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  • Lindsay Kraus

Let's Talk Container Gardening

Not all of us have acres of land to grow bountiful harvests every year--and not everybody wants to! There's nothing wrong with that.


Some homes and families are better suited to container gardening, where you can grow as little or as many plants as you'd like as long as space allows.


There's something to be said for being able to run out to your patio, grab a couple of things, and come right back in. There's also something to be said for fewer weeds, more concentrated watering, and an easier space to mow. And not everywhere has the best soil for growing. I moved here to Virginia from New Jersey, the Garden State, where the sandy soil will grow just about anything you want, prolifically and with ease. Then I stuck a shovel in my new farm plot in Virginia and I realized how jaded I was. It takes a LOT to amend the clay soil they have here! Sometimes, it may not be worth it to you.


We incorporate containers into our garden along with our greenhouse, hydroponic, and raised bed gardening. Some things just really like a good pot to grow in, and who are we to stop them?


But here's the thing: not all pots are created equal. There are some pitfalls and bennies to the different kinds out there. I'll tell you all about them, and then let you in on my container gardening best kept secret. OK--it's more like worst kept because I recommend it to everyone.


Clay Pots

Clay, terracotta, whatever. Those reddish, porous pots you find in every craft store and garden center. They definitely have their place!

PROS

  • They're great indoors and out

  • They have drainage holes already (usually)

  • You can decorate them! Makes for a great crafting afternoon, especially with little ones

  • They absorb the sun, keeping things warm

  • They're relatively inexpensive

  • They rarely blow over in the wind because of their weight

  • Has a small amount of air circulation to the roots

CONS

  • They're absorbent unless you seal them, which means they tend to steal water from what needs it most--your plants

  • They tend to crack in weather fluctuation

  • They break very easily--sometimes with plants in them

  • They require more frequent watering in the heat

  • Plants can get root-bound more quickly, which means a lot of the energy they have will go to building more roots that just keep circling around the plant.

  • They can get heavy very quickly

Personally, I have found clay pots to be better suited for non-edible plants, particularly indoors.


Plastic Pots

Oh, the variety! You can literally find just about anything you want in a plastic pot. Stores go nuts with them around gardening season, and garden centers are loaded with all different options for them.

PROS

  • Very lightweight--even the bigger ones are mobile until they're filled

  • Sometimes some inexpensive options (though you may sacrifice quality)

  • Lots come with self-watering options

  • Water less often than clay pots--they're not absorbant

  • Are not affected by the cold, so they won't crack over winter

  • Variety: you can find basically any design and color you want

  • They make great transplanting pots after your starts are done in their seed-starting flats & can be reused year after year with proper care

CONS

  • Can get blown over in the wind if too light

  • They degrade and fade in sunlight.

  • Higher quality ones get expensive very quickly

  • No air circulation at all to the roots of your plants

  • Not environmentally friendly; they don't break down, and they have a pretty rough carbon footprint

  • Easy to over-water, leading to root rot

  • Root binding happens often in plastic pots

I will say this though: people have found some really creative ways to reuse pre-existing plastic containers for their garden and it turns out beautiful! In the past, I've collected plastic coffee cups from colleagues to use as transplant pots when my tomatoes get too big for their cells.


Balcony Garden Web has an awesome list of different things you can do with all the plastic bottles lying around. Here is a preview of some of the things they feature:


FABRIC POTS

Fabric pots are essentially bags--they're not the rigid containers we've been used to for decades. They're not as popular as other container types... yet. But they should be! These are my personal choice for container gardening.


Basically, they're super porous. The entire pot is made of fibers, and so water and air can move freely through it. That means NO ROOT BINDING. When I first bought these, I didn't realize what a difference they'd make in my gardening. I thought a bunch of roots circling the pot was a good thing--lots of roots means it's super healthy, right?


WRONG. The more energy your plant puts into adding more of those big white roots, the less it's putting into growing leaves and fruits/veggies. In other words, half the nutrients in that soil are going to more root production. Why bother?


I was worried that roots would start growing out of the bags and look like something out of a Tim Burton movie, but I was wrong again. Since air flows freely through the fabric, the roots stop growing once they reach that point. It's called air pruning.


PROS

  • Accessibility--come in sizes from 1/5 gal to 1000 gallons, easily folded and shipped to your door or local store. (Bonus: less environmental impact in shipping)

  • Can be used anywhere (though indoors will require a saucer below it, just like any pot with drainage holes)

  • Bigger sizes aren't astronomically priced, like their clay or plastic counterparts.

  • They breathe, which means they air prune, which means no root binding!

  • Plants create a more robust root system, which means more for you!

  • Storage: they fold up flat

  • It's almost impossible to overwater them

  • Some are biodegradable, which means you can plant them in the ground and eventually they will rot away

  • Less root disturbance during transplant

  • Easier to grow potatoes and other similar veggies because you can turn the bag over to harvest

  • They can be used hydroponically

CONS

  • They require yearly maintenance--they should be washed out each year to stay durable

  • They're made of fibers, which means they won't last forever like plastic pots (though mine have lasted 7 years so far)

  • Aesthetics--they're not as beautiful as their clay or plastic counterparts. They typically come in 2 colors: tan or black.

  • You may need to water more often on very hot days. I typically water every day.

  • You'll need to buy the ones with handles for bigger pots so you can move them more easily


In the end, I'll choose a fabric pot over any other kind, any day. Some people say that the pots are too expensive, but I disagree. There are options out there for everyone, and like anything else, you get what you pay for. Flimsy plastic pots are cheap, but will not last. The same goes for fabric pots. You can buy thin ones to last you a season, or invest in more durable ones that can last you a decade.


I even have a raised bed made from fabric that I use for my sweet potatoes every year. They love it! Bonus: I can pack up the container over winter to make it last longer.


Here are some great options for fabric pots:


Smart Pot: these guys are the OGs of the fabric pot world. As such, they have lots of variety. I started out with these guys and they got me hooked. You can them from Amazon very quickly, too but you'd definitely find them cheaper elsewhere.


My review: Smart Pots are a great start. They have thinner walls, so they're not going to last nearly as long as some higher end pots. However, if you're looking to try one out and check out the results, it's a great place for a beginner. Plus, you can find them at lots of different retailers. I do like that they have some non-traditional options, like bags that can hang over railings and fences. I still have a few of their products, but I've moved on to higher quality bags.


GeoPot: these guys are the answer to the Smart Pot, and they answered correctly. They're more durable, better constructed, and practically indestructible. They support themselves better than the Smart Pots, and they are quadruple stitched for maximum durability. The handles are sturdier, and the sides are self-supporting so they're sturdier all around--even when filling--but easy to collapse and store when needed. The difference was clear the second I used my first one.


They also offer another option - the G Lite - for those who want to try a more economical fabric pot without sacrificing quality. They're not as durable as the traditional model, but they still surpass the Smart Pot in quality.


My review: if you're looking for a fabric pot you can use for a long time, you can stop looking. These are your guys. I'm currently growing a lemon tree in my kitchen that loves its Geopot just as much as my herbs love the mini ones I bought. There's no comparison in durability, appearance, and ease of use.


The Consensus

Give it a shot! If you don't have the space or the time for a traditional or raised bed garden, grow a few plants on your balcony or patio. You'll find there's hardly any weeds, your plants still grow big and healthy, and you'll enjoy fresh food. What's not to love?!


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