Your container garden
Do you enjoy growing potted plants on your balcony or patio? Maybe you’ve noticed how your plants’ roots tend to circle the inside of their pots. It’s a big problem because those twisted roots can strangle the plant, preventing it from drawing moisture and nutrition from the soil.
But what can you do, right? That’s just how plants grow when you put them in containers.
Nope! There’s a new kid on the block: soft-sided pots made of breathable fabric. Also called grow bags, they’re shaped like traditional flowerpots but sewn from sturdy non-woven material similar to landscaping cloth. And if you don’t think they’re as cute as your ceramic pots, you can hide them inside a decorative container and get the benefits of both.
Why would you want fabric pots?
They’re great for healthy root development. When roots touch the porous material, they don’t turn and start circling the perimeter like they would in a solid-walled container.
Instead, the roots encounter air through the breathable fabric and get “air pruned.” Basically, the root tips are pinched off (this is a good thing) so that they stop growing laterally. Then they produce masses of fibrous smaller roots. All the better for drawing more water and nutrients from the soil.
Fabric pots also allow for better air flow and drainage so that roots don’t become waterlogged. A 2005 study conducted by Texas A&M University found that plants in fabric pots did not require more water than plants in plastic pots, and yet the soil in fabric pots was comparatively more cool and moist.
This means that fabric pots can protect your plants from shock due to roots getting overheated in direct sunlight. The same study also found that rose bushes grown in fabric pots produced larger flowers than their plastic-potted counterparts.
Another thing is that fabric pots are very lightweight. Now, the soil is heavy, don’t get me wrong. But large planter boxes and shrub-sized ceramic pots weigh a TON, even when they’re empty, and you pretty much need a pickup truck to relocate them. Whereas an empty fabric pot folds up like a grocery tote and weighs only a few ounces.
Lots of options
You can find fabric pots at your local garden store as well as Amazon. They cost less than ceramic pots. Companies like Root Pouch and Smart Pots make them from BPA-free plastics (but other companies may not, so check the label).
Some styles have handles for ease of rearranging your garden, although I’ll warn you that this only works with the small ones — a 15-gallon fabric pot full of wet soil can NOT be moved by its handles without popping a seam.
You can get them in lots of colors (check out these ones from Bootstrap Farmer), although black seems to be the most common. There’s a huge variety of sizes available, ranging from 1 gallon to 200 gallons (put those monsters in a permanent location).
They’re reusable for several years. If you’re a neatnik, you can even launder and fold the pots for winter storage. (Just don’t try to iron them.)
The down side
Let’s be real — there’s a down side to everything, right? I’ve found that my outdoor fabric pots provide great drainage over the wet months (here in the PNW, that’s 9 months of nonstop downpour).
But in the drought-y summertime, I have to think strategically if I want those plants to survive. Because fabric pots provide such great airflow and drainage, they allow the soil to get bone dry in the heat of summer.
And because water can seep through the fabric, guess what happens when I pour water into the pot? Yep, it doesn’t stay in the pot long enough to wet the soil; it runs right off the top and drips out the sides.
My black elderberry bushes love their fabric pots in the spring. The drainage keeps them from drowning (that’s actually a problem here) and being above the ground, their soil warms up on the first sunny days of spring. They burst into leaf and bud in a way that just makes a gardener’s heart glow. But when the dry weather hits and I can’t keep enough moisture in their soil? They drop their tiny green fruits and go into survival mode. No elderberries that year. Ouch.
So I’ve developed a few techniques to make the best use of fabric pots during the dry season:
- Set your plant in a pan or tub with several inches of water in the bottom and let the soil absorb water overnight.
- Use a soil blend that contains plenty of organic matter (compost, coco coir) to help retain water. Sandy soil drains too fast.
- Position the fabric pots in a part of your yard that receives shade for a portion of the day (so the sun doesn’t fry your plants if the soil gets dry).
Fabric pots inside your home
I had similar challenges with using fabric pots for my houseplants. Until I started putting the fabric pots inside larger (non-draining) conventional pots.
I know. That sounds redundant. Just hang with me a minute.
Have you ever had problems watering your houseplants? The water runs down the inside of the pot and flows out the bottom, leaving the soil dry and the plant wilted.
Fabric pots solved that problem for me. When the soil felt dry, I just lifted the fabric pot out of the hard-sided container and placed it in a pan of water overnight.
Or I used a regular watering can. Then if the water ran out the sides instead of soaking into the soil, it would just pool at the bottom of the ceramic pot and slowly absorb into the soil overnight. The next morning, I’d remove the fabric pot and pour out the excess water.
That way my plant wouldn’t get root rot from excess water. So fabric pots allow you to better control the moisture level in your houseplants’ soil.
Try something new
Whether you grow your garden in permanent containers or start seeds indoors for spring transplanting, fabric pots can benefit your plants. They are versatile for use in a hydroponics setup, a patio garden, and in your living room.
Growing plants in fabric pots is a bit different than hard-sided containers, but it offers advantages too. I’d say, if you can manage the soil moisture levels during the dry season, fabric pots are pretty dang awesome.
There are some Japanese roses in 15-gallon fabric pots out in my yard. I really don’t want to want have to re-pot those huge things every couple of years. So I love not having to worry about my roses getting root bound. Those fabric pots are like magic.
I wonder if the fabric pots would rot or get mildew in a really humid and rainy jungle environment. (We can get crazy mildew here if we’re not careful, on things that you’d think wouldn’t attract mildew, like leather!) The fabric pots seem like a nice alternative to plastic.
You know, my little grapefruit trees are growing in fabric pots. I took them to overwinter in a friend’s greenhouse, where they were warm, humid, and sadly overwatered for 6 months. When I came back, there was green stuff growing on the surface of the soil and on the fabric pot.
But otherwise, the pot itself was unaffected. They’re made out plastic fibers, like that felted landscaping cloth that doesn’t biodegrade.
If you wanted fabric pots that would biodegrade, you could sew them out of burlap coffee sacks. That would be an interesting project!
Good to know that they’re made out of plastic fibers! They would probably hold up well here. We don’t have any burlap coffee sacks here at my house, but I wish I could figure out some way to reuse those used paper coffee filters besides just throwing them in the compost pile!