vegetables growing in barrels

Modular Veggie Growing with Cut Off Barrels

Text: about a 1 minute read. Lots of pictures.

This article (and the one to follow) describes our latest ideas for growing the kinds of veggies that caterpillars love as much as we do. 


Three years ago we built a garden area covered with a veggie net, about 6 by 5 meters. The image below was taken inside it.  

Rows of food plants growing inside a netted garden

We got lots of food from that covered garden, and we learned lots in the process. But several things always bothered me about it. 

The size of net needed to cover that area, with enough of it on the ground to be able to weigh it down to keep bandicoots out, was quite large. So it was cumbersome and hard to maintain. It got moldy, and it started getting long tears in it so it had to be periodically taken off and stitched up.

Going under the (often wet and heavy) net to enter the garden was tedious. Because of that, we didn't go into the garden as often as we could have so it was never tended as well as it could have been.

And finally, what would we do with all that nylon when it really started to fall apart and couldn't be mended any more? 

I still have that last question ringing in my ears, haven't answered that one yet. But I'm excited to share our ideas for tackling some of the other challenges we've found that come along with larger gardens run by families who have lots of other things to do besides taking care of the garden.

Going modular

A few months ago, we decided we needed something more "modular" that could be built and tended to in small sections. This article (and the next one) is all about what we decided to try.

half barrels growing veggies with protective netting

Half barrels and mulberry branches

What you see in the image above is a row of half 200-litre drums (known as 55-gallon drums in the US and 44-gallon drums in the UK). They have veggies growing in them, and mulberry branches holding up a veggie net over them. 

In this article, I'll tell you all about preparing the barrels. Then in the next one I'll tell you about the branches and the net.

Preparing the barrels

marking a line around the middle of a barrel

Above: a drum with its bottom and top cut off (the tops and bottoms are in the background) being measured and marked for cutting in half. Helpers at the ready, tools poised. 

cutting a barrel in half

Anonymous helpers doing the cutting. The saw is a Makita reciprocating saw.

row of half barrels with no bottoms, sitting on layer of cardboard

Row of cut drums, placed on cardboard to stop the weeds from growing up the sides quite as fast as they otherwise would.  

making holes in cardboard with garden fork

Holes in the cardboard to allow for drainage and the movements of small critters right away, rather than only after the cardboard decomposes.

Filling the barrels with soil

Filling with soil. This soil happens to be fill that a kind truck driver agreed to dump in our front paddock when council were scrapping the road edges near our place a while ago.  

covering soil with a layer of chicken litter

A wheelbarrow load of semi-composted chicken litter from the chook pen going on top of the soil. ("Chook pen" = Australian for "chicken pen.")

Below: ready for mulching, planting, and a veggie net.

(And watering, but since we were doing this in our rainy season, the rain came reliably right on time. We will set up some kind of barrel irrigation system for our short dry periods. When we do, I'll tell you all about it.)

row of cut off barrels filled with soil and chicken litter

Smaller 'n' slower might be better

A principle of Permaculture is to "use small and slow solutions," instead of big, fast ones, where-ever possible. In hindsight, our effort to build a big garden instead of a small one backfired on us.

We did grow a lot of food, and we learned a lot, but over time the bigness of that structure and the task of accessing and tending to what was inside it wore us down and gradually the weeds took over our garden while the mold took over our net. 


I can now run across the grass right before a meal, lift a very small section of insect netting, pluck out just what I need, and be back in the kitchen a few minutes later. It makes harvesting a pleasure instead of a chore. 

No wet drizzle anywhere on me from creeping under a heavy net, and no tricky replacing of bandicoot barriers with one hand while hanging onto dinner with the other hand. I'm much more likely to visit the garden often this way, which in the long run will add up to a better cared for garden.

Scale and convenience

With the barrels, I don't need to square my shoulders, take a deep breath, and try to make myself start on an entire 30 square meters all at once. I can take care of just one or a few barrels.  So much less daunting.

Coming soon...

Next, our row of barrels is going to need a framework of some kind to hold up an insect net. What could we use that's readily available, inexpensive, and preferably bio-degradable at the end of its lifetime?

I'll tell you all about that, in the next post πŸ™‚

Please leave a comment below

What do you think? Please tell us...

  • I hadn’t thought to use a reciprocating saw. I’ve been using a jigsaw to cut out the inner portion of the top, leaving a rim (around which I put window screen, using the barrels as rainwater catchment.) But it gets dicey, and I’ve broken some blades. Do you think the reciprocating saw would work better in that case? (it certainly has a longer blade) Does it snag on the plastic much? (as jigsaw and hole saws do)

    • I’m the last person in the world to know anything about any kind of saw Alina, but I can’t imagine us having cut all those barrels without the reciprocating saw. It doesn’t seem to snag, but I’m the barrel holder, not the saw-wielder…

  • What is the reason you didn’t just drill holes in the bottoms and leave them as is, for planting? (seems like less work, and they stay more sturdy) What do you plan for the bottoms?

    • Hi Alina, it’s true they would be more sturdy. But most importantly our climate can be very, very wet and we wanted to be sure we would have the best possible drainage.

      We also wanted to allow the soil in the tubs to become part of the soil around them, so if for example we end up doing something like taking out every fourth drum and planting a nitrogen fixing tree there, or other similar ideas that we have floating around, then the soil in the barrels would share and benefit too.

      Unfortunately we don’t have a good idea for how to use the barrel bottoms and tops… do you have an idea? I feel sure that all that strong plastic could be put to some good use, but I don’t know what!!

      • Nothing comes to mind at the moment. But I’ve found that if I keep stuff long enough…I can find a use for most of it, eventually! (In the meantime, however, the property looks like a hoarder’s house, which I suppose, in a way, it kind of is. haha)

        • We have the exact same challenge… weighing up our conviction that surely we’ll find a use for that some day, against our desire to have reasonably tidy and functional surroundings and storage areas!

    • yes, well, it was YOUR idea, so no wonder it’s a good idea πŸ™‚

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