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Desert Gardening: Drumming Up Color for Under $100

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Lowe’s Desert Southwest gardening expert Scott Calhoun shows how to repurpose a 55-gallon drum into a stunning planter.

blue drum, orange plants
Inside of steel-drum planter partially filled with potting soil

By Scott Calhoun

We’ve begun completely redoing our patio: new furniture, new pots, and a new all-blue color scheme.

One of the pots is a repurposed 55-gallon steel drum I picked up at a salvage yard a few years back. I always thought it would make a great planter for some large shrubs and perennials. But I never got around to planting it up—until this year’s Lowe’s $100 Challenge.

Drainage & Insulation

As with any container you want to plant in, a steel-drum planter needs drainage holes. To accomplish this I poked five holes in the bottom with the pointed end of a digging bar.

Because high-fired ceramic and steel can get really hot in summer (just try picking one up barehanded!), I also wanted to use insulation to protect plant roots. I used a few cans of insulating foam sealant around the inside of the steel drum, as you can see in the photo right. This form is really sticky, and when hardened becomes permanent, so avoid getting it on your fingers or fabrics. Also I restrict it to containers used for ornamentals rather than edibles, just to be safe.

container planting supplies

Plants, Soil and Supplies

When I’m looking for plants for a really big container, I want things large enough that they don’t look minuscule and insignificant inside the pot. After walking around the Lowe’s garden center, I went with a bold orange/chartreuse theme to contrast with all the cool shades of blue in our pots and furniture. Also I knew the design would be stronger if I limited myself to probably less than five species of plants.

I ended up getting the following plants in fairly large container sizes, so they’d be big from the get-go: bells of fire (Tecoma alata x Tecoma stans ‘Bells of Fire’); coral fountain (Russelia equisetiformis); Marguerite sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Marguerite’); and Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima).

For soil I prefer a fast-draining cactus/succulent mix, even when I’m planting shrubs and perennials. For this project I purchased Miracle-Gro Cactus, Palm, & Citrus Soil.

close up of tecoma flowers, orange

Situating the plants

It might be cliché, but the formula for containers—“thriller, filler, spiller”—works almost every time. When I’m planting I always plant the largest plant first. Because my container likely is viewed mostly from one side, I planted ‘Bells of Fire’ (thriller) at the back of the pot. The two mounding coral fountains (filler) occupy the middle of the pot, and the Marguerite sweet potato vine (spiller) takes up the front and sides, where it can trail over the rim of the pot, softening the look.

Pots, lounge chair

As you can see from the photos, I went for a strong chartreuse/orange color scheme, which contrasts nicely with the light-blue drum pot.

Out of order

When I’m working on a garden redo, typically I plant up the containers last rather than first, as I’ve shown here. But maybe I’ve been wrong about this all along. Perhaps I should start by planting up a really cool container as inspiration and motivation to finish the project. That said, the lounge chair next to the now leafy and flowery drum pot looks like a nice place to sit and enjoy a cold beverage.

What recycled objects have you used as containers in your garden?

See more by this author.