For decades, immigrants have found resourceful ways of growing things often in the most unlikely of places when a city’s tight spaces didn’t accommodate traditional gardening… like in buckets on fire-escapes!
Over 100 years ago, my grandfather, an immigrant from Racalmuto, Sicily, came to America with empty pockets, but a head filled with dreams and ambition. He eventually opened a small butcher shop in Detroit, Michigan, above which my grandparents and their children lived. Mom tells stories about how Nonno would carry wooden crates and soil up all the staircases so he could plant tomatoes and basil on the roof. This was long before rooftop gardening became the big urban “green” trend.
Happily, Nonno’s art of growing tomatoes was passed down to his kids and grandkids.
I plant tomatoes, basil, and a variety of other veggies and herbs in my backyard each spring. Even though I have the space for a vegetable garden, I enjoy planting in buckets and planters for a few reasons: I can bring greenery, design a focal point, or create a visual division to any part of our yard…but mostly, I enjoy the nostalgia of it.
So easy, so rewarding, so nutritious – here’s how to grow herbs and veggies in 5-gallon buckets:
- Choose a large container, at least a 5-gallon bucket
- Drill holes in the bottom for drainage (if they don’t have any of their own)
- Line the bottom with gravel a few inches deep (for better drainage)
- Fill with a vegetable garden soil mix
- Plant the tomato [or basil or other veggie… tall growing veggies work best (think cucumbers, eggplant, beans); things like lettuce need more horizontal space] seedling deeply, so the soil is touching the bottom-most set of leaves (to promote a strong root system)
- Add stakes or a cage when they get over 18″ high
- Water and fertilize regularly
Nonno’s All-Natural Fertilizer Recipe
My grandfather would make a wonderful all-natural fertilizer that guaranteed large healthy tomatoes. In the Italian spirit of not letting anything go to waste, he’d collect daily breakfast by-products – eggshells and coffee grouds – and turn them into the best fertilizer money could buy.
Crushed eggshells mixed in your soil add calcium, sulfur, phosphorous, and potassium. Coffee grounds are nitrogen rich. Mix them together and you’ve got yourself an all-natural fertilizer, which makes for super healthy plants. Here’s the step-by-step fertilizer maker:
- Rinse your eggshells and let them air dry on a paper or cloth towel
- Crush them using one of the following ways: using a mortar and pestle; wrap them in a kitchen towel or put them in a plastic baggie and gently break them by hand or use the back of a cooking spoon; use a food processor
- Collect the eggshells and used coffee grounds, saving them in a closed container in the fridge
- When you have a 3:1 ratio of coffee grounds to eggshells, mix them together thoroughly in a bowl
- Spread them into the first couple of inches of soil with a gardening claw
If the nostalgia or challenge of growing your own tomatoes isn’t inspiring enough, consider this – recent research out of the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (England) suggests that homegrown tomatoes are not simply superior in taste, but have much higher levels of antioxidants such as lycopene. FYI, lycopene has been shown to help unclog arteries and is thought to be one of the major reasons why the Mediterranean diet is believed to be so healthy.
My friends, whether in buckets, planters or rows, for nostalgic or nutritional reasons, go plant some authentic goodness, right in your own yard… or windowsill!
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