The Proper Planting of Buckets

A.V. Walters

Recently, I’ve come across some not-so-clear-on-the-concept plantings, and so, perhaps, we need some clarification on the bucket farm issue.

As usual, if one first defines the objectives, and communicates (and here I may have failed), the implementation will be more successful.

So, the objectives of Bucket Planting are:

1)   The bucket directs watering directly to the root zone and thus saves water;

2)   If the plant is placed low in the bucket, the top unused area (3”- 6”) serves as a reservoir for watering;

3)   Properly planted (see above), the bucket serves as a wind shield for seedlings;

4)   The top of the exposed bucket serves as a hose curb to protect the plants;

5)   By watering only into the bucket, you keep the area (walkway and unplanted areas) weed free (Since even weeds need water–granted in areas that get ample summer rainfall this is less helpful, but it will still reduce your weeding chores.);

6)   Most weeding is limited to the interior of the bucket, and once your plants are established, they’ll shade that area, further minimizing weeds and reducing water losses;

7)   And finally, properly prepared buckets prevent gophers from eating your plants!

Of course, there are limitations. Buckets can’t protect truly long-rooted plants, whose roots navigate through the bucket’s bottom holes and beyond—but they do buy them time to get established. That way they’re more likely to survive if they get nibbled on.

Here are some basic guidelines to proper bucketification:

I prefer the black, semi-pliable nursery buckets. They last for several seasons, and they don’t get all brittle in the sunshine. Plus, most people just throw them away when they bring their nursery plants home. Sometimes you can get them free from recycling (and even neighbors, “Hey, I got a bunch of them!”) They’re pliable and drill out nicely. A bucket must have enough drainage. If you use just the holes that come with it, your vegetables will have “wet feet” and they’ll suffer rot or fungal problems. We drill three-quarter inch holes (using a sharp “spade” bit) every couple of inches, or so, across the bottom and a row or two around the bottom of the sides. (That’s an editorial ‘we,’ as I am not in the drilling department.) Our hole size is specific to the size of gophers, larger holes can be used if you don’t share this risk. (Indeed, for things gophers don’t like, we sometimes use bottomless buckets, which are much easier to pull out at the end of the season.)

When you ‘set-in’ a bucket, dig a hole as close as possible to the size of the bucket (up to its ‘shoulders’ so you leave a lip above the ground surface—2”- 3”.) Loosen the dirt in the area below the bucket, so the migrating roots don’t hit a solid barrier of compacted earth. Place the bucket in the hole and fill in around it, packing the dirt firmly. Now, refill the bucket, leaving the 3”- 6” inch area, I mentioned before (depending on the level of compaction) at the top of the bucket. You need at least three inches to be a decent reservoir. At the time you refill the bucket, this is a good opportunity to add any amendment. We use well-composted chicken manure because, well, we’re on a chicken farm.

When you plant a bucket, (especially if you’re using starts) make sure you’re not filling in your reservoir area. Take out some of the soil, if necessary. (Your start may look lost, deep in the bucket, but that also helps protect it from the wind—and we’ve got a fair amount of that, here.) If using starts, as with any other transplant, remember to loosen the root ball! I recently had to re-plant some peppers that had been put in too high by a neighbor and discovered that, though the soil in the bucket appeared properly damp, she’d set the whole start in as a root-bound block, and little of the moisture was getting in to the roots through that block.

When watering, especially initially, use a soft, slow watering method. The bucket contains the water’s energy, and if you’re not careful you can erode all around your poor baby vegies! And yes, this is a good opportunity for even more water savings, if you use drip irrigation.

These simple steps should ensure buckets of success.