I experimented this year to find out what I’d like better, grow bag vs plastic pot or buckets. After a full garden season using all three containers here are my results.
Spoiler alert…I tried both grow bags and plastic pots and buckets this year. For my situation so far, I prefer plastic pots or buckets. But don’t rule out grow bags until you read why!
I’ve got a bulleted list at the end of this article if you just want the brief to the point results. :).
Why should you use containers in the first place?
Growing in containers like grow bags, buckets or plastic pots is needed for a few reasons. One is space. If you’ve only got a patio or small area for your garden, containers can help you out. But that is not the only reason.
I’ve got a huge area to have a garden. Space is not an issue to me. I could expand and go big!
However, this is our first year in our new area and I don’t want to go too permanent. It is a good idea to watch your new property for a year or so before you get too settled. So…. I planted my garden knowing that it may move and I”ll be reseeding this area back to meadow.
But what about permanent plants? I’ve got mint to grow, I’ve got other things I want to try. So I decided to go ahead and get started now with containers and I’ll place them permanently later.
I experimented with grow bags, vs buckets or plastic pots. This is what I found.
The two biggest differences that I can determine with fabric grow bags vs plastic pots or 5 gallon buckets has to do with
- Watering needs
- Health of the root system
I’ll go over both of these and some other smaller considerations. Because all 3 container types do have their place. It just depends on your needs.
(Spoiler alert… For my situation so far, I prefer plastic pots or buckets but grow bags do have their place and I still use them.)
The biggest difference is the watering needs.
Watering needs are different for in the ground gardens vs containers. And watering needs are also different if you are using grow bags vs plastic pots or buckets. This includes maintaining moisture and drainage issues.
Maintaining Moisture in containers like grow bags or pots. (keeping them from drying out)
Grow bags definitely dry out faster than plastic containers. But in comparison, buckets or plastic pots dry out faster than in the ground. So you just need to keep the differences in mind.
I have not had any lack of moisture issue with my buckets or pots. They do need to be watered but not as often as the bags. When I check to see if a bucket needs water I can tell by the weight. A dry bucket will just feel… lighter. I’ll just nudge it with my toe or move it with my hand and I can tell when it is dry.
Water Drainage in grow bags. (keeping them from drowning)
Grow bags naturally drain well through all sides of the pot. It’s cloth, any extra moisture just drains right out so there is little risk of your roots rotting from too much water sitting in the bag. In fact if you are inside, on a patio, greenhouse or any area where you don’t want water running over, you’ll need to add a tray. If you do this be sure and have the grow bag on some rocks or bricks so they are not sitting directly in any excess water.
Water drainage in Buckets or pots.
I’ve read that buckets can more easily lack enough drainage and get overwatered. I’m not fully convinced that drainage in buckets is a problem just because it is a plastic container. The condition of your soil in the bucket will affect drainage even more than having enough holes in the bottom. Although you DO need those drainage holes.
If you were in a heavy rain area you may need to keep an eye on your buckets to make sure they are draining well. I live in eastern TN where it seems to rain plenty, but I have not had issues. Be sure you have holes for drainage and just as importantly be sure your soil is draining properly.
You can not always just add your garden soil to a bucket or a grow bag. Especially if you’ve got clay soil. The soil in any container needs to be the right consistency. Add compost, add some peat moss to loosen things up. Use a premix garden or container soil. Make sure the soil you use will allow the water to soak through and drain well.
How do containers affect the root system of plants.
Grow bags will naturally “air prune’ your root system. This means as the roots hit the sides of the container they find no more soil and reach the air. The root will naturally stop growing. And the plant will naturally start developing more roots. This can be a healthy thing.
Roots can grow right through the grow bags.
Be aware that roots that reach the ground in fabric pots will continue to grow… into the ground. They’ll just grow right through the bottom of the grow bag.
This is pretty easy to manage if you just remember to move your pot on occasion. You don’t have to move far. Just slide it over a bit so any roots get broken off. You can also place your grow bag on something that is not dirt. If you are on a patio no issues at all.
Tip: You can also place a shallow plant saucer underneath your grow bag. They can be purchased Check the dollar store for cheap oil pans. These were 1.25 (because the dollar store is now the dollar and a quarter store). They are a great size for my grow bags. Not super pretty but great size and cheap.
Recommended Grow Bags
BTW the grow bags you see in this article can be found here…
Vivosun Grow Bag – https://amzn.to/3RB53Fu
AC Infinity Grow Bags https://amzn.to/3KE6dhf
I actually like them both. Different prices but I didn’t see a huge difference between the 2 brands. At least not for this one season. If I had to choose a preference it would be the AC Infinity Brand. The fabric and handles were better quality which might make the difference in longevity. (remember I’ve only used them for one season at this point)
Root bound issues.
With a plastic pot or bucket, your roots will hit the side of the bucket and continue growing spiraling around the edge of the container. This can cause it to become ‘root bound’.
This is detrimental if you are trying to grow something like a small tree. The root system will be too big for the container. If you are growing vegetables I don’t think it is as much of an issue. They are growing for one season only. I don’t believe for most veggies this is long enough for root bound issues to arise.
Choose the right size container for your plant.
Your success using buckets, pots or grow bags is also dependent on being reasonable with what size pot you choose for what plant. Have a big enough pot to contain the root system to whatever you are growing. Here is a site that has a great list of many plants and the size of container recommended. Harvest to Table; Pot Sizes for Growing Vegetables in Containers.
Tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets
Many people grow their tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets. Or large nursery pots. One thing to keep in mind is the size of your container whether it is grow bags or buckets or pots. I would not go any smaller than 5 gallon. In fact there are 7 gallon grow bags available. These are just a little bigger than what I purchased. Those would be good for tomatoes.
Another thing to keep in mind is generally you want to grow determinate tomatoes in containers. Mine are not! In fact I’m keeping a close eye on these to see if they do well. So far so good. I’ve got more on growing tomatoes in buckets and how it is working for me here. Specifically I look at Growing Indeterminate Tomatoes in Buckets.
Other pros and cons between grow bags , plastic pots and buckets.
Watering and root space needs aside, there are other things to consider if you are comparing grow bags and plastic pots or buckets.
Cost value of Grow bags vs plastic pots or buckets.
If you need to purchase containers, I was surprised to learn that if you are purchasing new, grow bags (purchased in multiple packages) can be cheaper than plastic pots. So that is a definite plus.
If you can recycle nursery pots that is of course even cheaper. 🙂 We purchased 5 apple trees last year that came in pots, I”ve saved them and repurposed them. On a smaller scale I’ve got a stack of small pots that I’ll be using as well.
Is it safe to grow food in plastic buckets?
Plastic buckets can be purchased at most home building supply stores. (ie Home Depot/ Lowes/ Ace Hardware… etc.)
Now for the question…. What about the branded Lowes, or HomeDepot buckets? You know the bright orange ones or the bright blue (like you see me using)
When I decided to grow a few tomatoes in buckets I did a bit of research to find out if these buckets are good for growing food. I decided when I was writing this article to share with you some resources to back up my decision…. and now I’m finding some differing opinions! So I’ll just say, that you should choose a bucket that is food-grade and hasn’t stored any questionable materials. Things like paint, oil, or any chemicals or substances that would be bad for the garden.
These 5 gallon buckets would be great for growing vegetables… but as you can see they are quite pricey. You can also ask at your local bakery or deli, they often have those white buckets that icing or other foods came in. Sometimes they give them away, sometimes sell them cheap.
Personally I’m not too terribly worried about my buckets. I’m certainly not going to throw away the tomatoes I’ve got growing. But I’ll also likely do some more research to be sure before I do it again next year.
You can make your own grow bags.
Burlap bags can be repurposed for grow bags. Feed bags can also be reused as grow bags although they are not fabric and will be a bit different. You can even purchase heavy material suitable for a grow bag and sow your own. Landscape fabric is another option.
Pots last longer.
Plastic is a longer lasting material than fabric. Depending on the manufacturer they will claim to last 3-5 years. And since they are made for gardening… they are surely safe to grow in. :).
Fabric bags are easy to move depending on the size of your bag.
Obviously the bigger the bag the heavier it will be. Most grow bags come with handles. If you go with grow bags, get them with handles.
5 Gallon buckets have handles as well and are easy to move. And if you’ve got something growing the plant may get in the way of the handle. Of course there are different sizes of buckets. 5 gallon is pretty common but smaller buckets are available as well.
My preference: Grow bag vs plastic pot vs bucket.
So here are the pros and cons in a bulleted list! (cause I love easy to compare lists!)
- easy to move (better with handles)
- less expensive
- healthy root system
- drains well
- can be reused for a few years (material will eventually break down)
- good for plants you don’t want in the ground
- needs to be watered more often
Plastic Pots or Buckets
- easy to move
- pretty (if you buy nice pots)
- can be recycled materials (if food safe)
- can be reused for many years
- maintains water better
- good for plants you don’t want in the ground
- potential root bound issues (yet to be determined by me)
So my conclusion is that the grow bags may work well for you depending on your circumstances. I personally like the nursery pots best… with buckets a close second. (the buckets are just kinda ugly). That need to check for water with grow bags pushed grow bags to the bottom of the pile. Although… they are still in the pile!
My next experiment is seeing if I can use these through the fall and early winter in my greenhouse made of old windows and recycled materials. The greenhouse is not heated and has lots of gaps and ventilation but I’m hoping to grow some cold hardy things. We’ll see how long I can keep it going through the colder weather.