Growing Veggies in Buckets!
This article was inspired by a friend whose internet search for advice on growing veggies hooked him onto the idea of growing veggies in buckets. It seemed easier and simpler than growing veggies in the ground, but there was a problem. When he searched for more information online, the Americans on the videos he found spoke too fast, and the accents didn’t help. So he turned to his trusted source of information on all things gardening – us!
Instead of generic, American-based advice, here is the South African approach to growing veggies in buckets, drawing on advice given by experts like Jenny Slabber from Talborne Organics, Doug Watson from Healthy Living Herbs, Cathy Church from EcoBuz nature-friendly garden solutions and Sean Freeman from Living Seeds.
What it’s all about
Quite simply, it’s growing veggies in a 10-litre plastic bucket that has had drainage holes drilled in the bottom and has been filled with a growing mix. Why a bucket, you ask? Well, a bucket is generally cheaper than most other containers and, having a handle, it is easier to move around to find the right growing conditions. Just about any vegetable can be grown in a bucket: it’s just a matter of knowing how many veggies per bucket. On most American websites they refer to a 5-gallon (19-litre) bucket but the consensus among our experts is that a 10-litre bucket is deep and broad enough, and is also the most commonly available size locally.
What veggies can you grow?
Some cool-season veggies can still be planted out as seedlings/small plants and grown on in a warm sheltered area:
- 1 plant per bucket: cabbage, Iceberg-type lettuce
- 1 – 3 plants per bucket: kale, loose-leaf lettuce, bush peas and Asian greens (mizuna, tatsoi, pak choi, giant red mustard), depending on the variety.
- 4 – 6 plants per bucket: Swiss chard or spinach.
Also consider growing a bucket-full of mixed herbs like thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram and chives.
For spring and summer:
- 1 plant per bucket: tomatoes, cucumbers, head lettuce, baby marrows or patty pan squashes, butternuts, melons, brinjals, peppers and chillies
- 3 plants per bucket: green bush beans, loose-leaf lettuce
- 4 plants per bucket: beetroot, onions
Points to ponder:
It all sounds hunky dory, but there are some factors to take into consideration:
Susceptibility to heat or cold stress
Plants grown in buckets (as with any container) are more affected by extremes of heat or cold than those in the ground as there isn’t the same soil mass to protect the roots. The result is stressed plants that can be more susceptible to pests and diseases, or suffer from reduced productivity. Sean Freeman (Living Seeds) offers a number of solutions.
- Choose light-coloured buckets rather than black buckets, which absorb the heat, especially in hot areas.
- Keep buckets cool by wrapping hessian around them. On very hot days, wet the hessian to cool them down.
- Look for creative ways to shade the bucket (but not the plant), such as low-growing plants in front of the bucket, placing the bucket in a flower bed (as a feature), or with smaller containers arranged in front of the buckets.
Quality vegetables need a quality growing mix
Except for root vegetables, most veggies have high nutrient needs and that means a good-quality growing mix. Opinions differ about whether to use potting soil or a compost/garden soil mix. Here are some pros and cons of each:
For small spaces with or without a garden, or if you have poor soil, a potting mix is the most practical option. Potting mixes vary in quality with limited nutrients, so supplementary feeding will be necessary. A good-quality potting mix should balance water-holding capacity (compost) with good drainage. To choose a good-quality potting mix, check the following:
- Smell – it should have a rich manure/compost aroma. Some commercial potting mixes add horse, pig or chicken manure.
- Texture – is it just bark or is there evidence of other organic material like peanut shells, well-rotted compost or the like?
- Ludwig’s Roses potting mix contains fine and coarse milled bark, peanut shells, three different manures (horse, pig, chicken), soil and slow-release fertiliser.
- Doug Watson (Healthy Living Herbs) recommends Culterra Professional Potting Mix, which is bark and peat based with added nutrients, including horse manure.
Compost/garden soil mix
This option calls for a 50:50 mix of garden soil and compost. For a suitably friable mix, the compost should be light and crumbly. With heavy soil, perlite can be added to improve drainage. Because garden soils vary in fertility, Cathy Church (EcoBuz) recommends mixing in a carbon-based soil conditioner like HumiGro. Sprinkle the granules over the soil or dissolve them in a watering can and use as a drench.
Veggies are demanding: more food please!
Because garden soil and commercial potting mixes vary in terms of fertility, supplementary feeding is advisable. Nutrients also leech out of containers faster than they do in the ground.
Preparation: Consider adding the following when preparing the growing mix for your bucket:
- ½ – 1 cup of dolomitic lime (containing calcium and magnesium), to ensure the right soil pH. Calcium is very important for plant growth.
- Worm castings (Fertilis), to encourage microbial life.
- A carbon-based soil conditioner like HumiGro that improves soil structure, soil moisture levels and nutrient retention, making fertilisers more effective.
- A slow-release fertiliser such as Vita Grow 2:3:2 (16) or Vita Veg 6:3:4 (16) from Talborne Organics, or Bio Ocean (Atlantic Fertilisers), which consist of composted seaweed, fishmeal, humic acid and poultry manure Fertilisers.
Sowing and planting: Use a liquid fertiliser to boost germination or to strengthen seedlings and reduce transplant shock.
- EcoBuz StartGro is a blend of micronutrients, particularly boron (B), silica (S) and calcium (C), that play a particularly important role during early plant growth and development. Mix it with Root Pro, which contains a natural, beneficial fungus that paralyses and destroys soil pathogens, reducing root disease, aids root development and improves germination.
- Nourish Leafy Greens or Nourish Buds, Flowers and Fruit (Talborne Organics) are plant-based liquid fertilisers made from potatoes and sugar beet. The nitrogen component is an amino acid suitable for vegan or vegetarian growing as there are no animal ingredients. Use as a drench or foliar feed to strengthen plant cells to resist pathogens and climatic stress.
- Margaret Roberts Organic Supercharger (Kirchhoffs) contains macronutrients as well as micronutrients, plus a growth stimulant. Before sowing seeds, soak the seed overnight in a diluted mixture of Margaret Roberts Organic Supercharger to boost germination.
Monthly maintenance: An application of a slow-release granular fertiliser once a month or a liquid fertiliser twice a month will maintain a steady supply of nutrients.
Watering: pay attention all the time!
- Make sure the buckets have sufficient drainage holes and place stones at the bottom of the buckets to stop the roots from rotting.
- It is very easy to over-water plants in buckets. Waterlogged soil lacks oxygen, which can lead to rotting roots. However, it is just as damaging for the growing mix to completely dry out. That usually happens when the water goes straight through or down the side of the container, running out of the bottom without properly moistening the soil.
- What vegetables need is consistently moist soil all the time. This can be achieved by watering twice a day in small quantities. A moist soil takes up the water faster, and the nutrients don’t leech out as quickly.
- Vermiculite can be added to aid water retention, or perlite to improve drainage.
- A saucer can be placed underneath the pot so that any excess water can be drawn up. That doesn’t mean that buckets should sit in water – if it hasn’t been drawn up within an hour or so, the saucer should be emptied.
- A good way to check on soil moisture is to push your pointing finger into the mix up to your second knuckle. If the soil is sufficiently moist, there is no need to water. Mulching the top also keeps the soil moist and cool.
Buckets in different colours make a colourful display, or plain buckets can be sanded down lightly and painted to create your own designer buckets.
If you need to buy compost, stock up in winter. The compost has had time to mature, unlike spring compost that may not have had time to fully break down.