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Dutch buckets as “fragmented media beds”

Hydroponic Dutch bucket systems (Bato bucket systems) are perhaps the simplest hydroponic (and sometimes aquaponic, although aquaponics is more difficult) system to build, and a favorite of growers the world over.

hydroponic dutch bucket system bato bucketA variation of media bed techniques, Dutch buckets break the media bed system down into smaller components (the buckets). This approach offers several benefits.

Each bucket can be set up separately, allowing growers to space out larger crops (like tomatoes or eggplants) without wasting media.

Separate buckets can be useful in pest management as well since an infected bucket can be removed from the system without having to sacrifice an entire bed. 

In this post, you’ll learn how to build your own Bato bucket hydroponic system. 

Dutch buckets for nutrient hogs and large crops

For indoor farmers, a hydroponic Dutch bucket system gives growers a way to grow large “nutrient-hog” crops separately. Fruiting crops and large-statured crops tend to use more (and a different ratio of) nutrients than greens. This means that when both greens and fruiting crops are run on the same system, either the EC is too high for the greens, or too low for the fruiting crops. As you can imagine, this hurts production levels. 

Tomatoes have traditionally been the most popular crop for Dutch buckets, and in fact, most commercial hydroponic tomatoes are produced this way. Dutch buckets allow tomato farmers to grow large vining varieties and train them up from the bucket. This can be a fairly efficient use of space since the tomatoes are using a large portion of the lower growing space. 

>>>Read More: The Best Plants for Bato Buckets

Variations on design

The design of Dutch buckets systems is very simple, with multiple variations on irrigation and equipment. A reservoir pump runs specially formulated nutrient solution through a straight line over the buckets. Drippers control the flow to each bucket, and solution runs through the media and then drains out of the bucket. Each part of the system has variations to suit grower needs.

Variations include:

The number of buckets: The tutorial below shows the design for an 8-bucket system. To build larger one-line system, growers may use a larger reservoir and pump, longer irrigation and drain lines, and simply set up the system the same way as the system below. For growers who wish to build a larger multiple-line system, we recommend going through the Dutch buckets course first to familiarize yourself with the technique.

Media type: Though the most popular Dutch bucket media is vermiculite, other media like hydroton or crushed granite may be used. Choose a media that will work for you. (Learn about the different types of media here.)

Minor components: Many components of the system—like tubing, drippers, fittings, and clamps—can be sourced from a home & garden supply store. The components that growers will probably have to order online or from a specialty store are the main reservoir, the buckets themselves, and the pump.

Growers should choose a number of buckets, media type, and know where to get components before they start building. The last (and most important) decision to make is the drainage setup. 

There are two ways to run your drainage: flow-to-waste and recirculating.

Flow-to-waste irrigation

Flow-to-waste drains solution out of the system and away—forever. This option is more wasteful, but much simpler in terms of nutrient balancing.

What is nutrient balancing? Well, depending on the crop and its age, plants will take up unique ratios of nutrients. Younger plants of one crop might take up more nitrogen than older plants. Plants that are growing fruit might take up more phosphorus, etc.

Even though fertilizers are formulated to fit the crop, there are still minute differences in the ratio of nutrient to nutrient in the fertilizer and the ratio of nutrient to nutrient that the plants use. This means that over time, a solution can become unbalanced; one nutrient may accumulate while others are used up. This can lead to deficiencies and (less often) toxicities.

This makes flow-to-waste the simplest drainage technique.

Recirculating irrigation

The more conservative drainage option is to run your Dutch buckets on a recirculating system. In a recirculating system, the buckets are irrigated and drain into a return line, a PVC line at a tilt that brings water back to the reservoir for reuse. (This is the type of system in the video below.)

Growers using recirculating systems can avoid nutrient imbalance by replacing the water every few weeks (this saves water and nutrients, and cast-off water can be used for other garden beds) or by balancing nutrients individually. 

Balancing water nutrients individually involves getting a periodic water analysis to determine the levels of each element in the water. 

Once low nutrients are identified, growers can adjust nutrients individually. This entails using a multiple part solution (some growers have solutions with as many as 11 parts) and can get quite complicated. We don’t recommend doing this without taking a course on nutrients! 

circulating arrows

The trouble with balancing nutrients is why many Dutch bucket growers use a recirculating system and refill it every few weeks.

Let’s learn how to build a simple recirculating Dutch bucket system.

Video: Building a basic hydroponic Dutch bucket system

A benefit of hydroponic Dutch bucket systems is that their versatile design is very easy to build. This makes it an easy add-on to a system, and fairly quick for sourcing materials. In this video, Ruebin Buchanan shows how to build a simple 8-bucket system.

hydroponic dutch bucket system partsParts needed:

  • 8 buckets
  • 8 drain fittings
  • A reservoir (we used this 15-gallon one)
  • A pump
  • 20 feet of 1/2 inch poly tubing
  • 1/4 inch poly tubing
  • 10 feet of 1.4-inch PVC
  • 1/2-inch drain valve
  • 16 2-gPH drip emitters
  • 2 pipe clamps
  • Zip ties
  • Binder clips (or other clamps)


Tables and benches

You don’t need a table or bench, though it does make maintenance and cleaning easier. You can place Dutch buckets on the ground and plane it at an angle. If you do this, you will need to place the reservoir in the ground.

We built a simple table using 2X4s and a 2′ by 8′ sheet of melamine. If you use a table or bench, remember to add a slight tilt to the table so that it drains to the reservoir at one end. No matter how you support your hydroponic Dutch bucket system, the important thing is to give the return line a tilt.

How to build a hydroponic Dutch bucket system

hydroponic dutch bucket system - measure1) Cut PVC down to 8 feet or the length of the table, leaving room on the end for the end cap and elbow. Make sure it fits on the table.



hydroponic dutch bucket system bato above2) Place the Dutch buckets on the table and decide on spacing—mark the placement of the drains for each bucket on the drain line. (This video shows 8 marks at one foot apart.)



hydroponic dutch bucket system drainage holes3) With a drill and a 1-inch hole saw, drill out holes on the marks.




hydroponic dutch bucket system primer and cement pvc4) Use primer and PVC cement to attach the PVC end cap and elbow, making sure that the elbow is facing downward while the holes in the PVC are facing upward.



hydroponic dutch bucket system drill ziptie5) Drill holes in the table on either side of the PVC to attach zip ties and hold the PVC in place. You could also use 1.5-inch conduit clamping here instead of zip ties.



hydroponic dutch bucket system irrigation line6) Run the 1/2-inch tubing along the middle line over the buckets, fastening it in place with clips or clamps. Leave a few feet on the end to reach the pump in your reservoir.



hydroponic dutch bucket system - clips7) Using a 1/8-inch drill bit, drill out holes through the ply tubing on either side of the clamps. This is where we will put the drip emitters.



hydroponic dutch bucket system8) Next, cut the end of the irrigation line and add the release valve, which is good for flushing the system and draining the reservoir. Fasten it with a pipe clamp.



hydroponic dutch bucket system drippers9) Cut 16 5-inch strips of the 1/4 inch tubing and attach them to the drip emitters. These will center your irrigation to run directly over the plants.



hydroponic dutch bucket system pump10) Attach the end of the tubing to the pump and fasten with a pipe clamp. Place the pump in the reservoir.



11) Test out the system and make sure that each drip emitter is functioning and no leaks appear.

12) Plant your crops in the media. We chose a combination of perlite (the most popular filling) and hydroton (which keeps the Wyoming wind from blowing away the perlite).

Your hydroponic Dutch bucket system is ready to grow!

hydroponic dutch bucket system

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