Ugly, cheap, low-water-use produce: the bag garden

About a week ago, as I was collecting wild amaranth for my post on foraging, my eleven-year-old neighbor boy showed up. “You mean, you don’t have any matembele?” He asked me, when he saw what he thought was my desperation for greens to cook.

Matembele is a type of sweet potato that is grown here. It is grown exclusively for its leaves, which are narrower and tastier than those of sweet potatoes grown for tubers. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring you some cuttings,” he told me. So a few days later, I had matembele cuttings, but no good place to grow them.

Container gardening is a great idea in theory, but the expense of pots and other containers may prove inconvenient, maybe even prohibitive, to some people who would benefit from having fresh vegetables growing in a small space. Here in Tanzania, buying big clay pots or large plastic containers to plant in would get pretty expensive, but nylon bags, which are commonly used for grain and legume storage, are pretty cheap – about 25 cents a bag.

During our pre-service training for Peace Corps, we were taught how to make bag gardens, which are a useful tool for improving household and child nutrition. Being watered with just a gallon or two of greywater per day from rinsing dishes or other household chores, bag gardens are ideal for growing greens and vegetables right outside your door, even in the dry season.

Here’s how to make one.

Things you need:

  • large nylon or burlap bag
  • gravel
  • garden soil, mixed with finished compost if available
  • a tube with about a 6″ diameter. A large tin can with both top and bottom removed works well.
  • bucket
  • shovel
  • small hand rake (optional)
  • knife/ utility knife
  • container-friendly vegetable seeds and/or cuttings
  • water (less than 10 gallons at the start should be enough)
  • 3 or 4 sticks or stakes to support the bag garden

Start out by deciding on a good site to build your bag garden, because once you fill the bag with soil, it will be very difficult to move again! I set mine up on the northwestern corner of our house, which gets very good sun. (We are in the southern hemisphere, so the north side is the sunny side.)

bag 2

Set the bag in its designated location and put a few inches’ worth of gravel in the bottom of the bag. Shake the bag so that this foundation is even and sturdy against the ground.

bag 3

Place the tin in the center of the bag, on the gravel foundation. Fill the tin with gravel, and fill the bag outside of the tin with garden soil/ compost. You are basically making a porous core of gravel at the center of the bag garden, for ease of watering and to help ensure the soil gets evenly moist.

Once the gravel in the tin and the soil in the bag are at the same level, lift the tin up, fill it with gravel, add soil in the bag, and repeat until the bag is filled. You can leave a few inches at the top to cuff/ turn down the bag to make the top sturdier.

bag 4

*Please don’t do what I did, which was to use a long plastic pipe as the core tube. I filled it with gravel, then the rest of the bag with soil, thinking I would be able to pull it out easily… well, I was wrong! After five or ten minutes of huffing and puffing and even wrapping a rubber strip around the tube to get a better grip, I finally hefted it out. So to avoid a struggle… just use a tin. I promise it’ll be easier!

Use sticks or stakes driven into the ground to support the finished bag garden. There are none in these pictures because mine is leaning against the house, but I will add two or three stakes to make sure it doesn’t fall forward.

After the bag is filled, water it through the gravel core in the center. It may take several gallons to get the soil evenly moist. I left mine overnight so that the water could absorb well before planting. (Okay, I planned to get the whole thing done in one evening, but the sun set and I still wasn’t done!)

Take a utility knife or razor and cut horizontal or slightly diagonal slits in the bag. Don’t make them too long or too close together, or you may have a blow-out situation. Plant a few seeds or cuttings in each slit. I planted the sweet potato cuttings as well as bush-type garden bean seeds in the sides, and broadcast spinach seeds on the top.

bag 6

You might call it the world’s ugliest container garden; I call it not having to buy greens during the dry season. We will see how this bag garden goes.

What are your favorite cheap containers to use for gardening? What techniques do you use to conserve and reuse water in the garden?

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