I first discovered fabric raised beds in Quebec City. I was there for a garden writers’ conference a few years ago, and they seemed to be everywhere I went: in front of the parliament buildings featuring a lush ornamental mix of vegetables, herbs, and flowers; lined up in rows on the roof of a homeless shelter; and supporting a gorgeous living willow pergola at a botanical garden.
The fabric pots were often displayed together in a variety of sizes. Some held single plants, while others were able to hold gorgeous, abundant arrangements. An urban agriculture company called Les Urbainculteurs was distributing a brand called Smart Pots in Canada at the time, so I brought one home to try. I’ve since expanded my collection and have been growing in them ever since. I’ve also noticed that fabric raised beds in all shapes and sizes are more readily available at garden centres and garden retailers.
What exactly are fabric raised beds made from?
Any of the fabric pots I’ve come across—Geopot, Smart Pot, and WallyGro—are made from geotextiles. These are permeable fabrics that are typically made from polypropelene or polyester. Smart Pots further state they are BPA-free and Wally Pockets from WallyGro are made of 100 percent recycled plastic water bottles.
The fabric used in the brands I’ve mentioned are permeable and allow for a process called air pruning or root pruning to occur. As the air moves through the pots, it strengthens the root systems of the plants. This allows the roots to access oxygen. Furthermore, rather than the roots hitting the edge of the pot and curling around as they would with plastic, lateral branching occurs. This creates a dense root system with more fibrous roots to soak up water and nutrients to the plant. These containers foster robust, healthy plants with strong roots.
Despite most fabric raised beds being black in colour, they don’t retain heat as you might expect. Because air flows through the porous container, the plant is kept cool.
Do make sure if you are purchasing fabric pots from a different brand that you research the materials that are used to make them.
Why garden in fabric pots?
Fabric raised beds are lightweight and versatile. They are very practical if you don’t have an in-ground garden. You can place a fabric pot anywhere that gets six to eight hours of sunlight a day—your driveway, the corner of a patio, etc. If you’re concerned about weight on a balcony or deck, they are much lighter than raised beds made from wood or plastic.
Many styles have handles, so if you really did have to move them, soil and all, fabric containers are easy to drag onto a dolly or into a wheelbarrow to cart around.
If you have poor, hard-packed, or clay soil, fabric raised beds are a good solution. I have a Geopot that I got from Lee Valley Tools along my side yard where bindweed is rampant. I’ve laid cardboard and mulched the garden, but I can’t really have a full in-ground raised bed, so the fabric pot is great because I can just plunk it down anywhere.
Watering and fabric container care
Because fabric pots are permeable, they drain really well, so plants aren’t sitting in water. I’ve seen some comments that fabric pots dry out too quickly. I have found that if the weather is exceptionally hot, you may need to water them more than once a day. Try to just give them a very thorough watering in the morning.
I will caution that because the water drains so easily out the bottom of fabric pots, if you have them on a balcony, you may need to figure out a solution so that the water doesn’t drip down to the floors below. If you use something like a tray underneath, make sure that your pots aren’t perpetually sitting in water. This can lead to root rot and unwanted pests.
The other convenient fact about smaller fabric pots is you can empty them for the season, shake them out, fold them up, and store them for the winter in your garage or shed. For large fabric pots, like raised beds, you’re not going to want to empty them if you don’t have to. They require a lot of soil for that first fill. I empty the fabric pot I grow potatoes in and send the soil to the compost each fall, but all the others remain full.
To wash your fabric pots, apparently you can just throw them in the washing machine. I’ve never done this myself. Les Urbainculteurs recommends using a brush and water to clean.
Choosing soil for fabric raised beds
Gardening in raised beds and pots allows you to control all the rich organic matter that goes into them. The 20-gallon fabric pot that I mention below required a lot of soil. I filled the bottom third or so with cheap bags of black earth that are usually five for $10 (Cdn). I knew my plants weren’t going to be reaching all the way down to the bottom. Then I topped it up with soil formulated for vegetable gardens followed by compost. If you were filling other veggie gardens at the same time, you could use a load of triple mix (which includes top soil, peat moss or black loam, and compost ) or 50/50 mix (top soil and compost).
To fill the raised beds that were installed this year in her polytunnel, Niki used two thirds PRO-MIX Organic Vegetable and Herb Mix, and one third compost. She then added slow release organic fertilizer before planting.
Do make sure you set up a consistent schedule to fertilize your plants. Constant watering will wash away any nutrients that aren’t being absorbed by the plant. I use organic fertilizer that is formulated for vegetable gardens.
If you don’t empty your fabric raised beds at the end of the season (which isn’t recommended if they’re a certain size), do top-dress them with compost in the fall and/or the springtime to add nutrients back to the soil. This fall, I’m experimenting with growing a cover crop in my 20-gallon pot.
What can you grow in a fabric raised bed?
You can grow anything, really. You want to make sure that you maximize the space and depth. This means don’t grow one wee little basil plant in a 20-gallon container.
I have a large, 20-gallon Smart Pot that I’ve grown watermelon and cucumbers in. The height allows the plants and fruit to trail over the sides, rather than resting on the ground.
I also have a couple of eight- to 10-gallon Geopots that I use to grow tomatoes and peppers. I’ll usually sneak in basil and/or an annual like alyssum, as well.
That first Smart Pot I brought home has been used every year to grow potatoes. You can get special fabric potato pots with a special opening at the bottom for easy access. But I’ve had success using mine. If I want to dig around for early potatoes, I’ll slide a gloved hand down the side and feel around for some. Strawberry plants are also great candidates for fabric raised beds.
When I give my raised bed talks, I like to recommend smaller fabric pots for spreaders like mint. These plants do not belong in an in-ground garden—you’ll be pulling them out forever! But you can have a nice tidy, easy-to-maintain collection of mints or chamomile that won’t take over the garden.
More raised bed reading
- Raised bed designs for gardening
- Planting a raised bed: Tips on spacing, sowing, and growing in raised bed gardens
- Elevated raised bed gardening
- The benefits of raised bed gardening
- 6 things to think about before preparing a raised bed garden