Home & Garden

Planting in paper or plastic makes gardening simpler

Clydette Alsup-Egbers is leading a research project aimed at putting the fun back into gardening.

By planting directly into plastic or paper bags containing potting soil, she says, gardening can be cheaper, quicker, more productive and a whole lot simpler.

"The average gardener doesn't have a clue that they have another option, other than traditional methods," said Alsup-Egbers, an associate professor of horticulture at Missouri State University in Springfield. "Gardening in a bag is nothing more than placing the bag in the location you wish, planting into it and covering it with mulch. Ornamental borders are optional."

She came up with the idea eight years ago after watching a neighborhood couple struggle while adding a flowerbed to their front yard.

"The young guy was actually swinging a pickax to break up and loosen the soil," Alsup-Egbers said. "I thought that was crazy - that gardening shouldn't be such hard work. By the end of the afternoon, when I observed them again, those two young people looked a lot less enthusiastic about gardening than when I first saw them."

That led her to think about other gardeners, especially the elderly or infirm, who might be unable to handle the physical demands of soil preparation.

"Gardening should be enjoyable, not back-breaking work," she said.

Diane Relf, emeritus professor with Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said arthritis caused her to look for easier ways to do container gardening.

"I'm not so excited about doing things on the grand scale that I've done in the past - just nurturing a few plants for personal satisfaction," Relf said. "Gardening in a bag enables me to continue growing flowers and vegetables that I can share and enjoy."

Some advantages of this no-dig planting method:

- Cost: relatively cheap. A 10-to-15-pound bag of, say, a Miracle-Gro potting mix may retail for about $10; or about $14 for a 20-to-30-pound bag. "They have the right nutrients and moisture control features already included," said Keri Butler, spokeswoman for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., which makes eight different blends.

- Ease: Plop down a bag, slit drainage holes in the sides and bottom, cut a few more on top for your plants and you've created a raised bed. Finish by adding a layer of mulch and giving it all a good soaking. Soil disease problems often are fewer in raised beds, drainage usually is better and the soils warm more quickly than those in the ground, Alsup-Egbers said.

- Flexibility: The bags are light enough that they can be shifted around to follow the sun, or to add color and texture to the landscape. They also work well as hanging baskets for flowers, strawberries, cherry tomatoes and other small crops. Beware using native topsoil, however, which compacts easily and may not drain well. It also might be nutrient poor.

The disadvantages?

"Getting rid of the plastic afterwards, unless (you're) using paper bags or planting into the same bags the following year," Alsup-Egbers said. "Plants may be smaller if grown in bags (rather) than in the ground. That's not always a disadvantage, though, considering the small yards many people have."

Other suggestions for bag gardeners:

- Placed vertically, the bags can eliminate the need for stooping or bending. This also is an effective planting method for things like tomatoes and potatoes.

- Small bags turned into flowerbeds can make attractive centerpieces for inside the home. They also make convenient displays for apartment dwellers or people who want to scale back their gardening.

- Gardens in bags make great starter kits for kids, at home or at school.