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Literary Gardener: A hearty tomato crop is in the bag

“Golf is a thinking man’s game. You can have all the shots in the bag, but if you don’t know what to do with them, you’ve got troubles.” — Chi Chi Rodriguez in “The Giant Book of Golf Quotations,” 2007

In his day, Chi Chi Rodriguez was considered one of the most quotable and entertaining figures in professional golf. In one of his famous quips, he used the common expression “in the bag” to refer to a golfer’s assured success, as long as the player has both a good shot and a good head on his shoulders.

In fact, “in the bag” originated from an old baseball tradition that started after the New York Giants recorded 26 consecutive wins during the 1916 season. A superstition developed that if the ball bag was carried from the field into the clubhouse at the beginning of the ninth inning with the Giants in the lead, then the game was “in the bag” and could not be lost.

Of course, this tradition didn’t always work out for the Giants, just as things that are considered “in the bag” sometimes spill out all over the place. However, gardeners, when it comes to growing container plants, “in the bag” does promise good results.

Grow bags are becoming a popular alternative to gardening in plastic, metal or terracotta containers. The best grow bags are made of sturdy, breathable fabric with durable stitching. They come in a variety of sizes, and some have handles that make it a lot easier to move around heavy potted plants.

We’ve had success during the past three seasons growing our tomatoes in 20-gallon grow bags. We prefer to use light-colored bags that reflect the sun’s heat better than black bags. We fill the bags to about 3 inches from the top with potting soil that is a mixture of coconut coir, compost and perlite.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so we add a balanced organic fertilizer when we transplant starts into the bags, and then once every two weeks when the plants set fruit. Drip irrigation has worked most effectively by using emitters or a dripline soaker hose around each plant. We water enough to keep the soil evenly moist.

One of the advantages of using grow bags is that the porous fabric prevents the soil from becoming too wet, which is a common cause of disease and poor tomato production. The porosity of the bags also allows more air to reach the plant’s root zone, and this added oxygen helps keep plants vigorous.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of using grow bags has to do with air pruning. This means when the plant roots reach the edge of the bag, contact with air triggers a natural pruning process. The roots branch out and grow stronger, rather than girdling around the bottom of the container. A healthy root system is more effective in drawing moisture and nutrients from the soil.

Last year, we grew tomatoes in raised beds, plastic pots and grow bags. We found that the plants in the grow bags grew bushier and produced more tomatoes than the other plants. This year, we are growing all of our tomatoes in grow bags, which leaves the raised beds for other vegetable crops.

I think we’ve got a hearty tomato crop in the bag.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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