saw that if I do 4″ pockets, then putting them 3.5″ apart gave me an even distribution of pockets around the barrel. I started marking them around the barrel and did the same for the other three rows (8″ apart in height).

Tape measure showing 4"
4″ pocket lines

I made sure to stagger/alternate the pockets on each row, so the plants had more height. It also looks more full when the plants grow.

Barrel with 4" lines marked on it in four rows.
Marking all the pocket lines

Cutting Barrel Planters Pockets

Once you have all of the pockets marked, then it is time to cut them. I used the drill with the 3/8″ drill bit and drilled holes on each end of the pocket line. I continued doing this until all pockets were drilled.

Barrel with starter holes shown on the 4" pocket lines
Starter holes with 3/8″ drill bit

The next step was to use the jigsaw to cut on the pocket lines. By placing the barrel on its side and the blade into the starter holes, it was very easy to just cut right on the line ending at the drilled hole. I did this for all of the pockets.

Jigsaw cutting the pocket holes
Cutting the pocket lines

Opening Barrel Planters Pockets

Now that all the pocket holes are cut, it is time to heat up each of the pocket areas and start to form the open pockets. I tried several different methods that I saw online, found one that worked well and fast, and added my own spin to it.

First, you need to work on one pocket at a time and heat up the pocket line on the outside and inside of the barrel with a heat gun. Don’t touch the plastic and try to evenly move the heat gun along the pocket line.

Heat gun aimed at the pocket line
Heating up the pocket lines

After about 5 minutes of this, try putting in the garden space upside down and force it into the pocket. Once in, continue to heat up with heat gun.

Small garden spade used to open pocket line once heated by the heat gun
Using a garden spade to open the heated pockets

Then remove the garden spade and use the tapered end of the 2″x4″ to guide the board into the pocket and open it further. Keep a steep angle on the 2″x4″ so you are not pushing open the bottom part of the pocket too much (will be hard to hold in the soil). You want the top part of the pocket to go in more about the same as the bottom is out.

2"x4" board placed in pocket hole
Using a 2″x4″ to open the pockets further

Keep on with this method until you have used all of the 2″x4″ board pieces you have. This is where the ends come in handy. Take out the board that is the coolest and place the ends in that pocket to allow it to cool and harden even more. Then you can keep going around the barrel to open more pockets.

Several boards in open pocket holes shown from inside the barrel
Many pockets cooling

Once all of the pockets had been opened and cooled, the barrel planter looked great. Now all that was left was to fill it and plant it.

All pocket holes open on barrel
Barrel planter with all pockets open

Filling the Barrel Planter

I did also used the drill to put many holes on the bottom so that water could drain. Once that last step was completed, I filled the bottom with rocks to help the drain holes stay open and then filled the container with potting soil.

Rocks at bottom of barrel
Rocks at the bottom of the barrel planter for drainage

Then I planted some of the seedlings I had been growing. I used arugula and mesclun lettuce mix in the pockets, and I plan to plant a tomato plant on the top in the center and then basil in the top closer to the edges.

Barrel planter with arugula and mesclun lettuce mix planted.
Completed and planted barrel planter