The following 101, on creating a Bucket Brigade, comes from a federal civil servant turned home brewer, food grower, putter upper, and HOMEGROWN member, Dr. John. John, who has been gardening in the ground and in containers for 20 years, has helped FFA clubs with container gardening and simple hydroponics fundraising projects, and he founded the South Carolina food-security group Aiken Localvore. Thanks so much for lending your know-how, John, and please keep the good ideas growing!
What’s a Bucket Brigade? Basically, it’s a bucket-sized salad garden—or, I guess, a phalanx of bucket-sized salad gardens and the people who plant them. I wish I could take credit for the concept, but the folks who came up with it and encouraged me were from the Urban Land Army, in Washington State. I just took the idea and ran with it in another direction, applying it to feeding those in need.
In South Carolina, my wife and I make the buckets following the procedures and labeling of the ULA (we call ourselves the Central Savannah River Area Land Army), and then we drop them off at local food banks, food pantries, and food distribution centers.
Here’s how to create a Bucket Brigade in your own city or town.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
» Large food-grade bucket. I ask the owners and chefs of local restaurants if I can haul off their empty food containers or if I can pick their old buckets out of the trash. I offer to give them credit for donating their containers, especially if they take the time to clean them out. (It’s always nice to publicly say thank you for any help you get, no matter what scale.) I prefer 5-gallon buckets, which tend to be the most readily available from restaurants, but 2 or 3 gallons or larger will work, too. Just keep in mind who will be the receiving the buckets. Can they lift and move a heavy container without undue strain? You can always keep the buckets smaller and give more than one per family.
» Veggies and/or herb seedlings. Starting from seed can be a little intimidating for folks who haven’t gardened before, so I recommend going with small plants. I usually plan on one patio tomato, one cabbage or lettuce seedling, and one bell pepper seedling per bucket, although other types of edibles will work, too.
» Potting soil or mix. (HOMEGROWN note: See more on soil in John's Container Gardening 101.) I’m currently seeking sponsors for the potting soil and the plants from among our local garden supply stores. I don’t have any problem taking broken bags or containers—or even last year’s goods. They all work. They just require a little more fertilizer and lime.
WHAT TO DO
1. Get a hold of a bucket.
2. Option A: Modify the bucket by turning it into a self-watering, or subirrigated, container. For details, watch the HOMEGROWN video below (filmed at Bonnaroo) or check out the EarthTainer Construction Guide (John's a fan). Option B: For a simpler version that requires regular watering, drill or poke drainage holes in the bottom of the bucket and include the lid as a saucer. One important note: If you go the self-watering route, use potting mix. If you go the simpler route, use potting soil.
3. To turn your bucket into a garden: Fill the container with potting soil or mix up to the bucket's next-to-last rim. Moisten. Add about half a cup of organic fertilizer or compost to the surface of the mix and pat down. Continue filling the remainder of the bucket with potting soil or mix. Add another handful of organic fertilizer or compost and turn it under about a quarter of an inch. Insert three plants into the bucket. If you're going the subirrigated route, grill or poke large holes in the bucket's lid, thread the plants through, and label them. (For a printable version of this process, in both English and Spanish, download John's instructions as a PDF. You can use these instructions to prep the bucket and you can pass them along to the bucket's recipients, who can then use them to replant their buckets when the first round of veggies is done producing. For lots more helpful info, see the Container Gardening 101.)
4. Along with each bucket, we include instructions on how to maintain the garden (download John's instructions as a PDF here, in English and Spanish) and a point of contact.
5. If folks don't want to replant the buckets themselves, we ask them to return the containers to the point of contact once they’re done with them. We’ll remove leftover plant matter and compost it, and we’ll clean the potting soil or mix by sifting the dirt for large objects and checking for mold or other diseases. Then we’ll add more organic fertilizer or compost and more plants, and we’ll reissue the bucket. This way, we don’t spend more money than necessary on potting soil, the biggest expense involved.
WHAT THE BUCKETS DO
2. Give their recipients a sense of accomplishment from growing their own food and learning a new skill.
3. Give folks a source of fresh vegetables that don’t cost anything, other than a little water and attention.
4. Spread ideas and spark imagination. I hope folks will replicate the Bucket Brigade in their own communities and help build up their own food supplies. Maybe that’s you? Once you've planted a bucket garden, you might consider other aspects of your local food system—maybe joining or organizing a CSA, maybe hosting local canning activities, maybe even starting a food co-op.
So far we’re only up to ten buckets, due to time and funds. But the results have been very rewarding. My plan is to bring a few more buckets to our local farmers market, along with sign-up rosters both for supplies and for volunteers to help prep the containers. Should be interesting. You can see that this is an activity suitable for FFA and 4H clubs, church groups, businesses, fraternal organizations, individuals (old, young, whomever). It has a wide impact on the community and it requires very little effort and materials. In other words, it’s simple. And, after 40 years in the federal government, I like to keep things simple!
For more on planting and growing in all kinds of buckets, pots, baskets, and more, consult John's Container Gardening 101. Looking for more ways to help feed your community? Check out the How to Start a Food Recovery Program 101 and the How to Start a CSA (Even if You Don’t Have a Farm) 101. Hungry for more good food near you? Visit the Find Good Food page. You can always turn up more things to plant, grow, cook, preserve, make, craft, and give in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.