California produces approximately 90% of all wine produced in the United States. Many wines are aged in oak barrels, as the oak imparts desirable buttery, or vanilla, flavors to the wine. New barrels impart more flavor to wines than old barrels, and depending on the wine, and the winemaker, some barrels may only be used for 2-3 years before they are permanently retired.
We’re situated within the Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area. As such there’s no shortage of wineries here, or surplus wine barrels that are no longer of use to winemakers.
Last summer we picked up a couple of lightly used French Oak barrels from a local winery. Old wine barrels can be used for a multitude of purposes, and our original intention was to use them as part of a rain barrel project for the garden.
We brought the barrels home, and while working on other projects, we left the barrels outside for a year, where the oak gradually aged in the sun and rain, and the wood shrunk, and weathered to a drab grey color. After the greenhouse was finally in position though, we decided it really was time to put the barrels to use.
As the barrels were now too dry and permeable to be used for a rain barrel, over the weekend, using a circular saw, we split one barrel in half, to make two individual half-barrel planters.
Although the weathered grey color of the oak was attractive in its own right, it didn’t really fit with the redwood raised planters in this part of the garden, or the newly installed redwood greenhouse, so we used a tinted water-based stain to breathe a little life back in to the barrels, and help them to resist the elements over the coming winter months.
Once the stain had dried, using a 7/8 inch spade bit, three holes were drilled in the bottom of the barrels to improve drainage, before filling the barrels with a compost amended soil.
The next challenge was deciding what to plant. My intention, next spring, will be to fill at least one of the barrel planters with an assortment of oregano, thyme, and mint, primarily to contain the mint so it doesn’t run amok all over the gardens.
However, most of the herbs are winding down now that it’s late summer, so instead, for now, as flowers are few and far between in the native garden areas at the moment, we decided to plant a diversity of flowers, to attract a variety of pollinators to this part of the garden.
One of the most notable plants blooming in area garden centers at the moment, is Rudbeckia hirta. I admit, for some time I’ve been quite envious of Gail’s collection of Rudbeckias in her garden, and the plethora of pollinators that visit them. However, as most of our garden area here is devoted to California native plants, we had avoided planting Rudbeckia, until now. The barrels seemed like a perfect place to plant these flowers though, without the risk of them taking over the garden, or outcompeting our native plantings. As a late season bloomer, Rudbeckia will provide a much welcome splash of color amidst the browns of spent native grasses and perennials, and the greens of the established trees surrounding the garden.
These flowers are also a good pollen source for the bees.
Each barrel was planted with Rudbeckia hirta ‘Prairie Sun’, generally grown more as an annual than perennial, so we’ll have to see how well they survive the winter here.
Alongside these vibrant orange-yellow blooms, we also planted a short-flowered honey bee-friendly Salvia longispicata x farinacea ‘Mystic Spires Blue’ for a contrast in color. Note that it didn’t take long for either the honey bees…
…or the Carpenter Bees to find them!
A low-growing Mediterranean native, Asteriscus maritmus ‘Gold Coin’, was planted toward the front of the barrel, complementing the yellow hue of the Rudbeckia, and no sooner was this plant tamped into the soil, than the first Syrphid Flies began to alight on their blooms.
Last but not least, a little Verbena ‘Tapien’, to complement the Salvia, and hopefully cascade down the face of the barrel as it grows. The syrphids also seem to enjoy these blooms, as well as our Woodland Skippers.
So although we didn’t use the barrels for their original intended purpose, while many flowers are fading at the end of summer, we’re hoping this project will keep a little color in the garden as we slide into the shorter days of autumn.
We finished planting out the barrels on Sunday afternoon.
Not typically being much of a container gardener, I have to admit, I’m actually quite impressed with just how much garden life is already attracted to these new planters.
In addition to the bees, hover flies, and butterflies, this morning I found my first Redbacked Jumping Spider (Phiddippus johnsoni) waving at me from a Rudbeckia petal.
A very charming little fellow, who appears to be as excited as we are about these new flowers in the garden.
 California Wine Profile 2010 in California Wine Industry Statistical Highlights. Published by Wine Institute. 2011.