The Bucket Report: Dodging the Weather

As I write this, at 1pm on April 8th, the sun is shining on the patio.  It’s also 38 degrees outside.  Last week, we reached 83 degrees.  I think Mother Nature reserves Reno as a whipping child for all the other places that have chosen to abuse her. 

No, really.  I like it here.  There are far fewer bugs in Reno than any other place I have lived.  We have poor soil and it rains about… oh… five times during the entire summer.  But we have few bugs.

While the wind blows the snowflakes around the budding trees, my potatoes sit nice and cozy in the bay window.

The potato buckets sit cozy with the houseplants.

This is the result of the global buckets we are trying out this year.  And if this past month has been any indication, it will be a tremendous success.  The potatoes are just three weeks old. 

Already past the tops of the buckets.

On March 12th, Russ took all the white plastic buckets we had gathered so far and converted them into global buckets.

5-gallon buckets sit with other gardening supplies.

You can buy these buckets for $3 at most hardware stores.  We would rather get them for free.  And you can get them all over the city, if you know where to look and aren’t embarrassed to walk up to a deli counter and ask for leftover buckets.  Stores go through these like crazy.  They arrive filled with pickles, pineapple chunks, icing…  And much more, I’m sure, but those are the labels we’ve seen so far.  After the stores use the pickles or icing, they toss the buckets into the trash compactor.  Goodbye, perfectly good bucket.

That is, most stores do.  If you go to Whole Foods in Reno, you may be lucky enough to find a stack of buckets at the north entrance, beside the green shopping baskets.  There, I’ve just given away my secret.  And you can’t ask the deli to save them for you, as I have done at the Savemart in my neighborhood.  You have to make it there before someone else grabs them.  Hurry up, because more people are learning this secret.

Each planter takes two buckets.  The bottom bucket is the water reservoir.  The top holds the soil and the plants.  Drill a few holes in the bottom… some for drainage, one for the watering tube, and one for the plastic cup.  The cup wicks the water from the reservoir into the soil, and the tube is used to fill the bottom bucket.  As long as the plant is past the seedling stage, you can mulch the top of the bucket and just water through the tube.  Within a month, I’ve watered my potatoes once.

You can go here to learn how to make them.  We used electrical conduit for the pipe, at a cost of 50 cents for six feet.

To plant the potatoes, we put about four inches of fertile soil in the bottom of nine of the buckets and planted four seed potatoes in each bucket.  While they sprouted, the buckets stayed in the bay window with the tomato and pepper seedlings, with a few plant lights to help out.

The bay window, full of seedlings on March 26th.

 On March 26th, two weeks after planting, the potatoes had barely peeked through. 

All Blue potatoes

Yukon Gold potatoes


On the same day, Mother Nature threw another hissy fit, but the potatoes were perfectly safe.  

Just a few days away from April.

A week and a half later, the potatoes had reached the top of the bucket.  We add soil whenever the plants grow six inches above the dirt, and will keep adding soil until the dirt reaches the top.  The potatoes get to go outside and play when the weather is warmer than 40 degrees, and it only takes about two minutes to take everyone outside, thanks to the nice handles already on the buckets.

However, today, they have to stay inside.  It’s for their own good.  I’m sure they understand.

Playing out in the sun with the lettuce, spinach, and tomato seedlings.



Today I had a few extra dollars.  So I went to Walmart to find the best deal on dirt.  Yes, dirt.  In Nevada, two of our most precious gardening commodities are water and dirt, two of the things I try to keep my kids and dogs from tracking into the house.  But if you attempt to garden here, without amending the soil in any way, you’re going to grow something that looks like this:

Nevada dirt

Our soil is very alkaline and extremely clay-heavy. To get a good humus, you actually need water plus green matter to decompose. In Reno we get a little bit of water in the winter, mostly in the form of snow, but the elements just aren’t right for any kind of soil that will grow a good, healthy garden. Good dirt is rare enough here that we plan to build a composter this summer. But my potatoes-in-a-bucket need dirt now.

Potting soil?  That would be great!  But we already have nine 5-gallon-buckets for potatoes.  We also plan to have at least 25 more global buckets containing tomatoes, squash, bell peppers, peas, cucumbers… Well, we just need more dirt. If we filled each of these buckets with potting soil, we would spend at least $80 on dirt.  At least.

So we made it.

In another 5-gallon bucket, I had my husband mix:
1 part storebought garden soil
1 part topsoil from my existing garden
1 part horse manure (from one of my clients’ corrals)
1 part storebought compost (which is more composted wood than anything. Few nutrients.)
2 cups storebought perlite, to help with drainage

Our resulting mix:

Good dirt

Isn’t it pretty? It looks like fudgy chocolate cake or Oreos, all crumbled up into a bowl. That’s a good thing.

The cheapest price we found on garden soil today was $2.75 for 2 cu. feet, which would fill one of our 5-gallon bucket planters if we didn’t stretch it out a little. We’ll probably find a cheaper price later in the season, but right now the selection was a little sparse. The perlite cost $6, but a small bag will be enough to help the drainage in all of our pots this year. The compost was about $4 more, for about 5 cu. feet.  So far, we have spent less than $20.

I have to take a second and mention that this storebought compost is not the “black gold” that you’re going to read about on organic gardening sites. To get the really good compost, you either need to make it ourself or get it from somebody local who has also made it. The garden store compost is mostly decomposed wood. This will really help with the drainage, but it won’t add the kind of nutrients that you would get from composting your kitchen waste.

If you live in my area and you’re going to make your own mix of dirt using existing topsoil, I recommend finding some that is already partially amended, or some that comes from an area close to the river.  Anything you find far from a riparian system is going to be mostly clay, which will bind together and won’t drain well. You can use a little, but don’t depend on it too much.  We learned this last year when a friend brought us a truckload of “good dirt,” finely sifted and free of rocks.  It was great for landscaping, but it was still mostly clay.  When we tried to water it, the water sat on top then ran off, leaving thirsty little plants.

Manure is basically plant matter that the animal has partially composted for you.  But be sure to only use cow (steer,) horse, chicken, sheep, or goat manure.  Don’t use anything that comes from omnivorous animals.  It’s easy to understand why when you realize that those animals eat the same foods that we’re supposed to cook before we eat.  I don’t want to have to worry about e. coli on my spinach or salmonella on my tomatoes. 

This same rule can apply for composting.  I only compost plant-based material, with the exception of eggshells.  Fats and meats don’t decompose as well, and can encourage the growth of the wrong kind of bacteria.  I realize that not everyone does this, and I don’t want to put down anyone else’s techniques, but I choose to feed my animal-based scraps to my dogs.

Next year, we won’t have to spend as much on dirt.  I can store this year’s dirt in a pile, throwing in some leaves, carrot peelings, or eggshells in the fall, and let it break down over the winter.  But by using the manure and the existing topsoil this year, we can stretch the dirt enough to fill all of our global buckets, grow some worthwile produce, and not have to buy a bag of potting soil per bucket.

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