You may have heard Dutch Bucket systems mentioned in hydroponics circles but don’t know what this system is all about. Most hydroponics literature won’t mention Dutch Buckets because it is a growing system that uses a form of hydroponics called drip hydroponics. How is the Dutch Bucket system implemented, and will it work for you?
A Dutch Bucket system is a hydroponic method where plants are grown in individual buckets filled with a growing medium. Nutrient water is pumped from a central reservoir and delivered to each bucket via a drip line network. Unused nutrients are drained back to the nutrient tank via a central drainage system.
A Dutch Bucket is a growing system that uses hydroponics techniques to create an effective, simple system that any gardener can implement with basic equipment and skills. Dutch Bucket systems are very effective for growing plants that are difficult to cultivate in other hydroponic systems. Let’s learn more about the system and how you can use it to your advantage in your growing operation.
What Is Dutch Bucket Hydroponics?
Dutch Bucket systems are flexible, versatile, water-efficient, and nutrient-efficient, contributing to their popularity in the food-growing community. Dutch Buckets are sometimes referred to as Bato Buckets; the two names refer to the same system.
The system is particularly efficient at growing heavy-feeding plants, but it can be applied to growing any crop that can be grown in other hydroponic systems.
Dutch Bucket growing systems essentially consist of a bucket or series of buckets connected to a central nutrient reservoir and drainage system. The plants are grown in a soil-free growing medium in the bucket, which qualifies the system as a true hydroponic implementation.
The hydroponic principle most commonly used in Dutch Bucket growing is drip hydroponics. This method offers the most control over each plant or bucket’s water and nutrient supply.
Check out my guide to drip hydroponics to learn more about how the system works.
How Do Dutch Buckets Work?
Dutch Bucket systems are easy to implement and versatile in the arrangement and complexity of the system. The bucket system can be as basic as a single bucket or a series of buckets utilizing a central nutrient and water supply.
A Single Dutch Bucket System
A single bucket system is the simplest implementation, and the growing bucket is usually positioned directly above the nutrient reservoir. This arrangement allows excess, unused nutrients to filter through the growing medium and exit back into the nutrient reservoir below.
A low-volume pump is usually used in a single bucket system to pump the nutrients to the grow bucket above, using a constant flow rather than a drip system. A dripper can be used, but it is not necessary for a single bucket, closed system.
A single implementation can be adapted to use a gravity-fed nutrient delivery system. The excess nutrients are collected below the grow bucket in a container and returned to the main reservoir manually every few days.
A Series Of Dutch Buckets In A Network
A series of Dutch Buckets can be connected together through a central irrigation and drainage system. The nutrient reservoir is usually separate from the grow buckets if the Dutch Bucket system is a series of buckets.
The nutrient-laden water is pumped or gravity-fed through a network of plastic piping and drippers to deliver the nutrients to each bucket.
Each bucket will have a drainage system that directs excess nutrients back to the main reservoir for re-circulation in the system.
If the system is gravity-fed, each bucket may have a collection container for excess nutrients, which can be emptied manually back into the central reservoir.
The most simple and easy system I’ve used to grow delicious and nutritious food at home is using the Tower Garden vertical aeroponic system. I grow 20+ plants including herbs, greens, tomatoes, strawberries and more in my home office and on my balcony depending on the season.
I pick fresh ingredients from the tower for my daily cooking and pick off snacks throughout the day as I walk by. The system works on a timer and pump making it simple to grow and maintain, and because it is a re-circulating system I uses less water than any other growing method. Read my Tower Garden review to find out how it works.
Should Your Dutch Buckets Drain To Waste Or Re-Circulate?
There are two drainage methods to choose from when designing your Dutch Bucket system. You can opt to drain to waste or re-circulate the excess nutrients back to the nutrient reservoir.
The drain-to-waste system does not return the unused nutrient solution to the nutrient reservoir but drains it out of the system, and it is lost as it soaks away into the ground. This method is more wasteful of water and nutrients, but it is a simpler implementation since it does not require drainage piping.
Re-circulating the excess nutrients is the best option to conserve water and the costs of nutrients, but it requires more expense in setting the system up and more time to design the system.
Most people prefer to implement the re-circulation drainage option because it makes more sense from a long-term cost-saving perspective and conservation of water.
Advantages Of Dutch Bucket Systems
Dutch Bucket hydroponics offers several advantages that make it the preferred hydroponic implementation for growing certain plants and in certain climate conditions.
- Water efficiency. Dutch Buckets are extremely water-efficient, especially when drippers or emitters are used to regulate the water delivered to each plant. This makes the system desirable in drought-prone regions or where water is scarce.
- Ideal for large plants. Many other hydroponics systems are suited to smaller plants. Dutch Bucket systems allow for larger plants to be grown hydroponically.
- Simple implementation. Dutch Buckets are easy to set up and maintain, with no specialized knowledge required.
- Versatile. Any plants that can be grown in hydroponics can be grown in a Dutch Bucket system. Adaptations to the system can be made to suit your needs and space availability.
- Easy to remove or add plants. Removing old, dead, or diseased plants is easy. Plug the dripper, disconnect the drainage and remove the plant. Placing a new plant in the system is just as easy; position the new plant bucket and reverse the disconnect procedure.
- It can adapt to your space. The system does not take up a fixed amount of floor space, so you can configure the system according to your space. Make sure the drainage system has enough downward angle to drain properly.
- Cheap to implement. Dutch Buckets are cheap to set up and maintain, using supplies that can be purchased inexpensively from any hardware store or garden center.
Disadvantages Of Dutch Bucket Systems
As with any closed growing system, there are some disadvantages, but these problems are not unique to Dutch Buckets and can apply to other hydroponic implementations as well.
- Blocked irrigation lines. The irrigation lines in the system, particularly the smaller diameter drip lines, can become clogged with nutrient salts or debris, limiting the water and nutrient flow.
- Blocked drippers or emitters. Emitters can become blocked, which will stop the nutrient and water flow completely to the bucket. If the blockage goes unnoticed for long enough, the plant can suffer stress or die.
- Water-borne diseases can spread fast. Due to the shared nutrient supply, a contaminant or a disease in the water can quickly spread to all the plants in the system. However, one of the advantages of hydroponics is the lower risk of disease due to the soil-less growing system.
- Tweaking is required to get optimal flow. While the setup of the system is simple, it can take some tweaking to get the drip flow sufficient for each plant’s needs.
None of these potential disadvantages of the system are sufficient to disqualify the Dutch Bucket system from consideration as a viable growing method.
What Is The Best Growing Medium For Dutch Buckets
The choice of growing medium for your Dutch Bucket system is important because it can change the effectiveness of the system and the health of your plants.
The growing medium you select must hold sufficient moisture to allow the plants’ root system to absorb the water and nutrients before it filters out of the growing medium.
However, the growing medium must not hold so much moisture that the roots become waterlogged. This issue will result in root rot which can cause the plants to die.
Since Dutch Buckets are also generally used to grow larger plants, the growing medium should offer good support for the large plants, giving them a good, stable root base.
The best growing mediums for use in this system are coconut coir, vermiculite, perlite, and hydroton clay pellets. Hydroton is also known as Expanded Clay Pellets or Light Expanded Clay Aggregate or LECA.
All these options are eco-friendly options for growing mediums. Many gardeners like mixing the growing mediums for maximum benefit and support. A popular and effective mix is a combination of hydroton and perlite.
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How Often Should Plants In Dutch Buckets Be Watered?
When using a timer, the watering frequency will depend on the plants grown, but a good rule of thumb is to water 3 times a day for 30-minutes each time. The best times would be 6 am, 12-noon and 6 pm. The times can be adjusted for the seasons, but a good measure is 6 hours between watering cycles.
You can select various methods to deliver suitable water and nutrients to your plants in a Dutch Bucket system. Each method has its benefits and complications, but the system is flexible enough to offer a choice depending on your needs.
Many people use a constant flow option, where the nutrients are constantly flowing into the Dutch Bucket, and the excess nutrients are recycled into the reservoir via the drainage system.
This method does not require drippers but requires a continuously running pump, which consumes electricity and introduces wear on the pump.
Another method is to use a continuous drip system that constantly drips nutrients into the bucket, and the excess filters through the growing medium and unused nutrients are returned to the central storage. The drippers allow the flow to each bucket to be regulated and reduce the pump size needed for the system.
There is no chance of over-watering your plants in the Dutch Buckets because the excess water and nutrients will filter through the growing medium and exit the bucket through the drainage system.
The final option is to use either a constant flow or a drip flow system with a timer to regulate the nutrient release at certain times of the day. The downside to this option is introducing a timer, another potential point of failure in the system.
However, the timer will reduce nutrients and water lost to evaporation and limit the wear and tear on your pumps.
I’ve recently completed a resource for watering hydroponic systems if you want to know more.
What Can You Grow In Dutch Buckets?
The variety of food plants that can be grown in Dutch Bucket hydroponics is one of the major advantages of the system and the reason many growers choose this system.
Dutch Bucket systems can be used to grow leafy greens, herbs, and any other plant you can grow in other hydroponics systems. However, the Dutch Bucket system has advantages for growing other plants that do not work well in other hydroponic systems.
- Root crops. Carrots, turnips, beets, and other root crops are difficult to grow in other hydroponic systems, but the larger volume of growing medium in a Dutch Bucket system allows these plants to be grown.
- Vine plants. This system can successfully grow squash, cucumber, pumpkin, strawberries, and similar spreading plants. The plants can be trellised to grow vertically or allowed to spill over the side of the bucket and spread out on the ground.
- Tomatoes. Tomatoes are easily grown in Dutch Bucket hydroponics, and it is simple to support the pants vertically as they grow.
- Peppers and chilies. The depth of the growing medium allows these plants to grow successfully in the bucket systems more easily than in other hydroponic systems.
- Beans and peas. These climbing plants can be supported by a structure attached to the bucket system to allow them to grow vertically.
- Eggplant. A large, heavy-feeding plant that needs a good root structure and space, an ideal candidate for Dutch Bucket growing!
- Fruit trees. Miniature varieties of fruit trees can be grown in Dutch Buckets, allowing fruit trees to be grown in small spaces, even if you have no garden space. This method also allows you to take your fruit trees with you if you move to a new home.
Dutch Bucket systems are preferred for heavy-feeding plants such as peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants because they can receive controlled nutrients to encourage growth and fruiting. The flow of nutrients can be adjusted to cater to the needs of each plant.
How To Set Up A Dutch Bucket System At Home
A simple Dutch Bucket can be set up at home with minimal costs. The most expensive parts of the system will be the pump, piping, and growing medium.
The easiest way to get the piping is to purchase a drip hydroponics kit, which will give you all the pipes and drip emitters needed to build a basic system. You will also need a small submersible pump to push the nutrients through the system.
Plastic elbows and PVC piping can be used to create the return drainage system to deliver the excess nutrients back to the reservoir.
Suitable buckets, such as a 20-gallon bucket, and enough growing medium to fill the bucket to within an inch of the top edge of the bucket, will be required for each large plant. For smaller plants, multiple plants can be grown in one bucket.
Once the drainage system has been set up, it is simple to fill the buckets with growing medium, plant the plants in the buckets, fill the nutrient reservoir with nutrient solution, position the drippers, and switch the system on.
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Dutch Buckets are a simple and easy method of growing plants hydroponically. Any plants can be grown in these systems, but they are especially suited for growing larger heavy-feeding plants.
The flexibility and versatility of Dutch Buckets make it an ideal system for space-constrained growing, but it can be scaled up to commercial level growing.