Growing tomatoes upside down not only saves garden space, it also reduces insect problems and increases yields. It’s also a great way to utilize the upper space in a greenhouse or garden. This technique has other advantages in that there is no need to use cages or other means to support the vines. Hanging tomato plants have a much lower incidence of pest infestation than their traditionally grown counterparts.
Plastic 5 gallon buckets work great for this, but they need to have lids like the buckets in which contain paint or pool chlorine tablets. Restaurants generally are able to provide these buckets, because many food items are delivered in them, or they can be purchased at most hardware stores. Make sure to wash the buckets with a natural dish detergent and hot water prior to beginning this project. You can also change the color of the buckets by painting them with spray paint designed specifically for plastic that is available at most hardware stores.
Turn the bucket upside down and use a utility knife to cut about a 3 inch hole in the bottom of the bucket. For this step you can also use a drill with a hole cutting bit used for installing door knobs to cut the hole.
Turn the bucket over and cut a 3 inch hole in the center of the lid.
Remove the lid and place several layers of newspaper in the bottom of the bucket to cover the hole.
Fill the bucket with 40 lbs of premium potting soil mixed with the directed amount of four month time release fertilizer, or an appropriate organic substitute like crab meal. Vermiculite or Perlite may be added in place of 50% of the soil to improve water retention, which is especially helpful in hot or dry climates. For an even better soil environment, add a few worms before closing the bucket. Place a piece of screen on top of the soil and secure the lid.
Turn the bucket upside down and cut two slits in the newspaper then dig out a small cavity and plant the tomato plant inside. It is best to start with a small tomato of around 10 inches tall and bury 80% of the plant to stimulate root growth.
Grow the plant right side up until it reaches 10 inches above the bucket and then it is ready for hanging. It is important to have a secure fixture for hanging the bucket and to hang it at a sufficient height to accommodate plant growth, generally at least six feet high. T shaped poles that are sold for clotheslines and cemented into the ground make excellent hanging structures and may hang two to four buckets each.
The tomato plants can be watered and fertilized through the top holes and will take much less water than those grown on the ground due to the closed container. Upside down tomatoes are sure to turn some heads in the garden and in the kitchen at harvest time.
John Berends is a Garden & Greenhouse contributing editor.