Planting Crops in a Barrel
An innovative chef at Brown-Forman used bourbon barrels to turn inhospitable ground into a urban thriving garden.
LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Urban gardens are not uncommon these days. Still, the garden on the grounds of Brown- Forman in Louisville, Ky., has to qualify as one of the more unusual—and innovative— efforts out there.
The garden sits on ground that once was the foundation of a building that housed a tannery and a hat making factory—land zoned industrial and, presumably, too toxic for growing much of anything.
But Mark Williams, executive chef for the distillery—makers of Jack Daniels, among other spirits—has succeeded by eschewing the native ground for a series of oak bar- rels that hold the organic soil used to grow an amazingly wide variety of fruit, vegeta- bles and herbs.
“Gardening has always been a passion of mine,” said Williams, who has been with Brown-Forman for the past 10 years. “It’s great to be able to use products in the kitchen that you’ve grown yourself.”
An organic effort: Williams currently has 161 half-sized barrels, all once used to make bourbon, in which he grows everything from lettuce and arugula to heirloom tomatoes and strawberries. The garden has its own irrigation system, which can be operated manu- ally or set on a timer to water plants at designated times. And it’s all organic.
“I’ve always grown my own herbs, things that are often dif- ficult to buy locally,” Williams explained. “So when I came to Brown-Forman I asked them if I could have a small plot in which to grow some things.”
What Williams got was a small island bed in a parking lot behind the administration building that had held ornamental plants. The chef got some soil from the city’s beauti- fication program and set about planting what he needed: angelica, Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander, Italian parsley, several types of mint, cherry tomatoes, hot peppers and some edible flowers such as nasturtiums and pansies.
Williams’ little garden slowly evolved, without much comment from company execu- tives. It was only after he tried to grow corn that people began to realize that it might be time to uproot the effort.
“About three and a half years ago the company had torn down a large building on campus, and I asked if I could have that space for the garden,” Williams recalled. “I knew the soil was probably too toxic for me to use, so I came up with the idea of using old bourbon and whiskey barrels, instead of building raised beds.”
For each barrel, Williams drills a couple of drainage holes and then fills the bottom half of the barrel with tree mulch. The top half is a mixture of locally sourced organic topsoil and compost derived from Brown-Forman’s own food scraps. The soil is nourished by organic fertilizers and earthworms.
Going to seed: If that isn’t unusual enough, Williams grows all of his plants from seed.
“I’m really focused on heirloom varieties, and by growing from seed I can guarantee that the plants haven’t been hybridized,” he explained. “I want to let people discover the taste of rare heirloom products. You can’t get those in grocery stores; usually just in the farmers’ markets. And in Louisville, supply does not equal demand.”
Williams added that buying starter plants doesn’t always save time. He said that in an experiment in which he plant- ed tomato seeds at the same time he transplanted young tomato plants, both his plants and the transplants flowered at the same time.
Williams said he is always experimenting with different produce, always searching for new heirloom vegetables to grow. “I’m growing artichokes this year,” he noted. “I grew cotton last year to see what it was like. I also grew peanuts. I’ve tried wild arugula, Italian dandelions, things like that.”
Recently, he acquired from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange some Red Flint Corn, a breed that had disappeared from the U.S.
“Red flint corn was some- thing Italian immigrants had discovered from Native Americans,” Williams explained. “They sent seeds back to Italy. Eventually the breed became extinct in the U.S., but a food writer who traveled to an isolated valley in Italy found red polenta, which was being made with red flint corn.”
Efficient operation: Williams’ project has been a relatively inexpensive one, since the beds are donated. The biggest ongoing expense, he said, is buying the seeds. It takes him about five hours a week to tend his garden.
“The watering is usually automatic, and because the barrels are self-contained we get very few weeds, and those we do get are spotted immedi- ately and removed,” Williams said. “I estimate that I get about $20 worth of produce per barrel each year, and I feel that sometimes we’re getting much more than that. For ex- ample, it costs me $10 a pound for basil, and we use about a pound of basil per week. Last year, I didn’t buy any basil for most of the year. Heirloom tomatoes can cost me $5 a pound; last year, I didn’t buy any from July through October.”
He admitted that there are some drawbacks to his urban garden. Early on, Brown- Forman’s “very efficient” maintenance department turned off the water to the outside once colder weather set in, as it always had done to protect pipes from freezing. The only problem was, Williams’ garden was still pro- ducing. The solution: the chef convinced management to in-stall frost-free faucets. Other challenges included
the fact that there is absolute- ly no shade for the garden, which accelerates the growth of plants that thrive in sun- light, such as lettuces. The re- sult is an abundant harvest but shorter growing season.
“Also, we’re in an industrial setting so this is not your typical bucolic farm scene,” Williams added.
Barreling ahead: Williams plans to expand his garden by adding 25 barrels this year and 25 more next year. His goal is to open the garden up to other Brown-Forman em- ployees by starting a gardening club.
“Employees who join the club will agree to volunteer one hour of time tending the garden,” he said. “In exchange they will get one barrel of their own to plant.”
He also plans to donate tomato and strawberry plants to local school gardens and to other people in the area who have gardens. Finally, he said he is doing research into the idea of planting crops by the phases of the moon. “It makes sense when you think about the effect the moon has on water, but it does restrict planting times,” he noted. “But I want to see if it could work. If it does, then we would be both organic and biodynamic.”