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Holy buckets!

Browerville man plants entire vegetable garden in 5-gallon buckets

Ken Hovet, of rural Browerville, stands next to the watering system that supplies his bucket garden.  Photo by Nancy Leasman

Ken Hovet, of rural Browerville, stands next to the watering system that supplies his bucket garden. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Ken Hovet, of rural Browerville, has a bucket list. Rather than listing things to do, he lists what to plant in his buckets. Yes, Ken, a newly minted Extension Master Gardener in Todd County, plants his entire vegetable garden in five-gallon buckets. It’s an oh-so-simple idea yet has some sophisticated facets that make it an easy way to grow tomatoes, potatoes, peas, beans and lots of other things on anyone’s bucket list.

“I would have given up on gardening,” Ken said, admitting that weeding had gotten to him. The sandy soil on the five-acre Hovet property also required frequent watering.

Retired, after 41 years of working for CHS, Ken is pleased that he spent the time five summers ago putting together the system that allows him to neither weed nor sprinkle, and he can sit in the rocker on the porch and watch things grow.

Really, though, you can’t see Ken’s bucket garden from the porch since he shields it from view with a tidy wooden fence lined with chicken wire. “It was either paint the buckets or put up a fence,” he said, and though he’s rummaged through piles of tires so his wife Vicki could paint them and hang them on the outbuildings as planters, he wasn’t interested (nor was she) in painting 67 buckets. The chicken wire is superfluous since the bucket garden hasn’t been bothered by rabbits or woodchucks, or even deer, though he knows they all roam the area.

So how does his system work? The buckets, mostly five gallon but he has smaller ones for short-rooted crops, each have a 3-inch hole cut in the middle of the bottom. He puts plastic net cups, available at aquarium supply stores, in the holes and then fills the buckets with soil. The net cups rest in a rain gutter trough reinforced with 2 x 4s and resting on cement blocks to elevate and level them above the carpet-covered ground. He says it’s easy to get used carpet, too. Just advertise on Craigslist that you want some.

A row of 5-gallon buckets filled with onions. These are just a few of the buckets that fill Ken Hovet’s garden near Browerville. Photo by Nancy Leasman

A row of 5-gallon buckets filled with onions. These are just a few of the buckets that fill Ken Hovet’s garden near Browerville. Photo by Nancy Leasman

The troughs are connected with black hoses to a 250-gallon water tank. Float valves in the troughs automatically release water into the troughs through the gravity-fed system whenever the water level gets low.

Ken advises using black hoses since white ones seem to encourage algae growth as well as get brittle and deteriorate in the sun. Algae can plug the hoses, but he hasn’t had a problem since he switched to the black ones. He also covers the outside of the water tank with black plastic for the same reason. Algae in the troughs, though, doesn’t hurt anything.

This irrigation system beneath the buckets allows the soil to soak up the water without having the bottoms standing in water. Ken said it works really well except during extremely dry spells when the top of the soil might dry out a little more. There’s only a little evaporation from the troughs, and no water is wasted as can happen with overhead sprinklers.

Deep-rooted crops might actually send their roots all the way to the bottom of the five-gallon buckets and into the troughs, which is fine.

As to the cost of setting up his bucket garden, Ken said, “I don’t have an exact estimate now, but I can roughly guess at about $30 for one 10-foot section (he currently has seven 10-foot sections) of trough with the 2x4s. Then add what you might pay for buckets….say 50 cents each for another $5 or so. Free buckets can also be found.”

Ken may not have the exact cost, but he’s put some thought into the itemization of it. His lists aren’t limited to the bucket variety.

He continued, “Then add the soil cost. You need about 1/2 cubic foot for each five-gallon bucket. Fleet has sphagnum peat moss and organic composted cow manure, and with their prices, each bucket of soil would be about $2 (nine buckets on each trough equals $18 per trough for soil). Currently net cups are about 30 cents each on Amazon, so nine would be $2.70. I think about $10 of hose and fittings should get the trough hooked up to a water supply. So a total of about $66 for each trough, which holds nine five-gallon buckets or 11 small buckets. And it depends on how good we are at finding free or cheap used materials. That can make a big difference too.

“Keep in mind that all is reusable year after year. This is our fifth summer with this same equipment and I don’t see that we will need to replace any of it yet. So, on an annual cost that would be about $13. You can’t get anybody to pull weeds for $13! Also, the system is scalable so can be enlarged easily over time.”

About the only garden crops that Ken doesn’t grow in buckets are corn, squash and melons. Corn takes up a lot of space. Vines growing from the top of the buckets and then draping over the rims tend to get crimped and don’t do well.

At the end of the growing season Ken dumps the contents of all the buckets on a tarp and folds the tarp over to cover the pile. In the spring he shovels the soil into a cement mixer along with a little fertilizer and water. “I fluff it up good,” he said, “and then fill the buckets up again.”

Ken’s bucket gardening frees him up to tend his raspberry patch and the cherry and apple trees among the other 400 trees he and Vicki have planted. And to do his “farming.” “I plow up the old garden and drag the cultivator through it.” Just for fun, it seems. Vicki scattered some sunflower seeds in that area.

Like most gardens, this garden has rows... just rows of buckets. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Like most gardens, this garden has rows… just rows of buckets. Photo by Nancy Leasman

By late summer, when the bucket garden is at its peak, the license plate-covered bird houses (with bent spoon perches) behind the rows of buckets, and a backdrop of sunflowers, will make a showy display for Ken and Vicki as they sip some homemade chokecherry wine there on the porch, and enjoy the bounty of Ken’s bucket list.

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