Learn the bucket method to help young trees
By Debbie Arrington
Worried about your trees this summer? Grab a bucket – preferably one with a hole near the bottom.
“Using a bucket is a great way to give trees—particularly young trees—the extra water they need, without wasting water,” says Pamela Frickmann Sanchez, Education Program Manager for the Sacramento Tree Foundation.
So easy that children can do it, “bucket watering” is the zen method of tree irrigation—slow, steady and as Mother Nature would do it. This simple solution also can help train young trees to grow deep roots, helping them become established and more drought resistant.
Sacramento trees most likely to show drought stress include coastal redwoods, birches, red maples and tulip trees.
During very dry conditions, young trees of all kinds are most at risk, particularly under five years old. Those same saplings benefit most from bucket watering—even if they’re growing in the middle of a lawn.
“The first few years, trees need about 10 to 15 gallons extra water a week, preferably split into two times a week,” Sanchez explained. “If you do have lawn, water from the lawn sprinklers is not adequate to get trees established. They need their own thorough soak. A 5-gallon bucket is a really easy way to make sure trees are getting enough water.”
Sacramento’s heavy soils need slow water application to allow moisture to soak in. “Don’t leave the hose running,” Sanchez said. “If you just dump five gallons on your tree, water runs off too quickly. Using the bucket method, you know exactly how much your tree is getting.”
SacTree staff experimented and found a single 1/8-inch hole—located on the bucket’s side about 1 inch above the bottom—was most effective. On the bottom, the hole got clogged with dirt. Multiple or bigger holes, the water drained too fast.
Cover the hole with tape, fill the bucket, put in place, then remove the tape.
Place the bucket close, within a foot of the trunk, to newly planted trees; their root ball still hasn’t spread out. Alternate sides with each bucket application. As the tree grows, move the bucket farther away from the trunk. The feeder roots that need the extra water most are located along the dripline at the edges of a tree’s canopy.
The bucket method can get the whole family involved in helping trees and saving water.
“We’ve worked with lots of schools, using buckets to water trees,” Sanchez said. “Classrooms adopt a tree, decorate a bucket, take it out on a wagon. It’s just the cutest thing!”
- Before applying extra water, check the soil to see if your tree really needs it. Use a moisture meter or long-handled screwdriver; if you can push the screwdriver 6 inches or more into the soil, wait on watering.
- Mulch will help your trees keep that moisture longer. Apply 2 to 4 inches of organic mulch (wood chips, bark, leaves, etc.) out to the tree’s dripline, leaving 6 inches of space around the trunk.
- Need a new tree? The Sacramento Tree Foundation has 80 shady recommendations for the greater Sacramento area. Search for the right tree for the right place in your landscape. Find the searchable list at: https://www.sactree.com/shady80
Debbie Arrington is a longtime home and garden reporter and co-author of the blog Sacramento Digs Gardening: https://sacdigsgardening.blogspot.com/
Trees younger than 5 years old are most at risk during the hot summer months. To thrive, they need water delivered slowly and deeply, ideally using drip irrigation. When drip irrigation is not possible, trees need extra help. Learn the “bucket method” for efficiently watering young trees in this brief video produced in partnership with our friends at the Sacramento Tree Foundation.