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Upside Down Tomatoes: Why, Oh Why?

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.

Tomato Sadist

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.

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25 Responses to “Upside Down Tomatoes: Why, Oh Why?”

  • I think you and I should start the tomato liberation society. We could wear masks and run around at night trying to free all upside down tomatoes and plant them right side up. I am so with you on this. My upside down tomatoes look like contortionists – and not in a good way. The tomatoes that are upside down are at least a month behind the ones that are growing right side up – right next to the upside down ones.

  • I’m with you on this one. I was given two of the cheap knock off versions. One plant died within the first week because it just couldn’t get enough sun. The second one is spindly and just now getting flowers. It looks so sad. Plus, the material on the bag is starting to tear…not from anyone doing anything to it. It’s just starting to disintegrate. I’ll never use these again.

  • I’d been curious about this upside-down planter thing, and I’m glad this post and comments have sated that curiosity. It never fails to astound me that there are fashions and fads in plants as in everything else. Perhaps I can get a grant to relate the upside-down trend to the economy. I’m sure there’s significance there somewhere.

  • Deborah:

    People are just too freaking lazy to stake their plants, that’s all. I have a friend who is trying to grow SQUASH (zucchini, actually) upside down! That should be very intersting.

  • There is a place for these and that is when there is no other choice, why would you try it otherwise. Harder to prepare, harder to water and expensive unless you go the DIY route.

    Yes I am with you as well.

  • I tried an upside down tomato plant in an old flower pot. It did not do well. However, my father-in-law planted a couple upside down in 5 gallon buckets and they have done quite well. Who knows.

  • LM:

    I’ve successfully grown tomatoes in an upside down planter for two years, so I just wanted to let you know that it can be done. Part of smart planting is picking varieties that can thrive in these planters — I had great luck with “juliet” and “tumbler” cherry tomato varieties. I also grew the best bell peppers of my life in an upside-down planter!

    I make sure to use a combination of potting soil and peat moss so that the planter does not get too heavy or dense, and at the end of the season when I empty the planters it’s easy to see how the roots grew upward throughout the soil.

    As an apartment dweller, these planters were great to hang off of my 1st floor porch and easy to water (I hung them from the railings and then stood on the ground to harvest). Currently I have mine hanging from an old clothesline pole, and watering is not a problem.

  • admin:

    Kerry: Yes! I was on the kids’ play set this morning comparing the upside down tomato plant with the diagonally-planted one. The diagonally planted tomato went in several weeks after the upside down one. They are both producing flowers, but the upside down tomato looks sickly – a lot like a pot-bound plant. It is twisted, the leaves look dry, and there are far fewer leaves per inch on it than there are on the diagonally-planted tomato.

    Stacy: It’s a shame that the knock-off planters are wearing badly. I’ve seen Topsy-Turvies that seem to be weathering well. My 99-cent shopping bags are holding up nicely, and they are very strong.

    Pomona Belvedere: Thank you for sparing your tomato plants from certain discomfort.

    Deborah: I’m lazy. Staking, stringing, caging… none is too much work when the alternative is to force a hapless plant to contort in such unnatural ways.

    Brian: I’m convinced that there is always a superior alternative to upside down planters. If there’s room enough for a plant to grow upside down, there’s enough room for the plant to grow upside up.

    Garden Gopher: I’m convinced that many tomato plants will do well in upside down planters. The same plants would have done even better in upside up planters. There are absolutely no advantages to planting upside down.

    LM: Thanks for the tips. Lurking upside down enthusiasts should heed your words.

  • Chris:

    I have a bunch of Repreco tomatoes growing upside down and and they look a lot like yours. I’m starting to get good size tomatoes on them so we’ll see what happens to them as the fruit gets heavy. I did drive by an apartment patio with a topsy turvy on it and it looked just like the ones on TV. Do the original topsy turvies recommend a certain type of tomato, I wonder?

    I guess I’ll know in a couple more days how much flexibility is left in the stem of my plants!

  • [...] This post was Twitted by GardeningGuru33 [...]

  • [...] This post was Twitted by judisheehan [...]

  • admin:

    Topsy-Turvy’s web site specifically claims you can grow any variety of tomato in their upside down planters. They also claim that a plant will produce up to 30 pounds of tomatoes. Grown in a garden upside up, some varieties may produce as many as 100 pounds of tomatoes per plant in a season… I suspect the awkward upside down orientation of tomatoes in a Topsy-Turvy results in significantly lower production. But that’s not the whole story. Even with five gallons of soil, a planter doesn’t provide the space most tomato plants want for their roots; especially larger varieties of tomatoes are likely to under perform in a five gallon planter. It’s a common trade-off the container gardener makes to be able to grow produce where a traditional garden bed simply isn’t an option.

    Incidentally: I believe many people get terrific results with upside down tomatoes. I also believe that every one of them would have gotten significantly better results growing the same plants in equivalent but upside up planters. I hope yours produce an ample harvest!

  • You have excellent cheap solutions! This deserves a bookmark. It seems like everything in your house is a candidate to become a flower pot. ;-)

  • admin:

    Chris: Thanks for visiting. I insist that I take a lazy approach to gardening… but you can see that I’m also budget-conscious. It awes me that $20 worth of seeds (managed properly) can produce more than enough vegetables to meet the annual needs of a family of five… Always looking for ways to keep the rest of my gardening costs low.

  • Yeah, it’s something I’m becoming more conscious of too. I’m personally starting with the salad stuff. That’s why I have tomatoes and herbs. I should go for lettuce next.

    And like you, I’m exploring various containers for garden use. I’m already recycling all the fast food cups we’re using.

  • hear! hear!….and on top of that, those topsy turvy things are just plain ugly.

  • [...] upside down planter Upside Down Tomatoes: Why, Oh Why? | Your Small Kitchen Garden __________________ TONY OF SAN [...]

  • Gigi:

    What a great post! My Celebrity looked great in the first month of upside downing and then choked. My Early Girl managed to squeeze a few small toms which I’m currently harvesting. Perhaps there are some varieties that do well in a 5-gal pail (which is what I used). But my upside up Early Girls produced large handsome tomatoes – nothing like these little plum-sized toms I’m harvesting. The only thing thriving in my buckets is a fabulous Thai basil growing on top. So there. Thanks again for a great post and funny comments! :)

  • admin:

    Gigi: Thanks for stopping in and sharing your experiences. I’m seeing upside down tomatoes all over my neighborhood this year, and nearly all of them look horrible. I’ve done some experimental planting for the sake of comparison and I hope to report on my results before the first autumn frost. If the upside down planter manufacturers didn’t print misleading statements (lies) in their advertising and on their packaging, it might not bother me so much. But seriously: what do these people have against tomato plants? Will people grow better if you hang them upside down?

  • I couldn’t agree more; tomatoes need good soil and lots of it in order to thrive, and these topsy-turvys will quickly prove to be just a passing fad in time to come. If you do not have access to a good patch of soil to grow them then your other alternative is to plant them in pots, but as big a pot as you can have as possible.

  • Briar:

    Hi

    I have a hundred and one tomatoes from seeds to seedings as you do and not enough garden space I don’t want to hang them hehehehe do you think if I just put them in the green bags on the ground I have plenlty of that will they grow as if they were in a large pot

    cheers from Briar

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Briar: I’ve grown tomatoes on my deck in reusable shopping bags. Those bags are about a five-gallon capacity, and I think the upside-down torture devices are closer to seven gallons. Determinate tomatoes, usually ones that produce smaller fruits may do better in such small containers, but they’ll certainly do better if you grow the plants UP instead of DOWN!

  • [...] plants in the kitchen. I was thinking of trying the trick of hanging them in a bag, so they grow hanging upside down, but I will probably just put them in a hanging pot once they sprout. (Tomatoes are amazing: I [...]

  • Kat:

    Great to use recycled containers for tomatoes when soil area at a minimum. (I did dig up my back yard instead.) But my tomato plants do require lots of water and nutrients and take up quite a bit of space as they become huge.
    I’m wondering how these small containers (even milk jugs) will contain what is needed for the plant and then what will support all the vegetation that a tomato plant produces. I have to use 2-3 feet high old fencing wire to help support the heavy branches. By mid-Aug, the plants can take 3-4 feet of ground space besides the supports. And that is when I have used no tomato feeding product as my father did in his potted tomatoes. (I have some in very large pots also.)
    Just sayin…

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Kat: It’s idiotic to grow a tomato plant in a one-gallon container. I tried it to evaluate a blog post I’d read somewhere. My suspicion was that it’s a terrible idea, and my results bore out my suspicion. Even a five-gallon container is barely enough for a typical tomato plant; at best you’ll get fewer fruits, and those are likely to be smaller than had you grown the tomato in a planting bed. That said, I want to encourage people to grow their own food. If a 5-gallon bucket for a tomato plant is all you can manage, then please do it! In the ground, a tomato plant’s roots may spread three feet in all directions and even farther down into the soil. In a collection of growth studies I reviewed two years ago, the very smallest space a tomato plant’s root ball extended through was 14 cubic feet. There are about 7.5 gallons in one cubic foot, so you’d need about a 100 gallon bucket to let a plant do its thing. We’re not doing a tomato plant any favors by cramming it into a five gallon bucket; we’re torturing it when we put it in a one-gallon bucket.

    Just agreein… ;-)

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