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 school principal has gardened all his life, the past 45 years at his beautifully landscaped home in Center Township. 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 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 from Jesteadt Greenhouse in Prospect. 'Early Girl' might be his favorite, 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 made of brick. 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 (see plans), 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."
Virg Lucas' self-watering containers
Here's what you'll need:
Two 5-gallon plastic buckets, one small plastic container about 3 inches round and 3 inches tall, a 1-inch-wide PVC pipe 12 inches long, a 2-foot square piece of landscape fabric, and a 4-foot tomato stake. Mr. Lucas uses a 1/2 -by-1-inch stake with a block of wood screwed on the bottom as an anchor.
Before beginning, drill five to 10 three-eighths-inch holes in the small plastic 3-inch container. Put one 5-gallon bucket aside for now.
Mr. Lucas uses a hand-held angle grinder to make the first two cuts in the other bucket.
Step 1: Cut off the bucket's bottom 3 inches; discard the top.
Step 2: Cut slits about 2 inches deep every 3 inches vertically from top to bottom on the piece. This will allow it to be inverted and pushed down into the other bucket.
Step 3: Use the small plastic container as a template to determine the size of the hole to be cut out of the center of the piece. For this cut and the next Mr. Lucas uses a Dremel tool. Trace the container and cut out the center of the piece.
Step 4: Use the PVC tube as a template to trace a hole somewhere between the newly made center hole and the edge of the piece. Then cut the hole. These holes don't need to be exact; the container and pipe can fit together loosely.
Step 5: Invert the piece and push it down into the set aside bucket. Insert the 3-inch container in the center hole, as this is how water will weep up into the bucket. Insert the PVC pipe into its hole. This will be used to fill the reservoir with water. Be sure the PVC pipe does not interfere with the operation of the bucket handle. If it does, just rotate the inverted piece until the pipe is out of the way.
Step 6: Drill a small hole 4 inches from the bottom of bucket to let excess water drain.
Step 7: Push the landscape fabric down into the bucket. Be sure some gets into the small plastic container. The fabric will wick the water out of the container and keep the soil evenly moist. Make sure some of the landscape fabric falls over the top edge of the bucket. When the large plant comes out of the bucket and into the garden, the landscape fabric will make it easier to pull the plant to the planting hole.
Now fill the container with planting mix. Fill the bucket with about 3 inches of water through the PVC tube, and you're ready to plant.