Brown-Forman's Barrel Gardens: Q&A and Tour With Chef Mark Williams

Shari Altman

Brown-Forman barrel gardens

Brown-Forman, the company famous for its spirits, is now famous for another reason.  Over the past few years, the company has created a large barrel garden on their campus, in which their bourbon and wine barrels have been recycled as planters.

Brown-Forman Chef, Mark Williams, is the man behind the garden, and he's taking us on a tour of this Kentucky barrel garden.

Brown-Forman chef Mark Williams
Mark planting seeds.
How and when did the idea of a barrel garden arise?

I started a little organic herb garden at B-F to grow fresh herbs for us to use in our Executive Dining Room, The Bourbon Street Café. I included a barrel into the design for that garden. Every year, in addition to herbs and edible flowers, I would plant a few cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, even corn one year. The suggestion was made that if we had a bigger space to use, we could grow some of our own food. We found a part of our corporate campus that suited the use, and since barrels represent our foundation brands of bourbon, whisky and wine, growing in a barrel seemed like a natural step to make. I like growing in the barrels because I can create the perfect soil and water conditions for plants to thrive in.

Brown-Forman barrel gardens What work was involved in making the barrel garden happen?

First, whole barrels had to be cut in half. Then, two drainage holes were drilled, one in the bottom and one on the side. The barrels were filled with organic compost and topsoil, then a drip irrigation system was installed. I grow 90 percent of my crops from organic seeds.

Brown-Forman chef Mark WilliamsDid you have to prepare the barrels in any way to be weather resistant and safe for growing food?

Since the barrels were once used for holding bourbon or wine, the barrels are safe for food growing. We do not treat the barrels with anything to prevent aging. The important thing is to not let the barrels dry out in order to keep them tight in their hoops.

What type of growing medium do you use?

I use a combination of tree mulch or straw (whichever is available), organic top soil, and organic compost. I start with the tree mulch since most plants don’t require great soil depths to grow in. I then top the barrels with about 30 pounds combined of compost and topsoil.

Brown-Forman barrel gardens
Barrels with tomatoes.
What do you have planted in your garden?

I have over 100 varieties of heirloom plants growing in 250 barrels and a quarter-acre field next to the barrels. Many of the varieties are rare or endangered, according to the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste 

How has the Brown-Forman staff responded to the barrel garden? Do employees work in the garden?

Everyone is amazed by the garden, and some are inspired to create their own barrels. We have a Garden Club that helps out in the garden, and each member has a barrel to plant in at the garden.

Brown-Forman chef Mark Williams
Chef Mark Williams harvesting produce for the cafe.
Which vegetables seem to really thrive in a barrel garden?

Because the garden is in full sun all day and sits atop gravel, heat loving semi tropical plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, Mediterranean herbs, okra, and basil do really well.
Is there any vegetable or fruit that you are not growing now that you would like to add to your garden next year?

I am beginning to learn about exotic fruit and herb varieties from around the world, and I’m sure I’ll try some unique crops next year. I will try my hand at growing agave to represent our Tequila portfolio. This year I am growing artichokes, which are not typically grown in Kentucky. I’d like to grow asparagus, but since this takes two years to get established, it will require a bit of patience on my part! I’d also like to get some black raspberry plants, like the ones we use to make Chambord.

Brown-Forman chef and barrel gardens

Do you have any favorite gardening resources or inspirations?

I am a huge fan of Will Allen, first farmer at the White House and founder of Growing Power, who has visited the barrel garden. Also, Eliot Coleman from Maine.

Want to try your hand at barrel gardening? Barrel Depot sells recycled wine barrels as well as barrel halves that can be used as planters in your own garden.


Images via Brown-Forman

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