Upside-Down Tomatoes

Wendy S. Delmater
By Wendy S. Delmater on Tue, Apr 15, 2014 - 9:47am

Last year our tomatoes had a problem with a bacterial wilt. It was either verticillium or fusarium wilt--even the agricultural cooperative extension was not sure which--but the cure was the same in either case: soil solarization. Right now we are solarizing the soil in four of our raised beds: you cover the bed in clear or black plastic for a few months and the heat of the sun sterilizes the soil. Until then, we are raising our tomatoes in containers. But which kind of container would be right for us? One choice was upside down tomato planters. Here is what my research unearthed.

There are ready-made upside down planters, sold commercially as the Topsy Turvy Planter, the Upsy Downsy Tomato Planter, and the Upside Down Tomato Garden. Or you can use a five-gallon bucket that you are willing to sacrifice, since you have to drill a hole in the bottom. Since mine will be in the front porch,  and I think the other alternatives are ugly, I chose the similarly-priced one in the illustration, from gardeners.com.

Here is how it works. The tomato is planted through a hole the bottom of a planter, bag, or basket that you hang. The plant grows suspended downwards. (Tip: to avoid soil loss, plant it through a hole in wax paper - the plant will tear the paper as it grows.) Water is poured into the top of the bag or planter. Gravity pulls the water and nutrients directly to the roots. Proponents also argue that bag-style versions heat the tomato plant as a greenhouse does, allowing the root system to expand. Others complain that the container shades the sun-loving plants, and that they need watered more than in-the-ground tomatoes. Many of the places that recommend it also recommended putting some sort of ground cover or mulch on the top to stop evaporation and stop the few weeds it might get. But some say that the water dripping on the leaves can contribute to fungal diseases (there are copper fungicides for that). I guess fungal problems might depend on your climate, the humidity and amount of wind & rain.

On the other hand, upside down tomato planters save space. They are also a form of vertical gardening that requires no staking. While you have to consider the extra cost of sterilized soil, you no longer have to put collars on the plants to stop cutworms or worry about other soil-borne things like nematodes or slugs.

Some caveats (words of warning). A 5-gallon bucket of wet soil weighs about 50 pounds. You have to be sure that your anchor point can handle the weight, plus the stress of the plants swinging in the wind. Putting one up may be a two-man operation.

They also leave a mess when you water them, a soil-and-water spatter.

On the other hand, if there is a cold snap they are movable so you can bring them indoors or move them into shade on really hot days.  

The makers of such systems claim to get outstanding yields, but gardeners regularly report low fruit production for the effort invested. If you use a heavy, indeterminate variety (fruits over time, not all at once) you will have to trim your plants. Tomatoes grown in upside down containers invariably grow in a "U" shape, reaching for the sun, which many gardeners complain is unattractive and leaves the plant unbalanced.

A few helpful tips. You should plant smaller seedlings (around 6 inches high) rather than larger ones to avoid root damage during planting. Use peat moss and vermiculite or a soil mix with those - they retain water.  Get a plant with (or add) a water reservoir or sponge to prevent soil from drying out and roots from overheating. One place recommended inserting the bottom of a gallon milk jug in the top of the soil, with a few holes in it, for slow steady watering; I am going to try that.

4 Comments

Stan Robertson's picture
Stan Robertson
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 7 2008
Posts: 651
A question:

Having twice tried upside down tomatoes, and after talking to others who have tried, it seems that subnormal yields are the norm. I think that this is to be expected when you are fighting against the plant's normal need for sun. So has anyone obtained normal yields with inverted plants?

 

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1982
My neighbor has.

My neighbor has. He says he gets NO tomatoes otherwise - so for him it's a good deal. He had not double-dug into our hardpan clay or made a raised bed, and has a permanent "arbor" to grow tomatoes in suspended buckets every year.

Even in my case, I am only trying this since we have so much of our garden being solarized. But for those with limited space or options, it seems better than none at all. 

MyBackAchers's picture
MyBackAchers
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: May 27 2013
Posts: 26
Check your soil

I have changed my soil recipe to add more kelp to give tomatoes more phosphorus. Kelp gives a balance of other minerals too, but it's the P that increases yields.

i stay away from Miracle Grow, but it's also a high P product, it just has other chemicals in it too.

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1982
always a good idea

It's always a good idea to check you soil. In previous years our phosphorus was always too high due to the organic matter in our kitchen scraps and we could only thin the soil out by adding sand and peat moss. This year since we are using containers, we don't have enough compost made. We had to use soil from the municipal composting facility. It may very well be deficient in any number of things.

By the way, the nearby City of Columbia SC composts all its yard waste: grass & hedge clippings, tree and bush limbs, logs, and things like box springs (wood and fabric). The compost gets resold to the public at $30 a generous yard (at least 3-ft X 3-ft x 3-ft), or $20 a yard if you load it.  Full-time workers turning acres of compost and at a huge chipping operation. And because they are doing it right it does not smell. Really nice, dark-bown, crumbly compost full of worm castings. It sure beats paying $10 a bag for compost to be shipped to a big box store. Talk about not letting our riches leave the local area!

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