Galvenized tubs form the backbone of this organic container garden behind this North Carolina restaurant.
Story by Steve Bender and Rebecca Bull Reed

Setting: Behind the Canyon Kitchen restaurant in the Lonesome Valley community in Cashiers
Designer: John and Marcia McCarley, McCarley Horticulture; thegardenway.blogspot.com
Size: 22 by 50 feet

There's nothing fishy about this garden—well, except for the way it started. When the Lonesome Valley community in western North Carolina recruited renowned chef John Fleer to head its Canyon Kitchen restaurant, the chef asked for a garden out back to supply fresh, organically grown vegetables.

Luckily, the owners of the property, the Jennings family, had once operated a trout farm at Lonesome Valley. Some of the original galvanized fish tubs used to grow fingerling trout were hidden in an old shed when garden designer John McCarley discovered them. Most measured 18 feet long, 21 inches wide, and 18 inches high with a drain in the bottom like that in a sink. They would form the backbone of a unique container garden.

The Big Idea
With Laurel Knob (a 1,200-foot granite face of the Blue Ridge Mountains) standing in the distance, John knew the vegetable garden had stiff competition for visitors' attention. So he arranged his fish-tub planters just behind the restaurant in eight evenly spaced rows, forming a compelling geometric pattern. Many of the salad greens grown, such as lettuce, Swiss chard, and kale, are anything but green, offering leaves and stems of red, yellow, orange, and purple. When framed with colorful annuals and perennials growing in half whiskey barrels and other pots, the garden proves irresistible to guests, who like to wander through before dinner while sipping a glass of wine.

The Materials
To provide a growing medium that retains moisture but also drains well, John filled each tub planter with 11 inches of Fafard Organic Potting Mix atop 6 inches of milled pine bark. The potting mix contains organic fertilizer that he supplements from time to time with fish emulsion. Because fish emulsion smells for a couple of days, he uses it when people aren't around. You can substitute an odorless organic fertilizer such as Espoma Garden-tone (3-4-4).

Time and Energy Savers
The garden's rectangular shape allows a single, oscillating sprinkler in the center to water the entire garden easily. An automatic timer turns the water on and off. Beneath the tubs, a 3-inch layer of gravel atop a weed barrier keeps the garden neat and weed free. Raised planters on a clean site mean fewer insect, disease, and critter problems. Plus, you don't have to kneel to harvest.

Get Started
Galvanized fish tubs are hard to find. Choose among a 32-inch-long Found Bathtub Galvanized Planter (williams-sonoma.com, $149.95), a 24-inch-long Tough Guy Utility Tub (grainger.com, $33.25), a 48-inch-long Oval Stock Tank (tractorsupply.com, $89.99), and a 7-foot-long Round End Galvanized Stock Tank (barnworld.com, $229.89).

More...