Upside-down tomato growing, Pt. 2

Four best tips for growing the best tomatoes:

  • Full Sun
  • Plenty of Water
  • Lots of Heat
  • Good Soil

    Upside down tomatoes
    By Holly Hayes, San Jose Mercury News

    Mercury News garden writer Holly Hayes is growing 12 varieties of tomatoes this summer in her sunny garden in San Jose. Ten of the tomatoes are oddball heirloom varieties in a rainbow of hues that she bought as seedlings at Love Apple Farm, Cynthia Sandberg's spread in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Sandberg, who calls herself a "tomato freakazoid," often gets seeds for these varieties from fellow tomato lovers around the world.

    We tasted a few varieties with Leigh Glaser on a today's segment of The View from the Bay.

    Here's what we sampled:

    Black Striped Cherry. Holly is growing these golf ball-size cherry tomatoes in one of her upside-down buckets. Despite the name, they do not appear to be "striped." But they taste wonderful - with a nice balance of sweet and acid.

    Hippy Zebra. Holly couldn't resist growing this one because of its name. The fruit is beautiful, with mahogany and green stripes, and looks especially stunning when sliced on a plate. The plant is very prolific and Holly is happy about that, because the fruit is a winner in the taste department - smoky and complex.

    Tree's Bottom Yellow. This big yellow tomato has a secret inside: dreamy pink swirls. Not only does it look smashing when paired on a platter with the others, but its robust flavor makes it one Holly will definitely grow again next year.

    Sun Sugar. This prolific cherry tomato is ripe when it's bright neon orange. It's the sweetest tomato Holly has ever grown. Most of these tomatoes never make it into the kitchen because it's so tempting to snack on the fruit right out in the garden. This one also is being grown in one of Holly's upside-down buckets, which makes picking these little candies oh-so-easy.

    Sungold. This is similar to the Sun Sugar in color and size, but it has a little more acid for those who aren't fond of super-sweet tomatoes. The plant is more than seven feet tall - and climbing - and is loaded with fruit.

    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.

    Email Holly Hayes:

    Cynthia Sandberg's "Love Apple Farm" mentioned by Holly Hayes in the segment is located at 9299 Glen Arbor Road, Ben Lomond. Website:

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