Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Scoop on Upside-Down Hanging Planters

by Marc from Garden Desk

A recent craze that I have been very interested in lately is the Upside-Down Tomato Planter. There's a good chance you have heard of this before, known someone who has tried it, or even done it yourself. I thought I would add my two cents worth about them here.

The first time I grew a tomato plant out of the bottom of a planter was over 15 years ago, but in the past year or two it has become wildly popular. This is due mainly to the highly marketed Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Hanging Tomato Planter.

Before I tried the Topsy Turvy, I thought it was all hype. I tried it this year however and it actually does work well. You can read more about it on my blog. The fact of the matter is that you don't need a Topsy Turvy to grow upside down tomatoes. You can make a planter yourself and I've seen much written about different designs. Some of course are better than others but I've seen people use hanging baskets, buckets and two liter plastic bottles. The key to success when making your own is to have enough soil volume. The Topsy Turvy works because it is cylindrical which gives the roots more room. I'm fairly sure a two liter bottle does not allow enough root space.

If you have never grown tomatoes or any other vegetables from hanging planters before, you probably have some questions about doing it. I will attempt to address some here:

Why would I want to grow upside down tomatoes? Are there any benefits to doing so?
If you have plenty of space in the ground to grow your vegetables and you are not curious about growing upside down tomatoes then their is no benefit for you. If you don't have much room to grow crops in the ground however, then this may be great for you. Here is a picture of an inner-city dwelling that has zero yard associated with it. By using patio containers and hanging containers, they have a great little garden!

Half of their hanging planters are Topsy Turvys and half are made from buckets. As you can see, the results are about the same from both:

They also have chili peppers growing from one and cucumbers from another. Notice the cucumber hanging at the bottom of the planter on the right below:

These city dwellers illustrate the main benefit of using hanging containers for vegetables - They are a creative use of growing space. Other benefits are that you don't have to bend over to harvest your veggies and you can locate the planter close to your kitchen door and close to a water source. With tomatoes, upside-down planters are better than regular patio planters because there is no need for staking or caging the tomato plant. Last but not least, they are fun and great for kids too.

What kind of soil should be used in hanging containers?

Regular garden dirt should not be used in containers because it will compact too much. You should use a loose growing medium. I use organic potting soil with compost and coir (coconut fiber) or peat mixed in to hold moisture.

What about watering?

As with all container gardening, watering is the most difficult part. Vegetables need even more water than flowers, so you have to keep up with the watering. Just watch for the soil to be dry on the top few inches. If the plant begins to wilt, add water. Be careful not to be over zealous here though. Watering every day, even if the plant does not need it may cause more harm than good. Tomatoes especially don't like to stay wet and too much water can cause fungal problems.

Do you get more or fewer tomatoes with an upside-down planter?
That depends on a lot. If you are able to keep it growing well, a tomato plant will produce the same amount of fruit hanging upside down as it does right side up. The container aspect is what may change the outcome. I don't think you can expect as much harvest with container grown plants as you get in a garden bed. The roots do become restricted more in a container.

What are the drawbacks to upside-down planting?

As mentioned above, getting the watering correct could be considered a detriment. In addition to striving for the right amount of water, watering can cause another problem. When you water your hanging planter, excess water runs out the bottom of the container and gets the leaves wet. Tomato leaves tend to collect water because it is the underside of the leaves which can form a cup. This standing water can also cause disease problems on those leaves.

Another drawback for some people is that you have to find somewhere sturdy to hang them from. If your container has the right amount of soil, it gets pretty heavy and of course must hang for the entire growing season. Most people use a carport or porch roof to hang them from which can over-shade your planter. I have had success with hanging them from my deck's pergola.

The Topsy Turvy people offer a nice solution to the problem of where to hang the planters in their product, Topsy Turvy Tomato Tree which is offered on Amazon. This is basically one of their planters on a central stand and it is terribly expensive. A better looking solution but even more expensive is The Upside-down Tomato Garden. These are nice but at those prices, I suggest that if you don't have a place to hang upside-down planters - don't use them.

The final reason some people don't want to grow upside-down veggies is that they think it is ugly. Suspending a plant upside down is so unusual, it looks pretty strange and unattractive.

So what is my verdict? I like my upside down tomatoes and will continue to grow some. It is a bit of a challenge which I don't mind, and it is fun for me. I WILL NOT stop growing tomatoes in the ground the old fashioned way and don't suggest that for anyone.

If you have no ground growing space and want a tomato plant, I would give this a try. Upside down planters are also good as an addition to your regular garden, especially if your vegetable garden is on the smaller side.

So now its your turn - what do you think about upside-down tomato planters? Have you tried it? Do you want to try it? Do you think the drawbacks outweigh the benefits or does the fun and novelty outweigh the drawbacks? I'd love to know your thoughts.