Over the years I’ve gardened just about everywhere I’ve lived: community garden plots, in pots on balconies and rooftops, and even in places where there was no tillable earth available. When I worked for the National Park Service in the Southwest, my yard was filled mostly with rocks. But I made a dandy garden by arranging the rocks into a rough-walled rectangle and filling the space with pickup truckloads of decades-old composted mule poop taken from the Park Service stables. Watered with the rinse water from my washing machine, that bed produced vegetables like a tiny farm—you could almost see them grow!
If you want to grow some food, but don't think you can because your yard is shaded, the soil is of questionable quality or is paved over, or you don’t even have a yard, chances are there’s still a way to do it. You don't even need to shell out extra dough for pots or special containers. Believe it or not, the bag that your soil or potting mix comes in can become a vegetable garden! That’s right: All you have to do is leave the potting mix in the bag, cut a few holes, and plant. In a number of other countries, gardeners routinely plant many veggies in “grow bags”—plastic bags filled with potting soil—to avoid soilborne pests.
Intrigued? Here are three ways to have a go at growing vegetables in bags:
1. Buy a bag of organic potting soil, cut a few drainage holes in the bottom of it, and then stand the bag where you want to grow your crop. (Put it in a watertight tray if you don’t want to stain the surface beneath.) Potatoes are very hardy, so it’s safe to keep the bag outside as long as the nighttime temperature doesn’t drop much below freezing.
2. Cut open the top of the bag. Tuck two small potatoes about 4 inches deep into the potting mix. If you live near a garden center, you may be able to buy "seed" potatoes; if not, or if you are looking for variety, try using a couple of small organic potatoes from your supermarket (potatoes that are already sprouting are ideal). Water to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Feed with a liquid organic fertilizer every few weeks.
3. When flowers start to pop up on your potato plants, you can pull out a few "new" potatoes by rooting gently around in the soil with your fingers. Or harvest the whole lot anytime, before the plants start to turn yellow. Harvesting is easy: Just tip over the bag onto a sheet of plastic and pick out the fruits of your labor (no digging required). If you have space, you may want to start a new bag every few weeks from very early spring through early summer, to extend your harvest. If thinking "potato" doesn't make your mouth water, chances are you've never tasted the difference between store-bought and fresh-from-the-garden potatoes.
The Best Veggie Garden for Tiny Spaces
1. Prepare your grow bag as for potatoes, then insert two or three tall, sturdy sticks into the potting mix along one edge of the bag (there should be room for your plant to grow in front of them). Push them down to the bottom (be careful not to tear the bag). They should stick out of the top of the bag by 3 or 4 feet.
2. Plant a single tomato seedling near the center of the bag, leaving just the plant’s top four leaves and growing tip peeking out of the soil. The buried stem will send out masses of roots and your little plant will really take off.
3. Tomatoes do not like cold weather, so wait until the nighttime temps consistently stay above 40°F or so to move your bag outdoors. Should a late frost threaten, toss an old sheet over the stakes to protect your tender little sprout for the night. Water and feed as for potatoes. Use twine or strips of cloth to tie the vines to the sticks so the plant will grow upward.
Grow Fruit in Bags Too!
1. Lay the bag flat and poke drainage holes all over one side. Flip it over, smooth the bag into an even layer, and use a sharp knife or scissors to cut out a rectangle about two thirds the size of the top of the bag.
2. Plant lettuce, spinach, radish, or other seeds in the exposed soil mix, following their packets’ instructions. Water and feed as for potatoes.
3. Harvest just the outside leaves of the plants to extend your yield; as the plants keep growing, you can keep harvesting. Or tuck in a seed or two when you do remove a whole plant so you’ll reap another round of greens. You can start growing greens (and radishes, too) in very early spring, as soon as the nights don’t drop much below freezing. Greens appreciate some shade in the heat of summer, so during the hottest months you may want to move your salad bag to a spot that becomes shady in the afternoon.
Whatever you choose to grow, at the end of the season, dump the bag of used soil into a raised bed or more permanent container or spread it in a corner of your yard that needs it.
A Super-Easy Spring Salad Garden
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.