I bought my homemade upside down tomato planter for 99 cents in a grocery store. It’s no more than a reusable shopping bag with a 2-inch slit cut in the bottom. It will hold five gallons of soil, though I’ve filled it only half way; I’ll add more soil in the next few days to ensure there’s someplace for the roots to go if they decide to grow upward contrary to their geotropic tendencies.
This season, I succumbed to the hype and added upside down tomato planters to my small kitchen garden. As regular readers of my blog might attest: I’m kind of lazy. I’m always looking for gardening shortcuts that still result in decent food-production. The hype about upside down planters has made them seem like a lazy gardener’s dream.
But, while I’m lazy, I’m also cheap… er, budget-conscious. The best price I’d seen for the original Topsy-Turvy upside down planter would have gotten me two for about $17. A knock-off product turned up at Walmart this spring for about the same price. So, I scouted the Internet for ideas on how to make upside down tomato planters without that cash outlay. On somebody’s blog about making a planter using a soda bottle, there was a comment suggesting that you put a hole in the bottom of a reusable shopping bag instead. For 99 cents, I bought a shopping bag and went to work. Here’s where I wrote about my home made upside down tomato planter.
I’m reasonably certain that the person who invented upside down tomato planters actually hates tomato plants. He or she one day decided to plant tomatoes upside down and watch them struggle and overcome the mind-numbing orientation. I’m going to describe the torture my upside down tomatoes are experiencing. It’s not for the squeamish; please forgive me if this discussion becomes too graphic… in fact, if you have a weak stomach, you may want altogether to skip the photos.
Within a day of moving into its upside down planter, my tomato plant bent upward against gravity. Being very small, the plant bumped its head against the bottom of the hanging planter. Being under the planter, the tomato was in constant shade. Being a plant, each morning the tomato tried to grow toward the sun… and it tracked the sun throughout the day.
I used a 3-liter soda bottle to fashion an upside down planter according to instructions on the web site www.ohcripes.com. Such a planter adds injury to injury: a tomato plant’s roots will grow into a space holding several gallons of soil—as many as five gallons. A 3-liter soda bottle holds less than a gallon.
A few weeks after hanging the soda bottle torture planter, I also hung some one-gallon milk jug tomato planters. While the sad, abused upside down tomato has struggled to grow up, the upside up tomatoes have simply grown, quickly overtaking the tortured tomato in size and in health.
For several weeks, my poor upside down tomato plant bumped its head on the underside of the planter while trying to find an easy pathway to follow toward sunlight. Finally, it grew big enough to extend from under the planter. Now the poor, tortured plant looks like an untreated victim of scoliosis: its spine twisted into a hideous curve that no bracing or surgery can correct.
I tried to accommodate the upside down craze by designing an alternative planter. For this planter, I put the slit about two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the bag, filled the bag with soil, and inserted the tomato plant with its root ball nearly on the surface of the soil. The stem runs diagonally down from the root ball through the soil and out the slit in the side of the bag. I figure the plant would immediately turn and grow upward, but the roots would have the full depth of the bag to grow downward. That’s what has happened so far… eventually, I figure the weight of the plant and the tomatoes that grow on it will pull the stem downward and crack it or break it off, but the weight may come on slowly enough to let the plant sag gently under its own weight. The idea seemed far nobler than setting a plant to grow upside down. In retrospect, I’d fill the bag with soil and plant the tomato through the bag’s top. Let it grow up the way nature intended. You know what plants I’d grow in an upside down or sidewise planter in future growing seasons? NONE! Please don’t you grow any either.
As the plant grows longer and sets fruit, it will inevitably grow heavier. The weight will force the stem down, flexing it unnaturally against the ghastly bend it has grown in effort to right the nasty wrong of living upside down. By the time this weight accumulates, the twisted stem will have “hardened down” meaning that it will be brittle rather than supple; it’s likely to crack or break off unless I provide support for the emerging fruits.
Don’t Grow Tomatoes Upside Down
I implore you: Don’t buy upside down tomato planters. A plant may do well in such a device; it may even thrive. However, upside down is not natural and provides not a single advantage over growing upside up (or upside right, if it pleases you). Contrary to a lie you might hear in a Topsy-Turvy advertisement, gravity in no way helps move water and nutrients down the stems to the leaves and fruit of an upside down plant… this is simply not how plants work.
Other claims made on the Topsy-Turvy web site aren’t quite as preposterous, but they are misleading. Does a greenhouse effect warm the roots in an upside down planter resulting in explosive growth? Is an upside down planter safe from ground fungus, bacteria, and cutworms? Does an upside down planter eliminate digging, weeding, backbreaking work, and the use of pesticides? The answer to each of these questions is: Absolutely no more than an upside up planter would. That’s right: every benefit claimed for an upside down planter comes as well with an upside up planter… but an upside up planter has one additional benefit: it doesn’t torture the tomato plant. If you want your plant to provide a bountiful harvest, why abuse it by forcing it to struggle against such unnatural conditions?
Upside down tomato planters are popular because they’re novel, not because they offer a better way to grow food. My on-line gardening buddy, Amanda Thomsen (see her blog at horticulture magazine) aptly referred to upside down planters as “The snuggies of the plant world.” In my words: A little marketing goes a long w… too far.
So, if you feel the urge to plant tomatoes and vegetables in a novel upside down planter, check yourself. Even if you can stomach the piteous efforts of your plants to right themselves; even if it doesn’t turn your stomach to witness the grotesque contortions of abused plants… consider your neighbors. Consider the children who might see your tortured tomatoes and be forever scarred by the experience.
Please visit Kerry Michaels’s containter gardening site for further discussion about upside down tomatoes.