Editor’s note: This story is part of Good Times’ annual Home & Garden 2019 magazine. Read the full issue here.
I am never going back to right-side-up gardening ever again. There’s no reason why I should. When I planted my tomatoes upside down a month ago, I knew they would die. I felt guilty even attempting it, given my past failures at growing them in the ground.
But, to my astonishment, within a week they had started sprouting new leaves and winding their way toward the sun.
I never knew about upside-down gardening until it came across my desk a few weeks ago. But since then, I’ve started to notice how upside-down gardens are popping up everywhere. GT’s resident accountant/business guru Sarah says she’s been upside-down gardening for years. Not only does it keep the pests away, she says, but it looks amazing, too.
So I decided to take a shot at the trend myself. Here are some field notes from my upside-down adventures:
I wouldn’t like it if someone turned me upside down for the rest of my life, so would my plants be OK with it? To the very limited extent of my gardening abilities, I’ve always lived by the idea that if I wouldn’t enjoy it, I shouldn’t do it to the plant. So far, this rule has kept my tiny garden box away from evening waterings, freezing temperatures and general malnourishment. But upside-down gardening is beyond the realm of the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” gardening commandment.
Today, I planted my first upside-down tomatoes. Full transparency: I have planted tomatoes before, both from seed and small starter. Both attempts failed miserably. Planting tomatoes upside down seems like a fool’s errand, given that I can’t even grow them right side up. I’ve also been told that it’s slightly early to plant tomatoes—they’re ideally planted in April or May when nighttime temperatures are warmer. The San Lorenzo Garden Center still has their tomato starts in a cute little plastic greenhouse.
After extensive research this time around, I planted sweet cherry tomatoes, because once they start growing they will weigh less on the branches compared to a beefsteak tomato or a larger varietal.
Serious upside-down gardeners use big, 5-gallon buckets—the plastic kind readily available at Home Depot. They have strong handles and thick, insulating sides. The much-less-serious gardeners use milk or juice cartons with wide mouths hung by string. I put myself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, so I bought smaller plastic planters. After cutting a hole in the bottom, I used hemp twine to hang them, but in retrospect I should have used wire. Twine isn’t element-resistant, but more on that tragedy later.
Once upside down, the tomatoes got a really sad drenching of brown stained water. I was told to use coffee filters before putting soil in (this prevents the soil from running out the bottom hole)—but unfortunately I didn’t make the hole small enough, and soiled water gushed through the bottom onto my baby plants. I’m already a bad tomato mom.
I don’t think tomatoes particularly enjoy being upside down, because they have managed to defy gravity and loop back up. They’re now growing straight up the side of the pot? This is not what I saw online.
I’ve had to put plastic baggies over my tomatoes each night because it’s been getting cold. I nearly snap off their little leaves everytime I cover them. This is more work than I signed up for.
My plants have their first flowers, but I’m not going to get too excited because they may just fall off. I also planted herbs, sage and thyme, at the top. Those seem to be doing well, too, given the amount of sunlight they have been getting. I sometimes feel bad that they have to share a pot with the tomatoes, especially because the pot isn’t very big. I now completely understand why people use giant buckets—and in retrospect, I wish I had, too.
I planted a tomato in the ground, too, for purposes of comparison, and that one hasn’t grown nearly as much. I’ve been watering it the same and it gets the same(ish) amount of sunlight. Maybe I should uproot it and plant it upside down with its friends.
How is this working? The reason for my success so far, I figure, must be that I used too much vegetable fertilizer. I mixed a couple of teaspoons in with the tomatoes when I planted them, and that’s probably a basic gardener’s no-no. I’m convinced that when they run out of nutrients, the flowers will probably fall and die, shortly followed by the rest of the plant.
The tomatoes are good; the twine holding up the tomatoes, not so much. With all of the rain we got this spring, they have started to shred and get moldy, and I know it’s only a matter of time before they fall.
They fell. The tomatoes are okay, bless them. The herbs need a little manual reconstruction and surgery. Will use wire this time around.
Considering how poorly I thought upside-down gardening would go, I’m ecstatic with the results. Hopefully the tomatoes will continue to grow through the summer and I’ll be eating tons of bruschetta by July/August. Next year I will definitely be growing them again, though I will likely plant them later on—maybe late April—and get larger buckets so they have more growing room. I haven’t had any major issues with the holes in the bottom, though the plants do get a little brown when I water them. Next time I may make the holes smaller and use a coffee filter or something more substantial than newsprint as a filter.
The control-subject plant in the ground has grown maybe an inch or two, but nowhere near as much as those planted upside down. The slugs have also started to investigate the ground tomato, but so far no trails around the planted pots. I may re-pot the ground plant—someone tell me if that’s a bad idea. No more ground gardening for me.