It's tomato-planting time here in central Virginia! I promise you, there is absolutely nothing better than biting into a ripe-from-the-vine tomato still warm from the sun that you grew yourself. And once you are heavily-laden with summer's bounty, there are all those homemade recipes to try, like Restaurant Style Salsa, Strawberry Tomato Bruschetta, Heirloom Caprese with Balsamic Syrup, and Spicy Marinara... And what about those Doris Day dreams of canning your own Ketchup? It is time to get started!
Luckily, if you've enough sun (6-8 hours+) anywhere in your yard, you can grow tomatoes yourself. Short on space? Does the idea of tilling the yard make your back ache just thinking about it? Well, I've got your solution: grow your tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets!
When I was a child, my mother grew her tomatoes in large terracotta pots lining the deck, interspersed between pots of marigolds and geraniums. She was most fond of Beefsteak tomatoes–because one thick slice perfectly covered her homemade burgers–but I don't think they produced well in the pots, so she eventually gave up.
Nowadays, however, there are a gazillion heirloom and hybrid varietals that are perfectly suited for container gardening, like Jet Star, Patio Hybrid and Bush Beefsteak, just to name a few. For your best harvest potential, look for determinate or "bush" varieties; they grow to a certain size/height so are much easier to "contain." Here is a helpful heirloom list I came across.
Our yard is mostly shade, but our upstairs neighbor has generously donated portions of his deck for the cause (for a percentage of the harvest, of course). Because it wouldn't be like me to have unsightly 5 gallon pickle buckets ruining his second-story view, I'm dressing up the make-shift pots in up-cycled coffee bags and jute rope. I think they are rather beautiful, in a rustic, shabby sort-of-way.
I got the idea from an image I pinned on Pinterest, and followed the chain back to the source(?), a Scandinavian design inspiration blog called "Purple Area." (Thank heaven for Pinterest!) I was inspired to give this look a try considering I had all the materials already on hand.
Ron used his connections in the local food industry to score some old pickle buckets, but you could also purchase them new at your local hardware store for about $4 each (Make sure you get a light-colored, food-grade plastic; black buckets will cook the roots); still way cheaper than terracotta, and lighter and easier to move. I also had tons of burlap coffee bean bags left over from my Ernst & Thistle days and the rope from experiments in coiled rope basket-weaving. You could purchase coffee bags online or ask a local roaster if they could part with a few. Some roasters throw the bags out because they don't want to deal with the re-sell, but many eco-conscious ones already have a network of local crafters they sell to or even give out free. Check around in your area.
What you'll need
- Food-grade 5-gallon buckets
- Used coffee bean bag, one for each bucket
- Jute rope
- 3/8" drill bit
- 18 quarts organic potting soil per bucket (NOT garden soil)
- Tomato plants
- Broken pot bits or newspaper to line bucket
I cleaned each bucket (mmm...pickle juice), drilled several holes in the bottom for water drainage and then plopped each bucket inside a coffee bag. (Don't worry, the back is supposed to be way wider and taller than the bucket; this is a no-fuss, no sew solution.) I then folded the coffee back down until about 6 inches was left hanging over the top of the bucket rim. At this point, I turned the bucket over on it's side and synched it to bottom and one side of the bag, folding the excess burlap over and around the perimeter of the bucket. Turn it right side up, keeping the excess burlap tight against the side of the bucket and carefully fold down the remaining 6 inches, which will hold the excess fabric in place. (The third photo above shows the back of the bucket, once these steps are completed.)
Last thing to do is tie a nice chunk of jute rope around the top of the bucket and line the bottom with newspaper or use broken pot pieces to lightly cover each drainage hole. Fill with organic potting soil and plant your tomato. Position your buckets in a full sun area and water regularly, fertilizing every 1-2 weeks. In no time you'll have a bevy of lush fruit to slice, dice, chop and chomp.
[ I'll share pictures of my planted tomatoes in position once my foot heals and I can finally carry them up the deck stairs! ]