Portable Gardening with Grow Bags - Carolina Country

Portable Gardening with Grow Bags

Grow bags add space, flexibility for home gardeners

By Pamela A. Keene | Photos by Espiritu/Epic Gardening unless otherwise indicated

Portable Gardening with Grow Bags

As a home gardener, Jeff Hays quickly outgrew the raised garden beds at his home in Garner several years ago, but his love of gardening continued to expand.

“We had a pretty small yard with no more room for additional raised beds, but we did have nooks and crannies for grow bags,” says Jeff, a dentist and self-taught gardener who claims the pastime as his favorite hobby.

“Using the fabric bags, I have been pretty much able to grow crops year-round. Plus they’re portable and really produce much healthier crops.”

“Using the fabric bags, I have been pretty much able to grow crops year-round. Plus they’re portable and really produce much healthier crops.”

These newfangled growing containers typically made of porous fabric offer advantages from portability to crop rotation. Harvesting can be easier, and the bags can be placed just about anywhere.

Why bags are better

In the past five to seven years, grow bags have gained popularity for home gardeners, improving on their predecessors — empty plastic or burlap bags — because they are more rigid, are available in many sizes and allow for excellent drainage.

Grow bags

NC State Horticultural Extension Agent Hannah Smith fills a grow bag. Photo courtesy of Hannah Smith

“Grow bags make it easy to grow flowers, vegetables and shrubs in small places,” says Hannah Smith, North Carolina State University horticultural extension agent in Pitt County. “The advantages make good sense and can be an excellent alternative for all kinds of urban gardeners with smaller yards. People living in apartments and condominiums can grow fresh tomatoes, peppers, perennials and annuals on their patios or decks to enjoy all season long.

“Another advantage is what we call ‘air-pruning,’ which prevents plants becoming rootbound,” Hannah continues. “When the roots are exposed to the air at the sides of the bags, they actually stop growing in that direction and just make new roots. If they are planted in traditional containers, the roots just turn around and go the other way, circling back on themselves and literally strangling.”

Many brands have handles, plus they come in a range of colors and are UV light-resistant, meaning they will hold up for several years.

“It’s a matter of choice which colors to use,” Hannah says. “The lighter colors reflect the sun and heat more than the darker colors, and some people prefer them. And if the bags get too hot, you can always move them to a place with more shade, but too much heat can affect the roots.”

Grow bag tips

Nestle grow bags among existing landscape plantings, put them around the yard, on a patio or deck, or add them between raised beds. Plant them with flowers to attract pollinators and place them near vegetable crops.

Fill the grow bags with a soil mixture of organic matter and well-draining potting soil. “Do not add native soil because it may introduce diseases and pests,” she says. “Adding composted materials can help as well.”

Using new soil in grow bags each season reduces the risk of soil-borne pests and disease from year to year.

“Crops like tomatoes, okra, beans and greens planted in the same beds each year may result in a build-up of specific diseases and a reduction of nutrients over time,” Hannah says. “Good gardening practices encourage crop rotation, although when you use grow bags with fresh soil each season, these problems are minimized.”

Jeff mixes his own soil using compost, commercial potting soil, organic matter and perlite or vermiculite to ensure a growing medium that’s rich in nutrients and resists compaction.

Watering and feeding are different than with traditional plantings. “I use drip-irrigation emitters on timers, but you can also water regularly by hand,” he says. “Realize that grow bags will dry out more quickly because they are porous, so keep an eye on them between rain showers.”

Nutrients also tend to leach out of the soil faster because the bags drain well. “You should probably feed these crops more often, based on the needs of the plants,” Jeff says. “That way, you’re setting yourself up for better yields.”

The bags can be emptied, hosed off and cleaned, and stored when not in use.

Jeff and his wife, Jessica, moved into a new home last fall. “We’re looking forward to having much more garden space and plenty of raised beds, but we’re keeping the grow bags as well,” he says. “There are too many advantages to using them to quit.”

Grow bag gardening

It’s in the bag

Learn more about grow bag gardening from these resources:

  • NC State Extension has several online resources, including tips for container and grow bag gardening. Search the publications section on their website.
    NC State Extension
  • Nationally syndicated garden expert Joe Lamp’l has a detailed podcast on grow bags on his website.
    Gardening podcast
  • Author and gardening guru Kevin Espiritu offers step-by-step instructions on the ins and outs of grow bag gardening in his book, Grow Bag Gardening.
    Grow Bag Gardening book

About the Author

Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who writes for magazines and newspapers across the Southeast and nationally.

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