Bucket Gardening 101

Colorful flowers grow in a white bucket

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Have you ever thought you can’t start a garden because you just don’t have the space? Does it seem like the only people who can grow worthwhile gardens are those who have large areas to work with?

Untrue!

In this guide to Bucket Gardening 101, you’ll learn about the surprising amount of produce or flowers you can grow in a small area. You’ll also find out exactly how you can get your own thriving bucket garden started. 

Let’s jump in!

It really is as simple as it sounds: Bucket gardening is growing your plants in buckets.

This method is a specific subset of container gardening, and it most often utilizes 5-gallon buckets. 

Why? For several reasons:

  • Deep enough to accommodate many types of flowers, vegetables and fruits
  • The sturdy handle makes for easy portability
  • Very inexpensive
  • Reusable for years thanks to heavy-duty plastic
  • Readily available in almost any area of the country

Benefits of Bucket Gardening

All right, so those are some interesting points. But do bucket gardens have any more benefits to offer? Yes, indeed. 

Thanks to a bucket’s small size and ease of portability, you can literally install a garden in almost any space at all.

  • Apartment patios (even those on the upper floors)
  • Tiny urban yards
  • Small sunny patches in heavily shaded yards

Buckets are also beyond easy to move. Let’s say you decide to move your plants to a different location for better sun exposure. All you have to do is pick up the bucket by the handle and move it wherever you want. 

Maybe you have a living situation that requires you to move frequently. Buckets are a great way to take your garden with you and set up shop at your new home. 

As another bucket-garden plus, you’ll have fewer weeds to deal with. In fact, you may not have to pull any at all!

Drawbacks of Bucket Gardening

Your bucket-dwelling plants lack access to groundwater. So you’ll have to water them more often than their in-ground counterparts. 

Also, plants that form extensive root systems may not be happy in a bucket home. This is mostly a problem with perennial plants whose root systems continue to grow year after year.  

What Can You Grow in a 5-Gallon Bucket?

What can’t you grow in a 5-gallon bucket is the better question!

Ok, there are some plants that you may want to avoid planting in a bucket.

Perennial flowers or vegetables form extensive root systems over time that may not have enough space in a 5-gallon bucket. A few of these plants include asparagus, rhubarb, lilies, daisies, hollyhock, phlox and hibiscus. 

Also, plants that form long, trailing vines may quickly take over if you’re bucket gardening in a small space. Pumpkins, squash and zucchini are a few plants that require a lot of real estate. 

But there’s no shortage of flowers, vegetables and fruits that will happily grow in a bucket! 

Ready to barely scratch the surface of your bucket gardening options? Here we go:

Flowers

Annual flowers usually do very well in small containers like a bucket.

Here are just a few to consider:

  • Marigolds
  • Petunias 
  • Pansies
  • Bachelor’s buttons
  • Impatiens
  • Begonias
  • Geraniums
  • Nasturtiums

The sky is truly the limit when it comes to the colorful flowers you can choose from!

Feel free to experiment with several plant shapes, such as trailing flowers near the bucket edges and tall plants in the center. 

Vegetables

The majority of bucket gardeners choose to raise vegetables in their mini-gardens. 

Many annual vegetables flourish in a 5-gallon bucket. Here are some suggestions along with how many plants to put in each bucket:

Green beans. Bush varieties typically work best. Maximum of three plants, preferably two. 

Tomatoes. Choose a determinate variety and use a tomato cage or stake for support. Cherry tomatoes are a great choice and produce abundantly. One plant per container.

Three buckets with tomatoes planted in them

Greens. Almost any type, including chard, spinach, arugula, kale and mesclun. Feel free to combine your favorites! Three plants per bucket. 

Lettuce. Loose-leaf varieties will typically produce the best results. The Tom Thumb Butterhead or Red Fire varieties can be good options. Two plants to a bucket. 

Carrots. Choose a variety that has a shorter taproot, including Little Fingers or Short ‘n Sweet. Plant up to ten in one bucket. 

Cucumbers. As long as you have space for a trellis, you can grow cucumbers in a bucket. One plant to a container. 

Peas. Like cucumbers, peas need a trellis for climbing. One plant per bucket. 

Peppers. Be it hot varieties or sweet ones, peppers do great in containers. You could even do one of each! Two plants to a bucket. 

Herbs. Herbs of all kinds are perfect for growing in a bucket! Some herbs, like mint, are invasive, so a container is fantastic for keeping it under control. One to two plants per bucket. 

Garlic. To grow full bulbs, your garlic needs to overwinter outside. So make sure to plant your cloves in late summer and leave your bucket out for the winter. Plant four individual cloves per bucket. 

Radishes. As a super-fast grower, radishes are an (almost!) instant gratification veggie. Up to ten plants to a bucket. 

Broccoli and cauliflower. These veggies have deeper root systems than you might think, but a 5-gallon bucket can handle it. One plant per bucket. 

Eggplant. Like their fellow nightshades peppers and tomatoes, eggplants are ideal container veggies. One plant to a bucket.

Fruits

Who says you need lots of space to grow fruit? 

While buckets won’t work for large trees like apple and pears, you may have more fruit options than you think:

Strawberry. Is there anything better than picking your own fresh strawberries for a snack? Choose between June-bearing or ever-bearing varieties. Up to five per bucket. 

Blueberry. Blueberries sometimes get a bad rap for being hard to grow and picky about their soil conditions.

You do indeed need to create the proper growing conditions. But once you do, your bucket blueberry bush can produce a bountiful harvest. Plant one bush per bucket. 

Figs. Here’s one that may not immediately spring to mind! Fig trees do best when their roots stay compact, and a bucket provides the perfect conditions. One to a bucket. 

Lemon. Choose a smaller variety like Meyer. One per bucket.

NOTE: We’ve compiled these lists to give you ideas for getting started, but they are by no means exhaustive.

Don’t be afraid to give any flower, vegetable or fruit you’re interested in a try!

What Supplies Do You Need?

One of the best parts of bucket gardening is that you don’t need a lot of expensive supplies to get started.

Let’s take a look at the essential and optional supply list:

  • Buckets. Select buckets that are in good shape with no cracks. NOTE: See the “Safety Considerations” section below for additional details on choosing containers. 
  • Tools for making drainage holes. Either a hammer and nail or a power drill with a 3/8 inch bit work perfectly. 
  • Soil. Use a high-quality potting mix. 
  • Plants or seeds. Choose whatever (bucket-friendly!) flowers, vegetables or fruits you like.
  • Drainage enhancers. This step is optional.

Safety Considerations

To grow edible plants in the safest way possible, a little investigation is in order. 

Have your buckets contained harmful materials in the past? These are just a few substances that could leave behind hazardous chemical residues:

  • Construction materials like paint or joint compound
  • Asphalt or tar
  • Pool chemicals like water shock and chlorine tablets
  • Weed killers
  • Insecticides

If you’re growing flowers strictly for ornamental value, using these containers is perfectly fine.

But if you’re raising any kind of vegetables or fruit, it’s not worth the risk of dangerous substances getting into your food. 

So what kind of buckets are best for edible plants?

Food-grade plastic is your best bet. You’ve got a couple of options when it comes to sourcing your safe buckets. 

You can purchase new buckets at online retailers or big box stores. Especially if you’re shopping online, you’ll often find buckets sold in sets of three, six or more. 

If you need some ideas of what to look for, this bucket set could be a great starting place. 

Food-safe buckets usually cost a little more than standard 5-gallon buckets. But they’re still quite reasonably priced, especially since you can re-use them for many years. 

Another option is to check with your local restaurants, grocery stores or bakeries. These businesses often get their own supplies delivered in food-grade plastic buckets.

You may have to pay a small amount for leftover buckets, or you may get lucky enough to score some for free. 

However, be aware that these buckets can sometimes be a hot commodity. So don’t be too surprised if you have to go on a waitlist.

The sooner you can inquire about buckets the better, even if gardening season is still a few months off.

No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. 

How to Create a Bucket Garden

All it takes is a few easy steps to transform lowly buckets into a new garden!

1. Make Drainage Holes

Plants need hydration, but waterlogged soil can kill your plants even faster than a lack of moisture.

Since plastic is naturally watertight, you’ll need to create small holes for excess water to escape.

Grab your hammer and nails or a power drill with a 3/8 inch drill bit. Make five drainage holes a few inches apart on the flat bottom of the bucket. (An X shape works nicely.)

five holes drilled in bottom of bucket

Then, add another four holes to the bucket’s side, about 1 inch from the bottom.

side of bucket with drainage hole one inch from bottom

Whether you decide to use a hammer and nails or a power drill, make sure to proceed slowly and carefully. Remember, you want nice, even holes, not cracks!

2. Add Drainage Material, If Using

A layer of chunky material at the bottom of your buckets can help your soil drain faster and prevent drainage holes from getting blocked.

While some successful bucket gardeners skip this step, others consider it to be an essential element.

As long as you make it a point to use a well-draining potting mix, the choice is yours.

If you do opt to add drainage materials, these usually work best:

  • Pebbles
  • Gravel
  • Large or jumbo pine bark nuggets

Keep in mind that rocks will add extra weight to your buckets. If you plan to move your buckets from place to place, pine bark nuggets might be a better choice.

Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of your drainage material to the bottom of your bucket.

Make sure to spread your material evenly, and don’t press it down.

3. Fill Bucket With Potting Mix

Successful bucket gardening requires a specialized soil mixture. What you’re looking for is a balance between good drainage and moisture absorption.

This may come as a surprise, but garden soil or topsoil will not work for a bucket garden. These materials are far too heavy, do not drain well and tend to settle into compacted lumps.

Instead, buy bags of commercial potting soil or make your own.

One thing to keep in mind is that a high-quality commercial potting mix can be expensive. Especially if you have a lot of buckets to fill, a homemade version can save you serious cash.

This video from California Gardening provides a helpful and inexpensive recipe for potting mix using peat moss, compost, perlite and worm castings:

When it comes to filling your buckets, you need to use a little strategy.

Peat moss is the primary ingredient in many potting mixes, and for good reason: It drains quickly but still retains enough moisture to support plant roots.

However, fresh peat moss will repel its first application of water. Imagine filling and planting your entire bucket only to have the water just run off the top rather than get absorbed. 

Yeah, that’s no fun.

Instead, put a few scoops of potting mix into your bucket, then add some water. Stir it around and allow the moss to absorb the moisture slowly.

Repeat this process until your soil level is about 1 inch below the bucket’s top. 

bucket filled with potting mix

4. Add Your Plants or Seeds

Use whatever plants strike your fancy!

Some plants, like green beans, carrots and most types of greens, are easy to start from seed. Directly sow these seeds in your prepared buckets. 

Tomatoes, peppers and many herbs are usually best to plant as established seedlings. Either start your seedlings indoors or purchase them from a garden store. 

Fill your bucket with the plants of your choice, and give your new mini-garden a good watering.

Here’s our happy little basil! 

bucket with basil planted in the potting mix

If you wish, you can add a thin layer of mulch for a finishing touch. Besides just looking nice, proper mulching can go a long way towards helping your plants thrive.

To learn more, check out our Mulch Mastery guide!

Ideas To Spruce Your Buckets Up

There’s nothing wrong with using your buckets as-is, especially if they’re all the same color. 

For some people, though, the appearance of a plain 5-gallon bucket may be a turn-off. 

If you’d like to add a little visual appeal to your bucket garden, you’ve got a couple of good options. 

Paint

You can use spray paint or outdoor liquid paint to add colors or even simple patterns to your buckets. 

Polka dots, stripes or a chevron pattern can all be good choices. For a little extra fanciness, consider using a metallic paint shade. 

If you choose to paint your buckets, do so before you fill them with soil. Allow your bucket to dry completely, and let it sit outside for a few days to let any lingering fumes dissipate. 

Outdoor Fabric

Burlap has an outdoorsy feel and usually holds up well to the elements. You could also use decorative fabric meant for outdoor furniture, but it may be more expensive. 

Whatever fabric you choose, use twine or garden string to secure it to your buckets.

Stretch a length of string around your bucket near the top of the fabric, and tie it securely. Repeat the process one or two more times at even intervals until you reach the bottom of the bucket. 

To give you a visual, here’s a bucket I decorated with outdoor fabric. You can just barely see the light-colored string I used: 

Basil planted in bucket with fabric around it

TIP: Outdoor fabric can be pricey, especially if you’re planting several buckets.

If you’re looking to keep your costs down, check your local thrift stores. I found a large piece of this fabric at Salvation Army for just a few dollars. Good luck! 

Frequently Asked Questions

How Much Dirt Does It Take to Fill a 5-Gallon Bucket?

A 5-gallon bucket holds about 0.7 cubic feet of soil.

To break that down into relatable terms, bagged soil usually holds 1.5 cubic feet. So you’d use just under half a bag of soil to fill one bucket.

Can Buckets Sit Directly on the Ground?

Yes, as long as you have drainage holes on the bucket’s sides. If you only have drainage holes on the flat bottom, they may become plugged. 

Placing your buckets on an elevated stand is a great way to eliminate this problem.

Also, using a stand of some sort may almost eliminate the need to bend over for watering or harvesting. Your back may thank you!

Do I Need New Soil Each Year?

Some gardeners do opt to throw out any remaining potting mix at the end of each season. 

However, you likely don’t need to do that.

When you pull out spent plants, you’ll also remove some of your potting mix. Next year, replace what’s missing with fresh potting mix, and add a little extra compost or fertilizer. 

After several years, though, your potting mix will become depleted of nutrients. At this point, you’ll need to start over with a fresh batch. 

Final Thoughts

Let’s have a short review of the information we’ve covered here:

  • Bucket gardening is an awesome way to grow your own food or flowers in almost any space that you have available. 
  • Buckets are easily portable and are less susceptible to weeds.
  • You’ll need to water your bucket-dwelling plants more often. 
  • Buckets are typically inexpensive and easy to obtain. 
  • The necessary supplies are buckets, simple tools, potting mix and plants or seeds. 
  • If you like, you can dress your buckets up with paint or outdoor fabric.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully completed Bucket Gardening 101. You’re now ready to apply what you’ve learned to real life.

Remember, even experienced gardeners learn something new every season. The best way to learn is often by doing, so experimentation is your key to acing Bucket Gardening 102!

We’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you tried this gardening method before? What was your experience like? Do you have any other questions or anything else you’d like to share? 

Let us know in the comments!

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