My Italian grandmother always had good bits of advice. One of them being, “You can never have too many tomato plants, but what happens when you run out of room in the garden. Tomatoes are probably the most versatile plant you can grow; they are used in everything from Tomato Sauce to Ketchup, Espagnole Sauce to Bloody Marys (Yum!).
Growing tomato plants in 5 gallon buckets is nothing new, my relatives would grow them on their front porches for decades. What is kinda new and unique is having self watering tomato buckets that are practically maintenance free. Imagine growing beautiful, full tomato plants and only having to refill a reservoir may once a week. I don’t know about you, but my wife hates when we go away for a week and all I can say is “I wonder how my plants are doing”.
Here on the homestead, we try to maximize as much space as we can. About a year ago I was just fiddling around when I came across an obscure website call Alaska Grow Buckets. What they offered was an ingenious and SIMPLE way to make your own self watering buckets from stuff you probably have hanging around the house or garage. The concept so straightforward, it borders on genius.
How It Works
The process is quite simple. The tomatoes are planted in a wicking medium that draws water from below and sends it to the roots of the plant. The water is drawn from another drum or garbage can and is released by a float valve. When the water level drops, it activates the valve instantly irrigating your plants.
You can build this system as small or as large as you wish. Another nice thing is that you are not only limited to tomatoes. You can grow peppers, okra, cucumbers and more. Think of the possibilities.
The second key to this design is the fabric grow bag. The bags I use can be found at most supermarkets and are very inexpensive or free. The bags are made from spun polypropylene and should last for several years. Similar grow bags are available from nursery and garden suppliers. Canvas or burlap bags may also work — but they will eventually rot and fall apart. The porous fabric allows excess water drainage and aeration of the root zone which is necessary for optimal growing conditions.
The system is also based on the principle of “air root pruning.” As roots grow out to the porous fabric they become exposed to air, dry out and die. This causes the plant to produce dense fine feeder roots and prevents root circling. The increase in fine feeder roots leads to better nutrient and water absorption and promotes accelerated plant growth.
The third key to this system is a plastic kitchen colander, that will hold the fabric shopping bag off of the bottom of the bucket and create a shallow water reservoir in each grow bucket. Almost any large plastic colander can be trimmed to fit inside a 5 gallon bucket with a strong pair of shears. The colander included in all Alaska Grow Buckets kits fit perfectly without trimming.
The fourth key to this system is the 5 gallon support bucket with plenty of ventilation holes around the sides. The bucket helps support the fabric bag and the ventilation holes allow adequate air movement. This allows oxygen to reach the root zone which is essential for optimal plant growth. The bucket also acts as a water reservoir below the bag providing a water source for the wicking grow medium. By maintaining the proper water level with the float valve regulator the medium will never dry out and will continuously wick moisture up to the root-zone.