I am a 7th-grade science teacher and the leader of a club called "Urban Growers". We meet Friday afternoons throughout the year and there is always plenty to work on in the garden. This round of clubs, I have a group of students who are very ambitious and wanted to create something new for the garden. Their only restriction was that I wasn't going to buy anything for them so they needed to reuse items we already had on hand.
After finding an old 5-gallon bucket, they started brainstorming. Somebody suggested an upside-down tomato planter and the wheels started turning. Before long, they had a plan.
Step 1: Gather Materials
Materials needed include:
- 2" hole saw drill bit
- 5-Gallon Bucket
- Potting Soil
- Tomato Plants (x2)
- Rope or Chain to hang the bucket
- Something to hang the bucket from
If you're interested in growing your own tomato plants, stick around until the final step for some hints and tips.
Step 2: Prepare the Bucket
Make sure the bucket has been rinsed and cleaned. I would NOT use a bucket that may have contained anything hazardous. Our bucket came from the cafeteria and contained dill pickles. The smell was a little overwhelming so the boys rinsed the bucket a few times and got to work.
Using the 2" hole saw, cut a hole in the bottom of the bucket. Many buckets have a center point visible in the bottom from the mold that can help be a guide.
Step 3: Add the Tomato Plants and Potting Soil
Using a tomato seedling, carefully thread the plant through the hole. Once the plant is completely through, remove the solo cup from the root ball. It's best to give a little squeeze to the cup (like making a sand castle) and the cup should come right off.
Next, add potting soil to the bucket. *One thing we learned is that it's important to know where you're planning to hang the bucket before you begin. The bucket will become quite heavy after adding the soil. Also, it's hard to put the bucket down because there is a plant hanging out of the bottom.
After filling the bucket with soil, the students wondered if they could add another tomato plant to the top of the bucket. I couldn't see why not so they added a second tomato plant.
Step 4: Hang Your Bucket
This was by far the hardest part and the step you need plan ahead on. I estimate the bucket weighs around 50 lbs. As stated in the previous step; it's important to know where you're planning to hang the bucket before you begin. The bucket will become quite heavy after adding the soil. Also, it's hard to put the bucket down because there is a plant hanging out of the bottom. Having assistance with this step is important. No one wants to admit they sustained an injury trying to hang a tomato plant on their own.
Luckily, we have vertical hydroponics grow towers in our greenhouse built within a U-Track frame. The frame is easily capable of handling the weight of the planter.
We used a heavy gauge chain from our school's maintenance department to hang the bucket. I helped the boys carefully hoist the bucket into place. Be aware the plant will get bigger and heavier as the season progresses. It also gets heavier after a good watering.
The students are planning on building a structure outside in the next few weeks so the plants have more room to grow and won't overheat in the greenhouse with the high summer temps. I'll do my best to update their progress with the build and the success of the upside-down-right-side-up-planter.
Optional: Decorate your bucket! The boys didn't care, but if you wanted to dress up your bucket it's pretty simple. All you need is some fabric and a hot glue gun. Cut the fabric to the correct size or wrap it around the bucket and trim off the excess. Something with bright colors might help attract pollinators?
Step 5: Grow Tomatoes From Seed!
Tomatoes have to be one of the easiest plants to grow from seed.
Mix some seed starting soil in a bucket with water until the soil has the consistency of a moist sponge. Add the moistened seed starting soil to a propagation/seed starting tray. I like this sturdy brand because I can use it year after year. I'll also pick up the tray inserts to prevent a mess when watering.
Use a sharpened pencil and poke a hole in the center of each cell. DON'T go too deep! I will usually only go as deep as the sharpened part of the pencil. Once you reach the paint on the pencil, twist and pull it back out.
Add a seed or two to each hole. There are so many different types of tomato seeds to choose from! Having a tray with 50 or 72 cells is a great way to figure out what you like the best and a great way to share plants with friends and neighbors. Order your seeds from a company like Seed Savers Exchange so that you can save seeds from the varieties you enjoy most.
Place the tray under a 4-foot shop light (LED's are a great option). As long as the light is only an inch or two above the soil, there is plenty of artificial light for them to grow super strong. Don't worry about placing a plastic dome over the top because your lights will be too far away and the seed starting soil holds plenty of moisture.
About two weeks after your seeds germinate and are looking healthy, they will outgrow their little cells and need to be transplanted. Now it's time to give them some potting soil with the nutrients they need to take off. You can purchase small pots to transplant into, but I usually use solo cups. Don't forget to write the variety of tomato on the side of the cup for identification and poke a few holes into the bottoms of the cups to let water drain out (no wet feet). When transplanting, bury the stem all the way up to the bottoms of the first true leaves. The little hairs on the stem will turn into roots and will make your plant much stronger.
Harden the plants off by putting them outside in a mostly shaded area. You can also put them out on a cloudy day. After two or three days they are ready for full sun.
After two to three more weeks they will be ready for their final resting place. Pick a sunny spot and consider some cages or stakes to keep them up off the ground.
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