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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Use Five Gallon Buckets in Place of Drip Irrigation

Q. My pine trees are over 20 years old and very tall.  I looked on the net and found a YouTube video out of Kansas showing a man using a 5 gallon bucket with a pin hole in the bottom for the purpose of watering them. I called my landscaping guy and he said that I am wasting water by watering that way.  Am I doing right by watering with buckets or is he correct about this method?

A. Using a bucket with a small hole in it works just like drip irrigation as long as the holes is small enough that it lets the water out very slowly. Using buckets is similar to the very first form of drip irrigation which was sinking unglazed ceramic pots into the soil.

Series of pictures showing what the reader did after getting a few ideas here on how to water his large pine tree with buckets.
You will have to fill the buckets two or three times each time you water to get the water deep enough in the soil to encourage deeper rooting. Don’t water again for about a week at this time of year; less often in winter and maybe twice a week in the heat of summer. Deep watering helps avoid the development of large surface roots that can heave sidewalks, driveways, walls and foundations.
This type of system accomplishes the same thing as a drip system but with more work on your part and will be kind of ugly. But it will work. I would use about five or more buckets distributed under the canopy, about three or 4 feet apart. The more buckets, the better.
The buckets are not made with UV treated plastic so you should paint the buckets or cover them so sunlight does not destroy them.
Make the holes small. Five gallon buckets should run out of water in 30 minutes to one hour. The hole will eventually become plugged so you must clean it periodically. Use clean water a clean bucket and make sure you put a lid on top.
Place the buckets on top of the soil or slightly buried. You don’t want to bury the buckets totally in the soil if the water is emptying from the bucket at the bottom. Most of the roots that take up water will be within the top 12 to 18 inches of the soil. If the bucket empties beneath this zone, the water will be released deep and not water the roots very well.
In urban desert landscapes, trees should develop two types of roots; roots that anchor the plant and keep it from blowing over and roots that take up water and nutrients quickly.
If trees planted in the desert are irrigated deeply, they will develop deep roots which will help anchor the plant in the soil. If they are not watered deeply but only receive shallow irrigations, they will not develop these deep roots.
You can also help the tree get additional water by planting other shrubs under its canopy and overwatering them slightly to provide additional water for the tree. Surface mulch helps conserve water and encourages deeper rooting, particularly wood mulch.


  1. I use a similar setup for temp watering newly planted fruit trees. One 5 gal on either side of the hole. Home Depot's orange buckets can be had for $3 or less on special and I stock up. I noticed Lowe's finally matched HD's price with their blue buckets in my area. Not yet Ace Hardware white buckets. Lids cost as much or more than the bucket so I rarely cover them.

    I use the handle for orientation as the holes are small and can plug up. By knowing the holes are put on one side of the handle I can find it easier than hunting the entire bottom of the bucket for clogs.

    I use an awl to poke a uniform hole in the bottom. I'm sure a penny nail driven into a wooden "handle" and then having its head cut off would serve as well. Then experimented with two and then three holes located probably less than half an inch apart. Two holes flowed out at a rate that still soaking into the soil without piling up on the surface. Three holes was too much for my soil to absorb without surface pooling. Other soil types and hole diameter will differ.

    I suppose I could try two more holes on opposite ends of the bucket as well to speed up the soak. I mark the bucket with duct tape so I know it has holes in it---makes me look like less of an idiot when I put something in a bucket that I'd really like not leaking out.

    I have flood irrigation so this is supplemental water to that. And only for the initial planting (8-12 weeks. Once they are growing I switch to water in a well.

    A tree that big needs A LOT of water. It may well be tapped into the underground aquifer. But based on the pics I'd consider digging a meandering swale around that area with some microbasins to slow down the water and run the hose slowly at the high point until it filled up. Eventually fill the swale with wood chips to conserve water though you could do it with river rock instead. If you have a convenient graywater source use that too.



  2. Morning Bob,

    Saw my bucket this morning in the paper. Must be ESP because yesterday I thought I should email you about the number of times I should fill the buckets. You nailed it. I wanted to tell you that some very healthy and very green grass is appearing around five of the six buckets. Not going to cut it as they seem to look like an oasis in the desert. The one bucket will be moved a bit. I have to scratch the surface dirt and set it on more feeder roots. Not a problem. The buckets are drawing small birds which seem to be feeding on or looking for bugs around the buckets. Everyone is benefiting from them now. So thanks for all your help and showing my bucket in the paper.

    Keep up the good work.