Tell any seasoned gardener that you've taken up bucket gardening and it might earn you a condescending look. Even thinking about it probably conjures up images of a busted 5-gallon bucket from your local hardware store. But, bucket gardening isn't nearly as contemptible as the snobs might think. It can eliminate weeding, give you more control over your soil composition, and give you a nice aesthetic if you're willing to put in the time.
What Is Bucket Gardening?
While it isn't a household name yet, the practice of growing things in pots and planters has been around for a long time. Classically though, you wouldn't have thought to grow all your crops in buckets. It is becoming more common to see gardeners turn to raised beds and boxes for planting, and bucket gardening is just taking this a step further.
By using buckets (not necessarily 5-gallon buckets, but in most cases, this is what we'll be using) you can have complete control over soil composition as well as when and where your plants are located. Smaller plants can be put into smaller buckets; shallow plants like broccoli, cabbage, and other brassicas do well in smaller buckets.
What Are the Benefits of Bucket Gardening?
Bucket gardening comes with a plethora of benefits and is truly ideal for gardeners with limited space or those who desire more control over their garden.
Many gardeners have been turning to raised beds to get more control over the soil composition in their gardens. Traditional earth gardens are subject to the whims of run-off and erosion. Especially in steep areas or those downhill or downstream from livestock or chemical runoff, it may not even be healthy to be planting directly in the ground, no matter how much effort goes into amending the soil. Bucket planting allows for complete control over the soil, prevents amendments from leeching, and allows for better diversity of makeup, depending on the crop at hand.
Bucket gardening has the same appeal as hanging baskets or planters in that nearly anyone has access to the space needed for one. Whether it's on the roof of an apartment, a row house back porch, or out in the driveway, bucket gardens can thrive. Even within greenhouses, we've seen gardeners turn to buckets just to maximize space and easily tamper with one or two plants without changing the makeup of the entire crop.
Buckets also have the added benefit of needing less attention in most ways. Watering is a more calculated and simpler process and weeds should be close to non-existent with some diligence upfront with soil and planting. Also, they can be placed higher for gardeners who don't want to be stooping and bending on a daily basis in a traditional garden. Besides, who doesn't want the benefit of having tomatoes or peppers growing right outside the door? As soon as the growing season is over, clean-up is a breeze, and there isn't any unsightly patch of ground or empty garden box in the middle of the yard.
How to Build a Bucket Garden
Bucket gardens can be as small as one or two plants or as large as any other style of garden. They are completely modular and lend themselves to the changeable gardener (maybe you've reconsidered how many tomatoes you should plant after all that weeding last year). We'll go over what you need and how to go about prepping a single bucket for planting.
Getting the Right Soil Mix
There are a few soil mixes we've messed around with, and there's an option for every type of gardener. Also, feel free to go off-book with these and try whatever soil composition you would like. The more you know about your region, your plant varieties, and how they respond to varied soil composition, the better results you will have. However, for those of you looking for some guidance, let's start with the easiest option.
Soilless mixes can be purchased at a hardware store and are best for those of you starting out. Drainage can be a problem with denser mixes and anyone who over compacts the buckets or uses too much clay and soil will see drainage issues, eventually.
Soilless mixes have the benefit of being light and airy, making it easy for new plants to take root and easier to move the bucket around. However, soilless mixes also require more vigilant and constant watering as they drain very well. Keep this in mind when placing your bucket garden as soilless mixtures will often begin to leak water quickly after each watering.
If you are looking to make your own soilless mixture, try the following:
Some of this will need to be store-bought, but feel free to use the compost you've had sitting around or excess peat moss from past projects. Keep in mind, you run the risk of contaminants when using homemade materials. Most store-bought mixes will be sanitized to prevent any diseases, weeds, or pests. Store-bought mixes will also contain water-retention crystals occasionally. These can also be bought separately and added to the mix and can help with excessive watering. Also, pay attention to store-bought mixes as they may not include fertilizer or compost, though this is easily remedied on your own.
If you have access to good topsoil or can find some, a soil mix can benefit you greatly as opposed to actual soil. Topsoil will contain many naturally occurring microbiota which is beneficial to plant growth and help to maintain a natural and healthy balance to the chemical makeup of the soil. It's also most near to a real garden and will often generate the biggest and healthiest crops. Where soilless mixes are easier and less work, they tend to have a stunting effect on plants, much like other potted plants. A real topsoil mix avoids this, and with full-sized buckets, you shouldn't have to worry about space constriction.
Our recommended mix is:
It's much the same as the soilless mixture but with half the peat moss replaced with topsoil. If you start with a soilless mixture, try adding topsoil to one or two buckets and see how the drainage and growth are affected. Remember, year to year, take note of your results and see if altering the soil mix has any beneficial effects on your garden.
Also, don't be afraid to try other additions and amendments to your mix: newspaper, wood chips, or other organic material. As long as you aren't contaminating the soil or stopping up the drainage, variety tends to lead to better results, not worse.
Bucket gardens are perfect for gardeners who want to start small but move into more plantings at their leisure. It's also a green way to make use of all those leftover buckets you have sitting around. Bucket gardens can move with the seasons, the sun, and the weather. They can be put up or taken down in hours. They can be just what an aged gardener needs to get back into a favored pastime. Whether it's for the aesthetics, the quality of life, or the added modularity, bucket gardening can be the ideal type of gardening for you.