5 gal bucket tomato experiment

ljbrandt(8)May 17, 2011

Let me preface that I've been doing a lot of reading and research on this forum, but I have almost no experience with growing tomatoes. To get straight to the point I'm looking to grow tomatoes (and eventually other veggies) in containers with optimal results at the lowest cost. This thread is going to be filled with many pictures and questions to document my progress, results and gained knowledge. Hopefully this will aid others looking to grow great container vegetables at a low cost. Right now, I'm looking to grow using 5 gal buckets b/c they are essentially free from many fast food restaurants. I have decided to use and compare two soil media and techniques:

Al's 5:1:1 mix in a standard 5gal bucket &

Raybo's 3:2:1 mix in a SWC (i.e. Global Buckets on youtube)

I will be using the same tomato plant variety for each container. I haven't decided which variety quite yet, but probably a determinate variety from bonnie plants (they are sold locally all over here).

So far I have resourced the following materials:

-Six 5gal buckets (FREE!!)

-2cf of pine bark fines (PBF) - Evergreen soil conditioner from Lowes ($3.58!!)

-2cf of jungle growth mix (flower & veggie) from lowes ($7.83)

-40# bag of garden/lawn lime from HD ($2 clearance!!)

-Mater Magic organic fertilizer 8-5-5 w/ 4% calcium ($3)

I believe I can substitute the jungle growth mix for the peat in the 5:1:1 mix which would prevent me having to buy another 2cf of peat moss for $10. But I'll post a picture of the mix and the ingredients just to be sure. Believe it or not, the jungle growth mix is a good $3 cheaper than the same amount of peat moss!

One issue I have is with the perlite. I'm not keen on spending another $11-12 for a 2cf bag of the stuff since I'll only be making 3-4 5gal growing containers and won't need nearly that much. On the other hand,I'm not sure the 8qt MG will be quite enough. I did notice however that the jungle growth mix lists perlite as an ingredient! I wonder if there's enough in there to satisfy Al's mix proportion.

I know it's a little late in the season to get started, but I'm gung-ho and ready to start. I'll post some pics soon.

Need help with:

1. finding perlite (if needed)

2. picking tomato variety (leaning toward determinate for experiment such as bonnie plants "better bush")

3. determining drain hole size and locations for 5:1:1 mix bucket

4. tips for determining watering schedule for 5:1:1 bucket

I'll be posting again soon! Thanks

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A lot of good information on the link I posted. I am now on my forth year with Dual Buckets. I think you will have a lot of tomatoes!

Here is a link that might be useful: Global Buckets

    Bookmark   May 17, 2011 at 3:04AM
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I know it's hard to hear, but I really thinks it's too late for spring tomatoes in your area (I'm certainly no expert, but I've gained some experience from gardening in Houston for a couple of years). I don't want you to set yourself up for disappointment :( The issue is not so much the plant itself - the vegetative growth will still be decent even into the high 90's... however, the blossoms simply won't set and you'll be left frustrated. Better bush in particular is notorious for blossom drop.

The exceptions are so called "heat-tolerant" varieties... some have peer-reviewed evidence supporting the claim that they will continue to set fruit up to a temperature limit. Anecdotally, as you can easily find on gardenweb, these varieties have apparently been dissapointing.

The other exception are cherry tomatoes, and perhaps some grape/currant tomatoes - which are well accepted as being truly heat tolerant (in terms of blossom set). Tolerance varies between cultivars.

I know there's this strange attachment that many people (including myself) have to growing great tomatoes.. but IMHO, they have a much higher learning curve than peppers, eggplants, okra, beans, and other common vegetables.

If you do want to grow tomatoes this season, definitely try it in the fall.. starting seeds indoors anywhere from late July to August, and planting them into the buckets around the beginning of September. Perhaps with proper shade, you could start them in the buckets even earlier, giving them more time to grow out and be ready for production when the temperatures fall. There's lots more (and better) information about this online, so I'll leave it at that.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   May 17, 2011 at 3:15AM
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GT - Thanks for the advice. In that case I may go with a cherry tomato called "husky cherry red"

Here's some pics of my source materials. As you can tell, I have both Osmotcote and Mater Magic and am still undecided on which to use.

Also notice the inclusion of perlite in the jungle growth ingredients...it doesn't say what %, but I'm thinking of just mixing the bark fines with the jungle growth in maybe a 5:3 ratio since 50-55% of the mix is composted bark fines anyway. What do you guys think about that and saving money by not having to buy the perlite separately?

    Bookmark   May 17, 2011 at 2:39PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

Note that your Jungle Growth mix already has fertilizer and lime in it, so you would need to cut way back on both in your initial mix. The Osmocote you bought doesn't include trace minerals, but the Jungle mix does. I can't tell if any of your ingredients have the calcium and magnesium found in the dolomitic lime and foliage pro fertilizer Al recommends for 5-1-1. The lime appears to be hydrated, which is not the same as dolomite.

Seems to me you might be able to grow tomatoes in some combination of the ingredients you have, but calling it a 5-1-1 mix is a bit of a stretch.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2011 at 8:24PM
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From what I've read, the fertilizer within these potting mixes are almost negligible (package shows NPK of .22-.11-.18). I'm not sure the trace minerals in the mix are really very concentrated either (Ca & Mg equate to ~1/100 of 1%)

I don't believe there is any lime in the mix either, however they do list charcoal ash as a pH booster. However, I'm almost certain the the garden lime I have is in fact dolomitic as it states that on the bag.

I'm thing cutting way back on the lime and fertilizer may be detrimental to plant development if it were to rely solely on the potting mix's small amount of trace minerals and fertilizer.

I'm just wondering what proportion to mix the potting mix and PBFs to get closest to a 5-1-1, since the jungle growth lists composted bark fines as 55-65% of its content (and no mention of other ingredients %s).

    Bookmark   May 17, 2011 at 9:12PM
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You may want to check a local water report for trace minerals before doing all of your estimations also. My local water has so much calcium that you do not need much, I still add lime for the PH and magnesium, however.

    Bookmark   May 18, 2011 at 6:48PM
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dickiefickle(5B Dousman,Wi.)

"To get straight to the point I'm looking to grow tomatoes (and eventually other veggies) in containers with optimal results at the lowest cost"

You will never get optimal results by trying to pinch a penny. Breakdown and buy the dang Perlite ,you will need it for the drainage.
FWIW Pine bark is about the cheapest item it the mix and you need 5 times more bark than Perlite or peat .

    Bookmark   May 18, 2011 at 10:59PM
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Know it will be heresy on this board for sure, but I have done 5-1-1 without the perlite for years, maybe not with best possible results, but far better results than many might think and more than satisfactory for me....I agree you are way late to begin and would not waste any time getting something going....Husky Cherry Red may be your best bet for now...you can try nursing another variety through the heat, diseases and insects and hope for fruitset late August probably at the earliest, but it is not easy to pull off. My experience has been that starting Fall tomatoes from transplants put in in late August/early September is too late, unless your first frost is later than my 11/15 date, unless you have maximum sun which I don't. Any green or blushing fruits picked from those transplants will also not have near the flavor of earlier plantings due to cool night temps. You have plenty of time for eggplant and peppers which slow to a crawl in the hottest part of the summer but fruit for me easier than tomatoes in the heat and are very productive in buckets.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2011 at 7:09PM
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Chalston, that was a very helpful and informative post, thank you. Just one question though - what ratio of ingredients do you use? 5:1 or 5:2 pine bark fines to peat/potting mix?

    Bookmark   May 20, 2011 at 8:03PM
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Probably more a 5:1, and your Jungle Mix should be fine as a replacement for the peat.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2011 at 9:35PM
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Update 5/24

I finally got my bucket soil experiment kicked off. I gave in a bought a bag of MG perlite since I had already invested a good bit of time and money, I figured I might as well do it right. I decided on "Big Beef" indeterminate tomato plants for the experiment...I realize they probably won't fruit, but at least I should be able to get them through the Summer and have some fruit after it cools down a little.

I decided amending the soil of each of the containers with 1/2 of lime incorporated into the entire mix. I did NOT use the Osmocote 19-6-12 time release fertilizer and will instead begin either a bi-weekly or weekly (1/2 strength) fertilization with the MG 18-18-21 water soluble fertilizer.

As for watering, I will give water to the plants based on the dowel method. When the top 3-4 inches of container mix is dry, I'll water the soil until it just starts dripping out the bottom drain holes.

I will decide later whether to stake or cage the plant.

I did learn though while making the different mixes, that a 5 gallon bucket can actually hold about 6.25 gallons of soil

Mixes from RIGHT to LEFT:

Al's 5-1-1, 4-1 (PBFs-potting mix), 1-1 (PBFs-potting mix), 100% Jungle growth potting mix.

The container on the far left is actually a husky cherry tomato plant with 3-2-1 (JG mix-PBFs-Perlite).

The basil mix in the 4-gallon kitty litter bucket is just a mix of what I had left over.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 2:45PM
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Here is an update of my experiment. You can see the Big Beef in Al's mix is doing the best. I've been fertilizing weekly with MG water soluble tomato food (15-15-18) at 1/2 strength.

1st place: Al's 5:1:1 Mix (2nd from right)
2nd place: 100% potting mix (2nd from left)
3rd place: 1:1 mix of PBFs to potting mix (far left)
4th place: 4:1 mix of PBFs to potting mix (far right)

A question regarding watering though. I've been using the dowel method, but I'm unclear as to how much of the dowel needs to be dry after pulling out of the mix in the buckets. Should I water when the top 2-3" is dry, the top half is dry or should I wait until the whole dowel is dry? Here are some pics:

Here in the 5:1:1 mix, only the bottom third is moist...should I water now or wait until it's all dry?

Here the top half is dry and the bottom half is moist. Too soon to water?

Just for fun, here are some more pics:

Husky cherry red and basil

In ground: park's whopper surrounded by pepper plants (sweet and jalepeno)

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 3:00PM
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It's an interesting experiment. But I don't think it's controlled enough to prove anything. The tomato in the 5-1-1 mix was noticeably bigger to start with.

If I size them based on sizes, they would start with 5 (5-1-1), 4 (4-1), 3 (1-1), 4 (0-1). They will end with 5 (5-1-1), 3 (4-1), 3 (1-1), 4 (0-1). But the 4:1 mix is the closest to the 5-1-1 among the 3.

I'm not surprised by the result. All 4 are heavy in bark, with a minimum of 50%. The main benefit of bark is its longevity in maintaining soil structure such as porosity. One month is not long enough to decompose enough of them to make a difference between 50% and 75% bark content. In fact, if it's for short term usage, maybe a little bit more water retention capacity could be beneficial.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 1:02AM
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Excellent experiment, and right on time! I'm about to start my fall/winter garden here in Houston, and need some advice. Been trying to catch up to Al, but, seems he's outta pocket.

I used a modification of his 5:1:1 container mix for the first time last season, growing the best crop of healthy tomatoes and plants ever. On Al's recommendation, I used a 3:1:1 mix of PBFs:peat:perlite in 5-gallon, self-watering eBuckets. I used MG Potting mix as my peat component, and I mixed in 1 cup of powdered Dolomite lime + 1 cup of 10-10-10 per eBucket. Very healthy crop!

Only concern I had was at the end of the season when I ripped the plants, I noticed the mix at the bottom 1/4 of the eBucket seemed to be holding a bit more water than throughout the top 3rd. Also, I stayed confused on the watering schedule, because I could never tell if I needed to water or not. I might try your dowel this go-round, and try to adapt that as a measuring system.

Now, I'm prepping my eBuckets for my fall/winter garden. I'll be growing cabbages, cauliflowers, Brussels Sprouts, and broccoli in the 5-gallon eBuckets. These are high feeders (they like organic mediums), and they are water hogs! I'd like a recommendation, please, on how to reuse the 3:1:1 mix from last season, and in what proportion to fresh MG potting mix, fresh PBFs, and fresh perlite?

After reading your experiment, I'm inclined to go forward to a 5:1:1 mix in at least some of the eBuckets (I'll have about 48) just to see what would happen. Also, I need a recommendation on incorporating Black Kow Composted manure into the mix, as the plants are heavy feeders. I've grown them quite successfully in eBuckets before, in a mix of 50/50 MG Potting mix/Black Kow Composted manure.

I'm still trying to get a feel for Al's container mixes, and how the plants respond (last season was my first time). I loved the lightening fast drainage, and felt there was definite oxygenation going on in the mix, because the seedlings took off like a rocket when they were planted, and stayed so healthy through our Texas heat. They grew faster than I ever saw before.

Please note that not all my containers were true eBuckets. I made 1/2 of them free draining with holes drilled in the bottoms and 1/4" up the sides. These were top-watered with MG Water Soluble Plant Food for Veggies. The remaining were enclosed with the built-in reservoirs. Early on, I experienced an anaerobic odor emitting from some of the self-enclosed eBuckets, and discovered the overturned colander soil platform had collapsed in them and the mix was sitting in the water. Once I rebuilt them, there was no further smells.

One other observation was that the eBuckets didn't seem to wick the water high enough, which is why I started top watering them, before the season ended.

I know I've offered a mouthful here. Hope to hear some feed back as soon as you can get it posted. Almost forgot. I've started sifting dead tomato root hairs from the old 3:1:1 container mix, and will be ready to re-purpose it for the cole crops by the end of this week, so a speedy reply would be appreciated.

Thank you so much,


    Bookmark   September 12, 2011 at 4:56PM
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Update 9/24:

I took some more pictures of my tomato plants today. Since the temperatures have come down in central Alabama, I've noticed several new tomatoes starting to grow! I just hope they ripen before the first frost.

You'll notice that the tomatoes are laying down on the deck. This is because my trellis failed during a high wind thunderstorm. The weak-point was the plastic zip ties I used to secure the bamboo to the outside buckets. I'll have to try something sturdier next year. Either way, after the tomato plants fell over on the deck, they started to grow upright.

It looks as if each of the tomato plants did relatively well in their 5-gal buckets, with the 5:1:1 mix coming out slightly on top. Next year I am going to try larger containers and use just the 5:1:1 mix and save the buckets for determinate varieties.

Hope these pictures help.
P.S. - The tomato plant in the ground is a parks whopper...didn't yield very many tomatoes.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2011 at 2:57PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a



    Bookmark   September 25, 2011 at 11:06PM
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