In late spring, most of the tomato seedlings at garden stores and nurseries have become leggy: they’ve been stuck too long in tiny pots or in the cells of starter flats. The roots of these seedlings are choking themselves silly; the seedlings haven’t gotten enough nutrition and they’re stretching in hopes of finding healthier environments. If the stems could find soil, they’d put down roots to improve access to water and nutrition.
If your small kitchen garden is ridiculously space-challenged, you must consider hanging some plants. In the past two weeks, I started some tomatoes in containers… specifically in upside down planters that I made myself at bargain prices. This forced me to do a lot of thinking about upside down planters, and I have a few thoughts to share. Along the way, I’ll explain how to make upside down planters at less than a tenth the cost of commercial upside down planters.
Upside Down Planters
Between television infomercials, Internet blog posts, and new products showing up in garden stores and department stores, you’d think Topsy Turvy is the most awesome gardening device invented in the past 50 years. This device is a fabric bag with a hole in the bottom. You stuff a tomato seedling’s root ball into the bag through the hole in the bottom, fill the bag with soil, hang the bag, and add water regularly.
I’ve unpotted hundreds of root-bound tomato plants over the years. Not one had grown roots above the soil. I’m just guessing, but I suspect if the root ball starts at the bottom in an upside down planter, the tomato plant becomes pot bound when the roots spread sideways looking for ways to grow down. If I’m right, the best candidates for upside down planters are long-stemmed “leggy” seedlings.
According to the Topsy Turvy web site, you’ll harvest as many as 30 pounds of tomatoes from the plant. The folks who market this upside down planter claim, among other things, that tomatoes grow better in the planters because gravity pulls water down from the roots to the foliage. They also claim that sun hitting the bag warms the soil and roots so they grow more vigorously.
Actual Real Benefits of an Upside Down Tomato Planter
Here are claims about an upside down planter that are reasonable to believe:
1. It keeps the tomato plant away from soil-borne pests and diseases.
2. It keeps the tomato plant away from ground-dwelling rodents who might chew on tomatoes.
3. It keeps your tomatoes off of the soil without staking and pruning.
4. It provides a way for you to grow tomatoes on a deck, a porch, a patio, a balcony, or in nearly any situation where traditional gardening isn’t possible.
I’m all for these things… so the upside down planter has some appeal. And, I confess that I like the look of the tomato plants that Topsy Turvy shows in their advertisements.
A reusable shopping bag makes a decent hanging planter without modification. To make it an upside down planter, I cut a two-inch slit in the middle of the bottom and smear hot glue along the edges of the slit. To do this, I ran a bead of hot glue, then spread it with the metal handle of my utility knife. The material of the bag doesn’t look as though it will fray, but I added the glue as insurance. I slit the rigid bottom insert and made a thumb-wide hole in the middle, figuring the insert would keep soil from falling out of the hole and reduce sag in the hanging planter.
Really Cheap Upside Down Planters
I decided to add some upside down planters to my own small kitchen garden. Mostly, I wanted to test this idea so I could share my findings with my readers. But my garden budget is way too low to spend $15 or more for what looks like a cloth bag.
When I Googled upside down tomato planters, I found a blog entry that explaines how to make such planters from two-liter or three-liter soda bottles. It’s a cool idea, but a three-liter bottle is less than a fifth the size recommended for a tomato planter. Still, somewhere along the way to that blog post, I read a comment that suggested using a reusable shopping bag as an upside down planter. This I could afford!
The photos in this post reveal how I turned a reusable grocery bag into an upside down planter. The bag cost 99 cents at the grocery store, and is strong enough to carry three or four gallons of milk or orange juice. I measured and calculated and determined that this bag can hold about five gallons; gardeners recommend five-gallon containers as the appropriate size for a single tomato plant.
The biggest hassle in all of this is planting a tomato seedling in the hanging planter. It might help to hang the planter off the back of a chair, but I was able to wrestle it together while holding it. I actually worked the leaves and stem of the plant through the slit in the bag from the inside. As I added soil, I held the root ball up so just a few inches of stem and leaves protruded beneath the bag. Eventually, I half-filled the bag, figuring to add more soil as the plant grows. I looped the bag’s handles over boards on the kids’ play set; the bag hangs on the outside of the set with full southern exposure.
The Early Verdict
Making the upside down planter was simple. Planting a tomato seedling in it was a minor bother—but honestly less work than preparing a spot in the garden and planting one there. Still, all the time I was planting and hanging this thing, my brain was rolling its eyes:
Phototropism—this is the tendency of plants to grow toward light. A tomato plant pointing down out of a planter must want to turn and grow upward. Actually, there must be some geotropism involved in this urge as well (see below). For a seedling, this will be a hassle because the planter will be in the way. As the plant grows larger, it won’t be able to support its own weight anyway, so the hanging part isn’t bad thing… but why start it upside down?
Only a day after hanging, the tomato seedling is bending upward toward light… and, perhaps, against gravity (I believe a light-seeking plant grows up even in the absence of light). It would be silly to assume the roots haven’t noticed that they’ve changed orientation relative to “down.” I’m sure they’ve started growing toward the Earth’s core.
Geotropism—this is the tendency of plant roots to grow downward (and for foliage in darkness to grow upward as it searches for light). Any sane tomato root wants to be geotropic. While planting my seedlings, I wished they were “leggy” meaning they had spent too long in a small pot and had grown tall without growing thick. Then I could put the root balls deep into the bag—or close to the surface of the soil, and they’d be able to grow down to take advantage of the large space. If the root ball starts near the bottom of the bag, I expect roots will grow down, hit the bottom of the bag, and try to grow horizontally, looking for places they can grown down some more. Eventually, I think, the plants will become root-bound without having used the full bag of soil above them. I won’t know if I’m right until I dig into the bag when the tomato plant dies in the fall.
Gravity flow from roots to leaves—give me a break. If gravity helped move water and nutrition through plants, I imagine we’d see a lot of plants capitalize on this free assist. Even bromeliads that root in trees grow upward. If gravity helps, then evolution should have favored bromeliads that droop, and these would be the dominant species. For that matter, why aren’t there more plants that grow downhill on hillsides and mountainsides? Do your tomato plants a favor and make it easy for them to grow the way they want to.
Small Kitchen Garden Planters
So, I’ve installed some upside down planters, and will enjoy the experiment. However, in the interest of exploring best practices, I offer this: a reusable shopping bag is easy to hang, and you could let a tomato plant grow out of the top. My fear with that is that the weight a mature plant will strain and quite likely crush the stem where it curves over the top of the bag and hangs downward.
I suggest, and am about to create, a hanging planter where the root ball of the tomato seedling goes into the side of the bag just a few inches below the soil line. The stem and leaves of the plant should angle downward diagonally out of the hole in the bag. With this scheme, the roots start near the top of the soil and have all five gallons to fill before they start growing sidewise. The plant begins serious growth with the stem pointing along the path it would eventually follow anyway. As the stem thickens, the weight of the growing plant will bend it downward less abruptly, so it’s less likely to crimp or crack.
I’ll put one together like this, and post a photo soon. In the meantime, check out those reusable shopping bags. They make terrific planters whether you hang them, or just set them on your deck, patio, balcony, rooftop, walkway, play set…