What’s a Dutch Bucket System? [2022 Guide + DIY Tips]

The Dutch Bucket method of hydroponic growing (also called the Bato Bucket method) has proven highly beneficial to gardens growing large fruiting plants, mainly due to the system’s flexibility of layout and minimal space requirements

This method of hydroponic growing can easily be designed to fit relatively small spaces, such as inside a “hobby” greenhouse, and can easily accommodate large fruiting plants that can be reasonably moved around in your greenhouse, as well. 

Because of the larger size of the plants typically grown in a Dutch Bucket system, you’ll want to consider the plant’s size at full maturity when laying out your individual bucket spacing. Place each bucket so that you can get to every plant in the garden, with enough room to move around and safely perform the necessary pruning and harvesting.

Arranging the garden into rows that run the length of the greenhouse has been hard to beat over the last few thousand years.

What is a Dutch Bucket system?

A Dutch Bucket system is one that uses “buckets” to hold an absorbent growing medium that larger vining plants can root into, which provides an affordable, waterproof way to repeatedly deliver nutrients to that medium, and can be easily re-positioned for ideal arrangement. 

The buckets themselves are more than mere vessels of substrate, however. Their drain design is a simple, yet clever way to optimize efficiency for larger, fruit-bearing plants that are ordinarily difficult to grow hydroponically.

Growing larger plants in the narrow confines of the typical NFT (nutrient film technique) setup, for example, is usually more trouble than it’s worth.

Like nearly all hydroponic growing methods, Bato Buckets can be built DIY using readily available materials. More advanced options, like automated nutrient delivery and real-time PPM/EC monitoring, will obviously require a greater investment and more technical skill to install, but we encourage everyone to consider them. If you have any prior experience building other kinds of hydroponic growing systems, you will find the Dutch Bucket method to be surprisingly simple.   

The buckets are usually mounted above a “main” drain line – 1-½” PVC pipe is a practical and popular choice. Holes are drilled in the main drain line, spaced to accommodate each  Dutch Bucket. The buckets can mount directly to the main drain, or can be connected by hose – either way, it’s best to let gravity do the work when possible (although larger systems will often employ recirculation pumps to help move nutrient solution throughout the greenhouse)

Dutch Bucket Systems

How Dutch Bucket Systems Work

(Fig. 1)

Dutch Bucket Systems DIY

A Practical Dutch Bucket Application

(Fig. 2)

dutch supplemental drain system

The Supplemental Drain System

(Fig. 3)

Dutch/Bato Bucket2020 Hydroponic Growing Product Guide

[1] INTSUPERMAI Hydroponic Dutch/Bato Bucket Grow System 6 Box Growing Kit

This pre-assembled Dutch Bucket system comes with six buckets, arranged in two rows, that each include their own lid and growing basket. The base of the assembled unit includes a “horseshoe” drain line that provides each row with its own drain line. 

The kit does not include a tank for use as a central reservoir, but this is common with most pre-designed kits. And while this kit does seem to include minimal irrigation manifolding, delivering at least from a main hose connection to each bucket, we still recommend installing your own quality drip system.

Running a standalone irrigation system gives you the freedom and flexibility to plan around your greenhouse, and not just work with what came in the kit’s box. The specific dimensions of the kit are:

Overall: 27.5” tall, 27.5” wide, 35.5” long

– Growing Box (Bucket): 9” x 12” x 10”

– Basket Height: 3.8”

– Basket Diameter: 3.8”

As you can infer from the image and the dimension, this kit accommodates many different methods of hydroponic gardening. The unique bucket shape, however, makes them incredibly well-suited for Dutch Bucket hydroponics. The smaller recess at the bottom is where your supplemental reservoir of nutrient solution sits, allowing the perlite (or other medium) to absorb it. 

This is a great start to a professional-level hydroponic setup. Throw in an automated drip delivery, central reservoir, and nutrient testing, and you are all set!

[2] HydroLock All-in-One Professional Grow Kit

The Hydrolock™ system takes a scientific approach to the delivery of solution to the plants by offering a unique attachment that fits over a standard bucket. This attachment becomes a sort of lid, with an aperture that fits around the main stem of the plant. 

Solution is pumped through the lines and into the lid, where it is distributed via Hydrolock’s Tornado Sprayer. According to Hydrolock’s engineers, this consistently even distribution of nutrient solution results in reducing nutrient and water waste, more even nutrient distribution, and a drop in the evaporative rate of the growing medium.

Some will call it a novelty, and others will call it a novel innovation – we think it’s a solid idea. And with the kit providing the pump, drip emitters, Hydrolock™ Water Distributing Caps, fittings, bubbler manifold, and tubing, all it takes is a thoughtful drain setup to transform this beauty into a standalone Dutch Bucket masterpiece. 

[3] Bluelab PENCON Conductivity Pen Fully Waterproof Pocket Tester, CF, EC, PPM 500, PPM 700

Every hydroponic garden needs one of these, period. BlueLab’s PENCON is one of the best on the market, and can ensure you keep your nutrient solution at optimal levels for your plants’ health.

DIY Dutch Bucket Materials

Plenty of people get into hydroponics simply because they love designing and building their own system. One of the most important things to keep in mind is to keep the system modular from the very beginning. Using equipment that is commonly available will ensure that everything fits together properly, and that adding on additional buckets down the road is a simple task.

In this section, we’ve put together a few of the essentials you’ll need to get your own Dutch Bucket hydroponic garden started. Check this guide if you need any help selecting a central hydroponic reservoir for your system.

Dark bucket and reservoir material is important for preventing the growth of algae in your solution and containers. Proper bulkhead fittings and industry-standard 8mm barbed-nipples ensure leak-proof connections, and you can never have enough shut-off valves for isolating plants. 

For the central reservoir, use a baseline of 2 gallons of capacity needed per bucket, per day. Therefore, if you have six buckets, 12 gallons of reservoir solution will be consumed each day. One 20-gallon tote, like those featured in our startup list, should give you right at (or just under) 2 days of sustenance for your six-bucket garden.

Another important consideration is that different plants not only consume solution at different rates, but also require different levels of each mineral as well. In other words, a reservoir that’s setup for tomatoes (NPK 8-32-16) could fry your butternut squash (if you use the same mix for both).

For these reasons, and for the sake of keeping the overall system as modular as possible, we suggest using multiple 20-gallon reservoirs at once. Using the featured six-pack, for example, daisy-chaining three totes together could provide your garden with 60-gallons of solution. 

Attaching these to a six-bucket arrangement could provide your garden with 5 or more days worth of food! 

[1] Argee RG5500BK/10 Plastic Bucket, 5 gallon, Black, 10 Count

[2] Blumat 6 Pack – Thru-Hull Tank Connector Bulkhead Fitting to 8mm for Irrigation and Automatic Watering Systems

[3] Hydrofarm Active Aqua Submersible Water Pump, 400 GPH

[4] Blumat Automatic Watering System for 5 Plants (Starter Kit)

[5] Rubbermaid Commercial Products Brute Tote Storage Container With Lid, 20- Gallon (Pack of 6)

[6] Blumat 32102 Shut-off Valve for 8mm Water Systems

Dutch Bucket Product List (cont.)

Other hydroponic gardeners, however, aren’t so enthusiastic about building a system from scratch. In fact, they like things as turnkey as possible, so that they can get to work doing some actual gardening!

Below, you’ll find our recommended products to help make your greenhouse more manageable. From pre-assembled Dutch Buckets to automated irrigation, these products will make hydroponic gardening easier and more effective.

[7] BLUMAT Water Reservoir | 5-Gallon Bucket w/Lid & Bulkhead Fittings Installed

[8] Raindrip R560DP Automatic Watering Kit

[9] Jeteven 132ft/40m Drip Irrigation Kit

How do Dutch Buckets work?

Whether you employ an automated or manual feeding system, the buckets will need to have nutrient solution delivered several times each day, with automated drip irrigation being most popular.

The nutrient solution flows down through the growing medium, where it is readily absorbed by the roots. In smaller DIY or hobby greenhouses,  run-off solution is usually carried outside via the main drain line, to help feed exterior garden beds or nearby trees. Larger systems recirculate run-off nutrient solution back into their central reservoir for re-use, although this requires regular testing of nutrient PPM, conductivity, alkalinity, etc.

Whether you re-use the runoff nutrient solution in your greenhouse or in your yard, what’s important is to keep it off the floor of the greenhouse. The solution is engineered for enthusiastic growing, and algae is no exception. On your floor, this presents a significant slipping hazard for greenhouse staff and visitors alike.

Besides, who wants unsightly algae growing in their floor’s tiny cracks and crevices?

The area of the bucket below the drain line serves as a supplemental nutrient reservoir, by helping to provide nutrients to the plants in-between their scheduled feedings. 

The best way to deliver nutrition to your plants is through an automated drip irrigation system that delivers a controlled volume of solution to each bucket, usually twice per hour. This circulates fresh solution into the medium and refills the supplemental reservoir, preventing stagnation and ensuring precise nutrient levels.

As the nutrient solution is absorbed by the plants, the leftover solution trapped in each bucket is wicked back up from the supplemental drain reservoir. This ensures a steady supply of nutrients to the plants between feedings while still allowing the roots to absorb as much oxygen as they need to, as well.  

Smaller Dutch Bucket systems without recirculation will often gravity-drain their solution run-off down to a central reservoir, where a submersible pump can then deliver solution back to the plants. It is simply more cost-effective in a small garden to let gravity return the unabsorbed solution back to the reservoir, as illustrated in both systems above.

This is why the design layout that includes a table, as in Fig. 2 above, has become so commonplace. 

Commercial Dutch & Bato Bucket Systems

Commercial Dutch Bucket systems, also referred to as Bato Buckets, are almost always grown in rows to make gardening tasks more efficient. Commercially grown hydroponic tomatoes are produced almost entirely via this method due to its flexibility with vining plants and heavy fruits.

commercial dutch bucket system

Photo Credit: Todd McPhail via Agratech.com 

Commercial hydroponic greenhouses typically utilize a combination of hoses, piping, processing pumps, and multiple nutrient reservoirs to successfully grow a high-volume of plants at once. Most larger operations will have one central reservoir for leafy greens (NFT) and another central reservoir for their tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, etc. (Dutch/Bato).

After all, different plants require different levels of the three principal nutrients, NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), and consume them at different rates. This can make growing different species from one central reservoir more difficult, if not impossible.

Are Dutch Bucket systems and Deep-Water Culture (DWC) systems the same?

While a quick glance at an individual bucket from each of these methods might appear similar, in process they differ quite a bit. The main differences between the Dutch Bucket and Deep-Water Culture methods of hydroponic gardening are distinguished by the following:

  • Dutch Bucket/Bato Bucket Systems: 
    • Require a bucket per 2-4 plants, and are better-suited for vining plants that yield large fruit, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, etc.
    • Rely heavily on greenhouse support structure, such as adjustable horizontal and vertical trellis lines
    • Generally utilize a centrally located reservoir for storing nutrient solution, which is sometimes part of a recirculation system, that can be conveniently pumped anywhere in the greenhouse
    • A recirculation system makes use of unabsorbed nutrients, reducing waste/costs and optimizing harvest yields
  • Deep-Water Culture (DWC) Systems:
    • Are still seen employed most often in “bucket hydroponics,” such as the budget-friendly Kratky method
    • The root ball hangs submerged in the nutrient solution, allowing the roots to soak up as much food as they can
    • An air pump is required*, along with an aquarium “bubble stone,” in order to aerate the solution, which provides the necessary oxygen to the roots
DWC hydroponic system

If you want to see a breakdown of the most popular hydroponic growing methods, this post is what you’re looking for.

Another reason that commercial greenhouse managers are falling in love with the Dutch Bucket method is the modular nature of the design. For example, consider this informative video by [mhpgardener]:

[VIDEO] Dutch Bucket Hydroponics – How It Works & How to Make Your Own Buckets

What plants can I grow in a Dutch Bucket system?

Dutch Bucket growing is best-suited for large fruiting plants, and is especially accommodating to vining species in particular. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, bell peppers, pole beans, and eggplants are all popular plants for growing in Dutch Buckets.

Be sure to give yourself at least 4 sq. ft. per plant when growing tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants, with two plants per bucket

Cucumber and squash species should have a minimum of 6–8 sq ft per plant, and can also accommodate 2 plants per bucket

These dimensions should give you plenty of room to work, even with the most robust plant varieties. These are ballpark recommendations, of course, and there is room to tweak them to work with your own needs.

Pole beans, such as Kentucky Wonder or Climbing French, can be grown using a wide assortment of spacings and arrangements. The easiest way to get started with any bole bean variety is to pretend they are tomatoes for the spacing and instead plant 4 plants per bucket.

Tomato Growing in Dutch Buckets

Hydroponic greenhouse growers generally select indeterminate (staking-type) species as opposed to determinate (bush-type) varieties. This is because indeterminate plants will produce fruit continuously and over long periods of time, once they come into maturity and begin fruiting. 

Greenhouse tomatoes must undergo a “lowering” process throughout the plant’s growth, which essentially tricks the plant into continuing its growth indefinitely.

The lowering process itself involves removing all “extra” suckers or branches as the plant grows, so that it consists only of a main stem, leaves, and flower/fruit clusters. 

All tomato plant flowers need to be pollinated before fruit will begin growing. Tomato flowers are self-pollinating, and not insect-pollinated, due to having no nectar glands to attract insects. 

Given the inherent containment of the standard greenhouse, commercial growers typically employ a device that emits a vibrational effect along with bumblebees, to ensure the pollen’s release from the flower stamens. Hobby-sized gardens lack the required volume of pollen-producing flowers to sustain a bumble hive, meaning the greenhouse gardener must think outside the box.

AeroGarden “Be the Bee” Pollinator

If you’re unsure how this works, we found a brief video that gets straight to the point without digressing all over the place. Despite the abundance of videos of people using toothbrushes, we prefer an affordable and dedicated tool like the one above.

It looks more professional, and more importantly, the motor isn’t so strong as to damage the plant. There is also the risk of the bristles being caught in petals or leaves, and doing damage to the most delicate parts of the plant. 

Growing Eggplants in a Dutch Bucket

The recent rise in vegan and vegetarian dining has restored this prodigious fruit to its former glory. Despite existing in a diverse variety of shapes and colors, the large, glossy, purple visual is the one that most will recognize.

Although two tops are allowed to grow on the plant, this is accomplished differently because the plant grows a little differently. As the eggplant grows, small suckers will begin growing at each node, which will need to be removed. As the plant matures, a much more vigorous shoot will emerge, usually around the 7th or 8th node.

At the seventh or eighth node up, a much more vigorous sucker develops that you will leave in place. This sucker will become the plant’s second top. You will need to support this part independently from the rest of the plant, as the first flower on the plant will emerge here, and eventually develop into a fruit.

Eggplant flowers can be pollinated simply by giving the plant a gentle shake. Be sure to prune off the dried petals and stamen from the end of developing fruit, as they can be susceptible to fungal infection.

The eggplant stem is thick and woody, and not vulnerable to leaning and lowering the way tomatoes are. Eggplants generally grow and produce fruit for around six months, by which point the plant’s vegetation will be close to reaching the greenhouse support structure.

Dutch Bucket Cucumbers

Cucumbers grown in a greenhouse are usually all female plants, which ensures seedless fruit. Not only is pollination unnecessary, it is downright undesirable. 

Cucumber plants are trained to grow vertically, and all suckers should be removed until the plants mature enough to reach the greenhouse’s support system. Once the plant has reached this point, the plant stem is taken along the horizontal support member for a short distance so that a couple of suckers or laterals can be allowed to grow and hang down. The growing point of the main stem is then removed so that the laterals will grow more vigorously. Once cucumbers have been picked off it, the first sucker on each of the laterals is allowed to grow down to the floor to replace the lateral.

Dutch Bucket Cucumbers

Growing Cucumbers in a Dutch Bucket

(Fig. 4)

Growing Bell Peppers with Dutch Buckets

Bell peppers will require the same space in your greenhouse as tomatoes, but grow much slower and feature much woodier stems. 

When pruning the young pepper plant, the plant will split into two or more points which will need to be pruned back to only two. The flower that emerges at this junction will also be removed, but as each node grows back out it will split into two stems.

One of the stems should be clipped just past where the first leaf appears, but let the flower bud remain until you determine whether it will produce fruit.

Because the stems are so wooden and stiff, bell peppers aren’t subject to the lowering process that tomatoes must undergo. The pepper plants grow so slowly that it takes almost a year just for the two stems to reach the greenhouse support system in most cases.

Regarding pollination, bell peppers grow a flower that self-pollinates naturally, with pollination occurring with a light shake of the plant. This translates into a much easier pollination than, say, tomatoes. This should be done every other day to any plant with an open blossom.

In summary, it’s easy to see why the Dutch Bucket method of growing has become a favorite with both large and small hydroponic greenhouses. This method of growing turns out to be especially accommodating in growing the things that are not easily grown in an NFT setup.

While it might not be reasonable for every hydroponic hobbyist to build and maintain completely separate systems, it is a simple enough feat to install a single dutch bucket at first, and expand the system down the road as confidence grows.

We hope you found what you were looking for, and if not, that we got you pointed in the right direction. Make sure to bookmark the page for easy reference. Best of luck with your garden and hydroponic greenhouse; we look forward to seeing you back soon!

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