Bucket gardening offers a uniquely flexible and transportable take on gardening. It’s an affordable, easy way for people in any living situation to incorporate some homegrown veggies into their lifestyle.
Let’s explore some of the different edible plants that can be grown in 5-gallon buckets and how best to care for them.
The Benefits of Bucket Gardening
Bucket gardening is a type of container gardening, and container gardening has long been popular for a multitude of reasons.
Let’s take a look!
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#1 – Soil Quality
In my garden, I prefer to do most of my work in raised beds because the soil in our yard is so sandy and rock-filled that water retention presents a big problem.
For me, container gardening is a way of controlling soil quality and growing conditions.
#2 – Space
Like all overzealous gardeners, sometimes my dreams get too big for my space. What seems like a large space is suddenly too small to fit all of my veggie starters, seed packets, and bushes snagged from the discount bin at my local farm store.
Pots seem like the obvious solution, yet they can be pricey. A particularly in-vogue planter can cost upwards of a hundred dollars, while a 5-gallon bucket can be bought with your pocket change.
If you purchase a can of spray paint (the type that bonds to plastic), you can even spruce up your bucket into a bonafide work of art.
#3 – Small-Space Friendly
Even an apartment balcony can accommodate a couple of 5-gallon buckets.
Additionally, if you are a renter, you can take your garden with you from one rental home to another.
#4 – Pest Control
Non-climbing rodents like rabbits will have difficulty accessing plants in a 5-gallon bucket, giving your plants an advantage.
#5 – Portability
If you live in a cold climate where early frosts can compromise your harvest, you can pick up your plants and put them in the garage for the night.
As someone who has eaten a lot of fried green tomatoes because I had to harvest early because of impending frosts, I must say, there’s definitely some appeal to this method.
So, now that I’ve convinced you to start bucket gardening: How do you grow food in 5-gallon buckets?
How to Prepare a 5-Gallon Bucket for Bucket Gardening
One of the reasons that bucket gardening is so appealing is its simplicity.
You’ll need just a few things:
- A bucket (Where to buy 5-gallon buckets)
- A drill (or a hammer and nail) (Here’s our favorite drill)
- PVC pipe (optional) (Where to buy PVC pipe)
Step 1 – Choose a Bucket
Buckets can be purchased for a few dollars at your local hardware store, or they can often be collected for free from delis or bakeries.
If possible, aim to use buckets that are food-grade plastic.
The recycling number on the bottom will indicate the type of plastic. Number two is ideal for long-term food storage, but numbers one, four, and five would also be acceptable.
You should always avoid using buckets that you know have contained harmful substances. Paint buckets would be one example of something to avoid.
Step 2 – Make Drainage Holes
Once you’ve selected your bucket, you will need to create drainage holes in the bottom.
If you do not have a drill, a hammer and nail can also be used to punch holes in the bottom.
Step 3 – Install Watering System
At this point, your bucket could be ready for soil, but if an in-bucket watering system appeals to you, this would be the time to do it.
One of the simplest methods involves drilling holes in a length of PVC pipe, placing a cap on the end, and partially burying it under the soil. Water is poured into the top and seeps through the holes in the sides of the pipe.
In an effort to make use of the odds and ends floating around my shed, I have also tried this method with PEX tubing, and it works just as well.
The benefits of a water system like this include:
- Less water is lost to surface evaporation
- Reduces the likelihood of wetting leaves while watering, which means plants are less likely to suffer from fungal diseases
- Encourages plants to send roots deeper down, which makes for more stable and resilient plants
What Kind of Soil Should You Use for Bucket Gardening?
Not all dirt is equal.
Perhaps the greatest challenges gardeners will have with bucket gardening are soil-related.
When your plant is restricted to such a finite amount of soil, you want to be sure that you are giving your plants high-quality material to work with!
In particular, you’ll want to think about drainage and nutrition. Some people prefer to use potting soil for this reason, but it is also possible to work with the soil you already have.
Your soil should retain enough moisture so that you don’t have to water your plants too often, yet it should drain well enough that your plants aren’t constantly standing in water.
- To improve the water-retentive properties of your soil, add something like peat moss, coconut coir, or vermiculite.
- To improve drainage, add sand or perlite.
To give nutrition a boost, incorporate a high-quality compost mix (like Charlie’s Compost) into your soil. My favorite is fish compost (like Bio Earth’s Bio-Fish), but there are many excellent options.
The Best Vegetables for Bucket Gardening
When planting vegetables in 5-gallon buckets, you’ll need to think carefully about the space requirements of plants. To ensure healthy plant growth, you’ll need to provide ample space.
In this regard, plants are a bit like goldfish; the larger the container, the bigger it grows.
The Following Plants Should Be Sown Individually in a Bucket
- Brussels Sprouts
- Lemons (Dwarf varieties)
- Squash (If you must plant squash—I get it. Zucchini fritters are my love language—plant a bush variety rather than a vining variety. )
- Tomato (Determinate varieties are best for small-space growing. We explain a ton of different varieties in our Tomato Growing Guide!)
You Can Plant Multiples of These Vegetables and Fruits in One Bucket
Top 3 Best Plants to Grow in 5-Gallon Buckets
Some plants don’t just grow well in buckets; they grow better in buckets.
My top three choices for bucket gardening would be:
#1 – Potatoes
If you’ve ever grown potatoes before, you know that in order to maximize your harvest of tubers, you need to continually mound soil around the base of your potato plants.
As the level of the soil climb higher, more and more potatoes are produced just below the surface. This practice is called hilling.
A bucket’s high sides are ideal for hilling potatoes!
- To start, put four inches of soil in a bucket, add two potatoes and cover them up with six inches of soil.
- Once you have six inches of growth, add soil until only the top leaves are exposed.
- Hill the potatoes again when they produce another six inches of growth.
Another convenience of growing potatoes in buckets is that there’s no digging required.
Simply tip your bucket over!
Read more about potatoes in our Potato Growing Guide!
#2 – Strawberries
You may have noticed special strawberry planters at the garden center.
These planters usually have a series of holes down the sides where small strawberry plants can nestle and drape down the sides of the pot.
A strawberry planter can easily be made out of a 5-gallon bucket.
- Simply drill a series of 3-inch holes in the sides.
- To prevent some soil from spilling out and to better support the plants, you can insert short lengths of PVC pipe into the holes to form “baskets” for your plants.
- Fill the holes and top of the bucket with small strawberry plants.
- One bucket should be able to accommodate around ten plants when filled like this.
Leaf lettuce can also be grown in a tower like this because it has a relatively small root system.
This is a very similar system to a Garden Tower, and you could add a PVC pipe in the middle of the bucket as a feeding system! Have a look here at how Garden Tower does it.
#3 – Herbs
Herbs thrive in small spaces!
I struggle to think of a herb that wouldn’t perform well in a 5-gallon bucket. Examples of herbs you can grow in a bucket include:
The thing that I love the most about bucket gardening is that it’s so easy to begin. You don’t need a yard, or lots of materials, or a multitude of gardening tools.
All you need is a container, some soil, and the seeds you want to plant. As you build your knowledge of gardening, you can grow as you go.