Another commercial system with three different generations of tomatoes. Note that each bucket has two drip irrigation lines per bucket; this is used as a precaution against any one drip line becoming clogged. Also notice that these buckets are using perlite as the growing medium. This particular system, and other dutch bucket systems, are available from Growers Supply.
With all the above advantages, growers may wonder if bato buckets have any downside. For any given growing system, there are always a few drawbacks, and the bucket system has its share. Let’s look at the big ones.
The biggest risk is with the nutrient delivery system. Drip irrigation lines are used for a variety of growing systems, both hydroponic and conventional. They are so popular because when they work, they work well. However, they are also notorious for becoming blocked. Even when drip irrigation is only delivering water, the system can easily become clogged with minute bits of contaminants such as soil particles. When that drip irrigation system is delivering both water and nutrients, any nutrient solids which fail to dissolve will almost invariably clog the system somewhere. This is a minor to moderate problem for plants growing in soil, and in other hydroponic growing systems. Sadly, the bucket system is much more dependent upon that drip irrigation system operating as efficiently as possible. A leaking drip irrigation line may overwhelm one or more buckets with surplus nutrient solution and drown the plants. A blocked line will starve the plants depending upon it. Since the buckets are sized to provide just enough root volume for optimal condition, the roots have very little emergency reserve is the irrigation system fails. Some buckets do offer a mini-reservoir at the base of the bucket, to provide at least a few hours’ worth of emergency irrigation. However, a large vine plant in full production on a hot day would draw up that emergency reserve very quickly. This disadvantage affects production at any scale of operation. Growers are well advised to check the drip irrigation system frequently, and/or set up sensors for plants to immediately alert growers to a nutrient delivery problem. This is the single biggest issue with bato buckets. Drip irrigation fans will say that the system works 99% of the time, but that 1% is a matter of when, not if. In other words, assume that leaks and blockages will occur, and then organize one or more methods to monitor for them and correct them as quickly as possible. Ignoring this risk is almost a guaranteed way to lose plants sooner or later.
A second disadvantage is that buckets should be cleaned between growing seasons. Some growers would argue that this can’t really be considered a disadvantage for the bucket system alone, since any growing system needs to be cleaned periodically. However, the number of buckets to be cleaned per crop is much greater than the corresponding number of NFT channels, flood and drain containers, etc. In other words, consider a hypothetical growing system of 100 plants. Such a system may only have a half dozen flood and drain containers or NFT channels. However, it would have 50 buckets. For hobbyists and small-scale growers, this difference may not add up to much. For commercial growers, this can turn into a fairly significant cost in manpower. Looking into ways to either automate or streamline this process will help minimize the cost and hassle factor.
A third disadvantage is that containers are usually at ground level, which can be difficult to work with. Above we listed that as an advantage because that location puts the growing area at a convenient height. Given that buckets themselves usually don’t need daily attention, this usually isn’t a huge issue. However, a large operation will need to figure out how best to lift, move and place buckets as efficiently as possible to minimize worker strain. Forklifts, carts and/or other mechanical lifting and moving methods are advisable.
This quick survey of advantages and disadvantages is intended to be an overview to help growers evaluate whether a bato bucket system is a good fit for a planned operation. Let’s get into more detail now about some other aspects of a bucket system.
As we’ve already seen, a hydroponic bucket system can use a variety of different growing media, and under some conditions none at all. So a grower is free to choose whichever growing media best supports the operational plants. The one caveat to this is the drip irrigation system. Some growing media are better adapted to this irrigation system than others. A growing media which effectively wicks water is best, since this will allow the nutrients to move quickly throughout the media and therefore reach the entire root mass. Small particle size is one very good predictor for wicking ability, as is pore size between particles. A perlite/vermiculite mix is very good, as is sand and small gravel, or rockwool. Large gravel, coir and hydroton would be mediocre performers in this category. Lava rock would generally be considered too large for effective wicking. While the roots themselves improve wicking through a growing media, growers should choose a growing medium which makes wicking as easy as possible to allow for rapid movement of nutrients through the bucket.
Elsewhere on this website, we talk at length about growing media and how to choose the right media for any given growing system and/or crop. That section has more information about wicking ability and how it affects root development and nutrient transport. Since bato buckets allow for a variety of different growing media, growers can review the options and choose accordingly. The growing media section can be accessed here.