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Rotten News About Cheap Planters

The reusable shopping bags available at the grocery store in Lewisburg are dramatically more biodegradable than the flimsy plastic bags they put your groceries in if you don’t have your own bags. I’d expect the environmentally responsible reusable bag to be nearly indestructible… and I’d build the “decays in ultraviolet light” formulation into the flimsy bags the store practically gives away.

Your Small Kitchen Garden is about growing food in limited space. In that spirit, I’ve posted a few articles about container gardening and I’ve shared some experiments I’ve done with very inexpensive planters. My favorite of all small kitchen garden planters this year was the reusable shopping bag that has become a symbol of the green movement.

You find these shopping bags in many grocery and department stores. Where I live, you can buy a reusable shopping bag at a grocery store for 99 cents, or at Walmart for about 60 cents.

I have some sad news: Those low-cost, ultra-strong, reusable shopping bags may be particularly sensitive to ultraviolet light. Mine are.

Advantages to Shopping Bag Container Gardening

I like those reusable shopping bags for several reasons:

  • A shopping bag is very inexpensive for a planter of its size
  • A shopping bag is quite large; it will hold about five gallons of soil.
  • A shopping bag is easy to modify; you can cut holes in it with little effort
  • A shopping bag has built-in handles by which you can hang it easily.
  • A shopping bag is lightweight but still strong enough to hold many pounds of soil and water.
  • A shopping bag is permeable; excess water soaks through and drips away.

My friend, Kerry Michaels, who produces a blog about container gardening was also taken by the notion of using reusable grocery bags as planters. By mid-July, she had written several posts about her experiences with them (see Unusual Container Garden for her latest), and was happy with their performance.

After about six weeks of hanging in the sun, the reusable bags I used as planters developed obvious thin spots.

The Sad Truth about Shopping Bag Planters

My shopping bag planters are disintegrating. I noticed nearly two months ago that thin spots were developing in the fabric. More recently, whole sections of the bags have simply crumbled away; there are very large holes in my hanging shopping bag planters. On the other hand, the planters that sit on my deck look as fresh as the day I bought them.

I suspect that the deck planters are breaking down just as the hanging ones are, but the deck planters aren’t stretched by the weight of their load so the degraded fabrics isn’t cracking and crumbling as it does on the hanging planters.

After about three months in the sun, my hanging planter reusable shopping bags are a bit scary. Will they make it through the growing season or will the fabric decay so much that the bags tear loose from their handles and plummet to the lawn? I would not want such planters hanging on a balcony over a sidewalk.

Should you use Grocery Bags as Planters?

Given the bags’ apparent sensitivity to light, they aren’t ideal candidates for planters. But I must point out a few “other hands:”

1. The bags I purchased may have a different formulation from bags you can buy. Kerry Michaels hasn’t reported problems with her reusable grocery bags, so I hold out hope that many brands of these bags are not vulnerable to ultraviolet light. (It’s a slap in the faces of environmentally-responsible shoppers that the once-and-done flimsy plastic bags at the local grocery store may be so much less biodegradable than the hefty, reusable bags for which shoppers pay extra.)

I love the look of sweet potato vines growing from a reusable grocery bag planter on my deck. The greens and subtle purples in the leaves are gorgeous, and the bag adds a slightly humorous touch. Perhaps the sweet potato leaves have protected the bag from serious sun damage. I hope to be able to plant in this bag again next season.

2. Reusable grocery bags are still crazy inexpensive. A five-gallon nursery bag—a bag made of heavy black plastic—costs about 90 cents. I’m willing to bet a lot of those bags enjoy only one growing season before going in the trash.

3. If the grocery bag is light-sensitive, it can make a great planter in situations where the planter itself sits in the shade. For container gardening, this isn’t a bad practice anyway: if your containers get full, direct sunlight, the soil temperature inside can rise enough to kill roots. As well, direct sunlight makes the soil in a planter dry out quickly. Ideally, (at least during the summer) the planter remains in the shade and just the stems and leaves of the plants rise into sunlight.

So, I’ll continue to use grocery bags as planters. To that end, I’ll shop around the grocery chains and department stores nearby in hopes of finding a bag that doesn’t crumble to dust when hanging in direct sunlight. If all I find are light-sensitive, I’ll reserve them as deck planters, or come up with ways to hang them so the bags themselves don’t receive direct sunlight.


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8 Responses to “Rotten News About Cheap Planters”

  • This is an interesting container. Love the creativity. There are so many options out there. I’ve built self watering containers out of recycled 5 gallon buckets and small deli containers.

  • Hey Daniel – I used bags from Whole Foods that are plastic with kind of a fuzz on the inside. They have held up really well. I have several herb gardens in their lunch sized bags and a huge tomato in the large sized bag. So far they’ve all held up well. That said, I didn’t hang any of them. They are all resting on solid ground/deck. I’ve really stuffed them with plants and soil, so thought the handles might not be up to holding the weight.

    I’ve got to say, the plants in the bags are thriving. Some better than the same plants in cedar planters.

  • admin:

    I think the reusable grocery bag makes a natty planter. The ones on my deck look sharp and seem to be holding up; I hope to put several to use again next season. Thanks for the update!

  • Doug:

    Those grocery bags work great for gardening! I have a few different types of those bags on my front porch.

  • Sami:

    Just a thought, here in the UK we have the type of bags you have used for sale, but most stores also stock hessian based re-useable bags. The hessian bags are sturdier and should hold up to natural light better as they are woven not matted like the green ones you have used so wont tear the same and hessian takes longer to de-grade.

  • Debbie2008:

    THANK YOU so much for posting your experiences with recycled grocery-bag planters. I was wondering how they hold up. I guess not too well.

    A new product on the market called “Woolly Pocket” is made from recycled plastic and hangs on the wall.

    Unfortunately, I think Woolly Pockets are pricey. But, they’re easy to install.

  • Lynn:

    I know I’m a few years late to get in on the conversation, but wondering if you tried the same bags on the ground (instead of hanging). I’m thinking of the difference of a paper grocery bag full of cans being held by it’s top edges, vs a paper grocery bag full of cans set on the table. The pressure exerted in hanging the soil might have contributed to the demise of your bags.

  • Autumn:

    I bought some decent reusable bags at the Dollar Tree that I made hanging tomatoes planters out of. I’m notrying sure if I over loaded them because I put several plants in each of them. After a spider mite infestation messed up my tomatoe plants I kept alive in my little green house all Buffalo, NY winter, I’m a bit afraid to use my compost or old pots even though I bleached them and covered everything with neem oil. These Dollar Tree ones do seem to have a plastic coating on the material which may allow them to hold up better, but clearly not so biodegradable. But for a dollar, I’m giving them a shot!

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