Growing your tomatoes upside down

Upside down tomatoes
By Holly Hayes, San Jose Mercury News

I've been doing annual Tomato Experiments since 2003. The hands-down favorite with readers -- worthy of Tomato Experiment Hall of Fame -- is the upside-down tomato.

It's my favorite, too. I love growing tomatoes this way. They take up less space than their in-ground sisters. They're easy to pick. The familiar and heartbreaking wilt diseases are not a problem because you control the potting medium. You'll have fewer pests because the vines get great air circulation and they're not lolling around on the ground. And you don't need to fuss with cages or other supports. But the biggest bonus is how attractive they look in the garden. And they're quite the conversation piece.

If you're interested in trying this little stunt yourself, it's easy. You don't need to buy anything fancy, although there are stores and catalogs that will sell you upside-down tomato-growing ''systems'' that cost $20-$40 or even more.

My ''system'' involves a plain-ol' five-gallon lidded bucket that you can buy at any hardware or paint store for $5 or less. Use spray paint made for use on plastics if you want to gussy it up a bit. A caveat: If you want to plant giant beefsteak-type tomatoes, this is not the growing method for you. The fruit will be too heavy and will cause the stems to snap. Best bets include varieties that produce medium-size fruit, or cherry types. This year, I planted a Black Striped Cherry in one bucket and a Sun Sugar Cherry in the other.

Another caveat: Think through where you are going to hang your bucket. You will need a sturdy hook (see below). Tomatoes need full sun (at least six hours a day). And they need regular water, so don't hang the bucket in a place where you'll need to do gymnastics to deliver it. A drip system works great if you can set that up.

What follows here is a step-by-step guide to getting started with topsy-turvy tomatoes.

Step 1: Gather the goods:

  • A tomato seedling in a four-inch (or smaller) pot.
  • A clean, five-gallon plastic bucket with a tight-fitting lid and sturdily attached handle (no used paint buckets).
  • A power drill with a hollow round bit, the sort that's used to bore holes for doorknobs and deadbolts.
  • Lightweight potting mix, about one cubic foot per five-gallon bucket.
  • A long-handled, narrow spoon or narrow trowel.

Step 2: Turn the bucket upside down and drill a hole in the center of the bottom. This is the hole where the plant will go. If you don't have a drill and a round bit, a drywall saw will make a respectable hole, but you'll be at it for a while.

Step 3: Turn the bucket right-side up. Place a paper coffee filter or piece of sturdy paper towel over the hole you just drilled. Begin filling the bucket with potting mix, pausing now and then to lightly compress the soil into the bucket and to add a bit of organic fertilizer (I use Whitney Farms Tomato & Vegetable food, but there are lots of other organic brands; read the label for how much to use). Fill the bucket with potting mix, right to the very top. Attach the lid and make sure it is firmly snapped in place. Don't pound on it, though; you eventually will need to remove the lid.

Step 4: Turn the bucket upside down. Gently ease the coffee filter or piece of paper towel out of the hole. If it won't come out, use a sharp knife to cut an ''X'' in it. Using the spoon, make a vertical tunnel to accommodate your tomato seedling. For a seedling in a four-inch pot, the planting hole should be about six to seven inches deep, depending on the height of the plant.

Step 5: Gently remove the plant from its pot and tease apart any tangled roots. If the seedling is tall, strip off some of the lower leaves so you can plant it deeply; roots will form along the stem and give the plant a sturdy foundation.

Step 6: Place the plant in the hole. Tamp in a bit of additional potting mix and firm it gently around the base of the plant.

Step 7: Water thoroughly -- a small pitcher will easily deliver water right into the hole -- and place in sunny spot. Keep the soil moist, and check daily.

Step 8: Give the plant a couple of weeks to establish its roots, then invert the bucket and hang it by its handle on a sturdy hook. And I do mean sturdy; I use stout hooks meant to hang bicycles on the garage wall, screwed into the solid wood of a backyard gazebo. About once a week, I turn the buckets so they get even sun exposure.

Step 9: Once the bucket is on its hook, remove the lid so you can water directly into the potting soil. If you can't easily remove the lid, drill a bunch of holes in it to water through. Excess water running out the hole is fine, just don't overdo it. Tomatoes don't like wet foliage! Buy an inexpensive moisture meter ($5 or less) and keep the potting mix in the bucket in the medium-moist range.

Step 10: Enjoy your tomatoes! At my house, most of them never make it into the kitchen because they get consumed out in the garden.

Holly Hayes is the garden writer for our media partner, The San Jose Mercury News.

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