I recently went to my local grocery store and had a chat with a friend about their gardens. She told me that she is incredibly lucky to grow tomatoes, peppers, and more in a bucket system she designed. Her inspiration was a book by Ed Smith of Vermont, who has written a number of great books, including The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible. And while I’ve used the Ed Smith system in the past, it’s good to see someone else use it, so I visited her to see what she did.
Susan Pillsbury has nine or ten self-watering containers, each made up of two five-gallon buckets. The bottom bucket is the water reservoir, and the top bucket, nestled in it, holds the soil mix. There’s a 3- or 4-inch piece of PVC (3-inch diameter) plumbing pipe that stands in the bottom bucket and is full of holes she drilled in it.
The piece of pipe sits in the lower bucket and carries the upper bucket. She used a 2 inch hole saw to drill a wide hole in the bottom of the top bucket, right down the center.
This short piece of pipe is filled with soil mix, and because it sits in the water reservoir, the soil is constantly wet. Like a wet sponge, it soaks water into the earth in the upper bucket. The moisture-transporting effect keeps the soil slightly moist for the plant roots. The problem with growing vegetables in large pots or buckets is often that they dry out or become soaked.
The bottom buckets all have 1 inch holes drilled just below the bottom of the top bucket. When it gets a flood of rain, water flows through the top bucket and through these holes from the bottom bucket. This means that she can also fill the water tank from below with a hose. Susan also drilled many ¼ inch holes in the bottom of the top bucket for additional drainage.
I asked Susan what soil she used for the buckets. She bought potting soil and mixed it with her homemade compost in a 50-50 mix. Since a five gallon bucket has a lot of soil for roots and she uses a rich mix, she doesn’t add fertilizer.
What does it all cost? Not a lot, really. Her biggest spendings were the plastic buckets, which cost around $ 5 each, though they are often available for free from contractors. A large bag of potting compost costs $ 10 to $ 12 and makes three or four buckets once mixed with homemade compost. Purchased compost would add to the cost, but most gardeners make their own compost. Plastic pipes are not expensive.
I noticed that Susan’s tomatoes were disease free. Most of the tomatoes that are planted in the ground have at least some rot that blackens and kills the lower leaves, eventually leaving the plant leafless in September. The most common form of late blight lives in the soil and splashes on the leaves when it rains. But since her plants are in potting soil and hardened compost, she has avoided the disease – at least so far. In addition, their plants are in a fenced dog enclosure (to avoid deer) and tomatoes were not grown there in the past. Of course, rot could get in and infect your plants, but so far, so good.
For the next year, Susan plans to grow corn in her self-watering containers. She uses six sets of buckets, each with one or more corn plants. Placed in close proximity, this should allow good pollination. From what she’s read, she needs corn plants that are relatively small, given the amount of soil each is planted in. I saw an online video of corn planted in 30 gallon containers with up to 11 plants in each container. The ears were large and each plant produced more than one ear.
I called the author Ed Smith (a friend of mine) to see if he had any updates since the book was written. He and his wife Sylvia still grow vegetables both in containers and in the ground. Ed turned 80 recently and likes to use containers so that he doesn’t have to bend down too far.
Ed told me he’s no longer bothered with self-watering containers. He has several 2-by-3-foot containers that he got from Gardener’s Supply as self-watering containers, but removed the partition that separates the water container from the planting room, giving him deeper containers that he water from above as needed. He’s semi-retired and rarely travels so this works for him. If you work five days a week, a self-watering container is probably a better idea for you.
I’ve experimented with self-watering containers and regular containers. The best type I’ve used is called the VegTrug, which is sold by Gardener’s Supply. It’s a large, V-shaped wooden container that is 6 feet by 30 inches and 16 inches deep in the center. I have grown tomatoes, peppers, herbs and flowers in it with great success – and without bending down. It’s made of cedar wood; Mine is in action for the fifth summer and is still going strong. I drain and put it in every winter. I re-use the potting soil but add a little compost and fertilizer every spring.
Even if you’re a city dweller with limited space, you can grow a few things on a deck or between the sidewalk and the street. Try it!
Henry Homeyer’s blog appears twice a week on gardening-guy.com. Write to him at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a self-addressed envelope if you would like a reply by post. Or send an email to [email protected]