Four years ago now I created my very own tomato factory after discovering the Alaska Bucket System. I cannot say enough good things about this method of growing tomatoes. With a small initial investment in equipment and some time, you can set yourself up with a tomato factory that will produce year after year.
It all started with a Facebook post that led me to Alaska Grow Buckets self-watering garden system website. There are many ways to grow plants in a bucket; after much research, I concluded this was the one I was going to use.
My installation and tips
Like most projects of this sort, there is room for modifications and deviations from the materials list. I would highly recommend the following:
- Buy the bucket lids; use instead of black plastic to cover buckets. Cut 4″ hole in center. Remove seal underneath for better fit over cloth bag.
- Use cheap garden hose and hose clamps to connect buckets instead of the vinyl tubing. Depending on how many buckets you have, a 25′ hose goes a long way.
- Do not trim the handles off of the bags like the video illustrates. Those handles are needed later on to removed the bags at the end of the season. The handles makes it much easier to haul off to a composting site. They are quite heavy when they are water-logged.
- Use the correct drill bit type when drilling holes in the buckets.
- It may or may not occur to you to place two plants in each bucket. I did the first year and it was a tomato jungle. Stick to one plant per bucket.
Main system components
Walmart has the fabric bags for $.50 ea. I found colanders at a dollar store. The buckets and lids were purchased from Home Depot. I did order the float value and rubber grommets from alaskagrowbuckets.com. Those two parts are pretty specific and I couldn’t readily find them elsewhere. The rest of the materials I purchased from Menards (Home improvement store). The fittings are the same as home irrigation system; Rainbird is the a home irrigation system sold at Menards. If you want to hit the easy button, you can order kits from alaskagrowbuckets.com store.
Loading a bucket
I use Pro Mix for the grow medium. It has performed well year after year. I start by emptying a bag into a wheelbarrow. The 2 cu. ft. bags expands to 4 cu. ft. Be sure to rake out the chunks and fluff up the material. I put 1 cu. ft. of grow medium in each bucket. There is a process…
- Drop colander in bottom of bucket. You may have to trim handles off for proper fit
- Drop synthetic fabric bag in; fold over rim of bucket.
- I use a medium size pot for filling my buckets for two reasons. First, it helps regulate the amount I am loading in and second, it works great to tamp down the material.
- Drop some material in the bottom (half the pot); then wet it down thoroughly. Dump the rest of the pot; insert pot into bucket and tamp down. Some water will come out of the ventilation holes in the bucket. Tamp down firmly, but not excessively.
- Remove pot and sprinkle a 1/4 cup of fertilizer. I used Schultz 10-12-12 slow release.
- Load pot up with material and dump into bucket. Tamp down with pot. Remove pot and wet down with hose. You have to keep all layers wet so do not skimp on the water.
- At this point, your bucket should be 2/3 full and ready for the second layer of fertilizer. sprinkle a 1/4 cup of fertilizer.
- Fill pot up again with more material. Tamp down, wet with hose. Repeat until bucket is full.
- Wet down top material some more. I cannot emphasize this enough.
- Place lid on top.
- Create cavity in the grow material and insert the plant. Lift lid and pack the material tightly around plant.
- Drill three holes for the tomato cage.
- Insert tomato cage. Done. Next bucket!
Bucket stability upgrade
In years past a strong thunderstorm would inevitably hit and lay some of the buckets down; damaging and often breaking some of the plants. I’ve secured the tomato cages to the deck with string with some success. This year, though, I placed hog-panel fencing along the top and zip-tied the tomato cages to it. This results in a super-rigid support structure for the plants and should reduce damage.
I don’t know that it is necessary, but I use two float-valve buckets; one for each size – 9 buckets each side. It is nice to have a backup bucket as well if one float valve were to fail. I could easily hook them all up to one bucket. The 55 gallon rain barrel makes a wonderful water reservoir. I have a hose attached to it from the water spigot for easy filling. On hot humid days, 18 buckets can go through 55 gallons of water in a few days. Sounds crazy, but they do.
I’ve planted a few different varieties over the years. The ones that I have had great luck with are Juliet, Sweet 100’s, Sun Sugar, Lemon Boy and La Roma. I tried some larger tomatoes and didn’t have the best of luck. Last year I tried Brandywine and Black Sea Man, but they didn’t grow well for whatever reason. This year I planted some Early Girl and Wisconsin 55.
Here are some photo galleries from previous years.
What do you think? Ready to give it go? I highly recommend this system if you love fresh tomatoes.