Turn a Whiskey Barrel Planter into Art

Photo: Susan Belsinger

A few years ago, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens contacted me to see if I had any ideas for chapters for a new book Designing an Herb Garden. Tina Marie Wilcox and I proposed and wrote two chapters for them—one was a “Grey-and-Green Garden of Mediterranean Herbs”—and the other was “An Herb Garden for Tea Time.” The latter garden that we designed was a tea party garden and it was planted in the shape of a teapot. While researching and growing herb plants for tea, we were inspired by the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland. Tina Marie and friends created huge cups and saucers out of hypertufa for a tea party garden and I decided to use the ready-made shape of whiskey barrels and fashion them into cups, a sugar bowl and creamer.

I probably bought and planted my first half-whiskey barrel as a container garden more than 20 years ago. Since then, I have had a number of them and my daughters had their own first gardens in whiskey barrels when they were in nursery school. I’d say that a whiskey barrel, exposed to the elements lasts as a plant container for about 10 years max.

whiskey barrel container painted yellow and blue with decorative handles
Photo: Susan Belsinger

My idea was to make them pretty and decorative, and hopefully prolong the deterioration of the wood. Over the years, I have learned that you place these large containers where you want them, before filling them with soil. Also, after having had them rot from sitting on the ground, I know that they should be placed on bricks or wood blocks to raise them off of the ground and to have air circulation beneath them. Without drilling extra holes in the bottom, drainage can be a problem, and a constant moist bottom will rot or give way in a few seasons.

Generally whiskey barrels have been burned on the inside so they are black and charred and smell of charcoal and strongly of whiskey. So much so that, I once thought of informing the owner of the feed store/garden center where I bought four of them—that his young teenage employees who had wrestled them into the back of my van—had been drinking on the job. I had to laugh at myself on the way home as I was near about overcome by the heavy whiskey scent permeating the vehicle. Charcoal is good for plants, so I don’t try to clean out the inside of the barrels (not sure about the alcohol fumes though!)

The following step-by-step instructions are for cleaning up, priming and painting these barrels to make colorful container gardens. The half-barrels are pretty heavy, so I get someone to help me lift and set them, or I sort of turn them up on their bottom edge and roll them to move them (only when empty). You’ll need to do this work in a place where it doesn’t matter if you get things dirty or drip paint, or spread a drop cloth, old shower curtain, sheet or tarp to work on. It takes a few days from start to finish—waiting for the paint to dry—so check the weather forecast or be prepared to spread a protective cover overall if need be.

Note: For the wire brushing and drilling, wear protective goggles and a dust mask.

two colorful whiskey barrel container with different decorative handles
Photo: Susan Belsinger

Instructions for creating a tea party container garden from half whiskey barrels

1.  When you bring the barrels home, place them in a workplace, setting them upside down on some boards, so that their top rims are raised off the ground.

2.  Generally the metal barrel hoops are rusted and rough, so use a wire brush to clean them off and smooth them out. Wire brushing removes rust flakes, rough surfaces, and pockmarks from the metal hoops and excess dirt and splinters from the wood surface.

3.  After wire brushing the entire outside of the barrel, use a “tack” cloth to remove excess residue.

4.  Secure the metals hoops to the wooden barrel staves with “tek” screws, which self drill into metal since they have a drill-tip point.

plant container painted purple and blue and designed to look like a tea cup
Photo: Susan Belsinger

5.  Drill extra drainage holes in the bottom of the barrel—use at least a 1-inch diameter spade drill bit for wood. Make at least 3, or up to 5 drainage holes, about 1-inch in diameter.

6.  Prime (I used a water-based primer and sealer applied with a fairly wide brush) the metal barrel hoops first to cover all rust and coat the metal well. Be sure to get the primer in the cracks where the metal meets the wood surface. After coating the metal, prime the wood. Do not paint the bottom of the barrel; let it breathe.

7.  Once dried, turn the primed barrels right-side up and neatly paint the rims (it will show if you are messy). Touch up the spots that you have missed once the barrels are inverted. (Tip: Sitting on a large rubber ball is the right height for working on barrels at ground level; it is comfortable and easily rolls around the barrel as you work.)

8.  When ready to paint, place the barrels, bottoms-up, on a covered surface. It is easier to paint on a higher level and there is less chance of dirt splashing up on them when they are off of the ground.

plant containers made to look like tea cups
Sugar and creamer. Photo: Susan Belsinger

9.  I chose bright pastel Easter-egg colors for the outdoor garden and used a latex acrylic exterior trim and siding paint (more breathability than an oil-based paint.)  If you have enough paint, two coats will last longer than one.

10. I made sketches for the designs I wanted to apply to the barrels; at first I thought maybe floral or viney, but decided to use ancient elemental symbols. Then I played with color combinations and design on paper first.

11. I made cardboard cutouts for handles first—this allowed me to fool around with different shapes and sizes—once I figured out the right design I positioned it to make sure that it fit in the right place (can’t attach these onto the metal hoops—had to attach to wood).

12. The finalized cardboard templates for handles were laid on scraps of 1 1/2-inch thick birch or maple wood and traced. Then the shapes were cut out with a jigsaw.

13. The shaped handles were also primed and painted with two coats of paint. They were attached from the inside with stainless or galvanized flat-head screws 2 1/2 to 3-inches long.

14. I tested designs and colors with paint and various brushes on wood scraps. I chose four colors for the four containers and used the following combinations: yellow sugar bowl with turquoise air symbols; orange creamer with yellow fire symbols; the teacups are fuchsia with turquoise earth signs and turquoise with orange water signs.

garden tea party from another angle
Photo: Susan Belsinger

15. Once the paint has dried, place the empty tea party barrels where you want them. I raise them up off of the deck or the earth by placing 3 bricks under the outer edge of the barrels. This allows them to breathe and drain and the bottom will not rot as quickly.

16. I place a broken cinderblock in the bottom of each barrel; it fills the barrel, adds drainage, and lime.

17. I mix Pro-mix and potting soil with humus and amendments to fill the barrels. Fill barrels with soil mix and water it in; it takes a lot of soil to fill one of these! Now you are ready to plant your tea party garden with tea herbs!

Tea herbs for containers

lemon herbs growing in a painted container
Lemon herbs for tea garden. Photo: Susan Belsinger

Herbs for the tea garden are chosen for their flavor and fragrance in making tea.  There are many herbs that make delicious tea, but not all of them are suitable for growing in a whiskey barrel. Although I love bee balm, rose petals, and Echinacea petals to float in a cup of tea, these herb plants are a bit too large for these containers. I figure about 5 to 6 plants per whiskey barrel is comfortable, depending on the plants and their size. Since these plants are in a container, they will be dependent on you for water, and I recommend fertilizing at least once a month. Most of these herbs are perennial herb plants—some are tender—so they need to be brought indoors for the winter in my zone 7 garden.  I replant the annuals every year. One teacup is planted with all lemon herbs. And of course, the sugar bowl has Stevia in it. Some other herbs that are planted in my tea barrels are as follows.

  • Lemon Basil and Cinnamon BasilOcimum basilicum ssp.
  • Calendula Calendula officinalis
  • Catnip Nepeta cataria
  • Chamomile, GermanMatricaria recutita
  • Chamomile, Roman Chamaemelum nobile
  • Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis
  • LemongrassCymbopogon citratus
  • Lemon ThymeThymus x citriodorus
  • Lemon VerbenaAloysia citriodora
  • Mints Mentha ssp.
  • Orange MintMentha aquatica
  • PeppermintMentha x piperita ‘Mitcham’
  • Red Mint or DoublemintMentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’
  • SpearmintMentha spicata ‘Kentucky Colonel’
  • Pineapple SageSalvia elegans
  • RosemaryRosmarinus officinalis ssp.
  • SageSalvia officinalis ssp.
  • Scented GeraniumPelargonium ssp.
  • SteviaStevia rebaudiana
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