PITTSBURGH — The high-pitched whine of an angle grinder screams out of Virg Lucas’ garage as he makes another one of his homemade tomato buckets.
The 75-year-old workout fanatic and former Butler, Pa., school principal has gardened all his life, the past 45 years at his beautifully landscaped home near Pittsburgh. He was inspired as a child to take up gardening.
“When I was a kid, I stayed at my grandmother’s one summer. She had a garden, and I just got into taking care of it for her,” he said.
Mr. Lucas grows lettuce, onions, squash, and other things in his fenced vegetable garden, but his passion is tomatoes.
By the end of the season, each one of his plants can reach 8 feet or taller and are loaded with 200 or more tomatoes. He picked 20 bushels last year and gave much of his harvest away.
He credits much of his success to the planting containers he makes out of plastic 5-gallon buckets and the fact that the plants go in the ground later than usual in the season.
He discovered the planting technique on a trip down South.
“I was down in Florida and saw a guy who had a bucket filled with tomato plants.” The man explained that during the summer it gets so hot the plants need to be moved indoors in that climate.
Mr. Lucas took the idea and modified it, creating a cheap, effective way to get lots of tomatoes. Instead of using his buckets to keep his plants out of the heat, he uses them to get plenty of warmth.
The buckets are filled with new potting soil each season. Sometimes he combines garden dirt with mushroom manure for a planting mix.
Mr. Lucas starts with big plants. Early Girl might be his favorite variety, but he also grows Jet Star, yellow tomatoes, and an unnamed Italian heirloom given to him by a friend. The plants are tall and filled with blossoms when purchased.
On May 1, Mr. Lucas puts the plants in the buckets and grows them in full sun next to his garage wall. The more heat the better, he figures. When he plants them he strips off the bottom leaves, puts the plants in the bottom of the bucket and fills it with planting mix.
Even though these are technically self-watering containers, he says they might need to be watered daily during warm spells.
Surprisingly, these tomatoes are not planted in the garden until around June 20. “Then the ground starts warming up and they are at least 6 feet tall,” Mr. Lucas said. They might already have a ripe tomato or two on the plants.
His garden is amended with mushroom manure, and he uses fertilizer throughout the season. When he plants the tomatoes, black plastic is laid around them to hold in the heat, and then a mulch of grass clippings is added later to retain moisture in the soil.
After digging a planting hole, he lays the plant on its side, and using landscape fabric, he gently teases out the root ball and slides it into the planting hole, removing the fabric while planting.
The plant is righted and a 5-foot tomato cage slides over it. He also adds an 8-foot stake to tie the plants to as they grow.
Mr. Lucas says that fungicides keep the plant blight-free while also keeping the garden free of fallen tomato foliage.
He recommends the containers for people without gardens. “They could put that bucket on their deck and pick two or three tomatoes a day,” he said.
So what does he do with those 20 bushels of tomatoes? “I have a lot of friends,” Mr. Lucas says, laughing. “The taste is phenomenal. You can’t buy these in the store.”
To see Mr. Lucas’s plans for the self-watering containers, go to toledoblade.com. To see a video of how he makes them, go to: bit.ly/JV9ikZ.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Doug Oster writes for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Doug Oster at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Follow him on Twitter: @dougoster1.