My Experience Growing Tomatoes Upside Down
Project Started Saturday May 28, 2005
By Butch Bridges
Updated February 16, 2011
After reading a webpage about growing tomatos "upside down", I decided to try it myself. In all my years, I had never heard of such a thing until two weeks ago. And on the Saturday May 28, 2005 when I went to Walmart and bought a couple of tomato plants and potting soil, that was when my first experience started.
While standing in line to check out, I saw a couple of people I knew and starting telling them I was taking the tomato plants home to plant upside down. Everyone starting listening and looking and wondering, I even think the cashier was about ready to call for those guys in the white suits to come take me away. But I do think I had a couple of people believing me, and that I was not crazy. This one man I didn't even know, told me he didn't have internet access, but his wife did, and he was going to check out my 'upside down tomato webpage'. He told me he was going to call me too, just to find out more and check on the progress of my tomato endeavor. lol
On the first day I took an old 5 gallon paint bucket with the snap-on lid and turned it upside down and using a utility knife, cut about a 3 inch hole in the bottom of the bucket. Next I took the lid and cut a 3 inch hole in the center of the lid too.
Next I took some newspaper, placed in the bottom of the bucket so as to cover the hole, and then filled the bucket using a 40 lb bag of potting soil. A 40 lb bag of potting soil will completely fill a five gallon bucket with none left over.
Next I snapped the lid on the bucket, then turned it upside down. Then cutting a couple of slits in the newspaper, and using my fingers to reach inside the 3 inch hole, I fashioned out a small cavity so the entire tomato plant, roots and all, would fit inside. Now you're ready to hang the tomato plant upside down!
So, what's so great about growing tomatos upside down? Well, I've been reading on the Net and find several. First, they dont have near the problem with disease as tomatos growing on the ground. Also being hung off the ground tends to make it a lot more difficult for animals and bugs to get to the plants. Not to mention they dont need tilling or weeding! You can read more about growing upside down tomatos at the following websites:
MiniFarmHomestead.com MountVernonNews.com OldFashionLiving.com
Here is the first pictures I took of my tomato project showing the bucket upside down, filled with potting soil, and tomato plant inserted into hole.
View Number 1 View Number 2
This is a view of the bucket hanging upside down and the tomato plant underneath pointing down toward the ground.
View Number 3
On a regular basis I will be showing the progress of the project below:
14 days after setting the plant in a bucket upside down, the plant is just starting to show blooms. The plant looks very healthy. There is no sign of any leaf disease. There is no sign of bugs eating on the plant.
View Number 4
***UPDATE*** On Friday morning around 1:30am June 17, 2005 a terrible storm came through Ardmore and blew away the above tomato plant. (I was without electricity for 29 hrs.) Thankfully I had planted 2, so the picture below is the one that survived that morning. In this pic 22 days has past since I first planted it. It does have some blooms on it!
View Number 5
On Sunday June 19th I planted a new Roma tomato plant to replace the one that blew away. Here is a pic of it right after planting and hanging upside down.
View Number 6
Friday July 15th: My one storm surviving Early Girl tomato plant is doing pretty good after 45 days. It is showing some signs of bugs eating on one half of it. And it has plenty of blooms, just no tomatoes yet. An "expert" tomato plant grower in Shawnee told me it needs hot days and cool nights. So I moved it way back near the fence, and hung it from a clothes line pole. This "expert" told me it needs to get cooler in the evenings, and if it doesn't, the blooms will not make tomatoes. So, the experiment of the upside down tomato plant goes on!
View Number 7
September 5th, 2005 Well, I have given up on growing tomatos upside down. They never turned out one tomatoe, even though there were plenty of blossoms in the beginning. Ardmoreite Doug Morris planted both kinds, one in a bucket upside down, and one in the ground. The one in the ground did do better than the upside down plant. But his upside down plant did put out some nice tomatos. You can read and Doug's tomato plants below.
April 27, 2008 Jill has planted about 6 tomato plants this year, but not upside down. So we will see how these plants turnout. I was told this week that if you place a nail in the ground right along side the tomato plant stem, this will keep the cut worms from eating them. Jill has put the nails in place, so we will see how this experiment goes too. By the way, that nail in the photo is like the ones used to attach gutters to the eves of a house, HUGE. Below are a couple of pics I took this past week of the tomato plants, and another picture of a plant with nail.
Over view of plants Close up of a plant
Close up of nail experiment
SUMMARY: After all the work and heartache of trying to grow tomatoes upside down in old paint buckets, I believe the best idea (simplest and easiest) came from Steve in Indiana. He used fish landing nets. Maybe even butterfly nets??? The primary objective is to keep the tomato plants off the ground. You will find his email along with photos in the Mailbag below.
Trying Again in 2009
05/07/09 I just received 100 Porter Improved tomato seeds I ordered from Grady Distributing (about $4.50 shipping and all). Jill has planted about 15 of the seeds in starter kits, so time will tell. This go round we plan to place the new plants in bags of potting soil, and hang them up off the ground (as described in Mailbag below along with pictures).
05/25/09 Picture of some newly sprouted seedlings (2nd try). We only planted about 7 seeds to see how our green thumb and these Porter Improved get along. Seedlings
Mailbag: What others are saying......
02/16/11 We have a neighbor down the road. He prepares soil, then clips all branches off plants except for a few on top, he plants deep to cover all branch stubs. He ties up plant branches throughout grow season. His plants are fantastic and loaded. One day my wife ask why they grow so well---the secret--After he plants, he digs 3 small holes equally spaced outside of plant , he then adds a cup of Epson salt to one hole, a cup of lime to another, and finally a cup of powdered milk to the third hole. His crop is perfect every year. -Ted
06/13/10 I didn't have any luck with tomatoes until the fall. After it cooled off -- September -- flowers and fruit developed. Covered when frost was predicted and had still more. Lots (2 paper grocery bags full) of green ones where picked just be killing frost. All from 2 plants.... used mushroom compost... very good." -David Hale, Lawton
06/12/10 I wonder if I forgot to tell you something last year. Please advise your people to add about two tablespoons of Epsom salts every other week and water it in. It will make your crop stay beautifully green and grow like a weed! There is no best way to apply as long as it is watered in. You can dissolve it in water, sprinkle it on, bury it, whatever—just get it to the roots. The advantage of Epsom salts over other soil enhancing chemicals, such as dolomite lime is that is has high solubility.
Epsom salts are not salt, but Magnesium sulfate, Magnesium is a secondary macronutrient. Magnesium is the central atom of the chlorophyll molecule and is important in photosynthesis. Magnesium is also important in protein synthesis and enzyme processes, and it helps plants to absorb and use phosphorous and nitrogen. Epsom salts basically contain the essential growth minerals of Magnesium, Sulphur and Oxygen. Epsom salts are used to correct Magnesium deficiency in potted plants, but it’s almost always useful—especially in tomatoes (and peppers) as they are considered a “magnesium hungry” crop. If I didn’t mention it, I apologize. It’s one of my favorite additives. I may experiment with feeding 20-20-20 and 10-30-20 etc, and side dressing, placing the feed through the bottom of a cut off plastic bottle that I buries, and other methods, but I always use the magnesium and especially in potted plants. With tomatoes, I also insure I rotate crops and in pots, clean well using a 10% solution of bleach. I like to also check soil ph. Soil ph kits are available and tomatoes like to be a bit on the acidic side at 6.0 to 6.5. (7.0 is neutral and up is alkaline)."
06/20/09 Problem: "Butch, I think your my last chance on understanding tomatoes growing. I've tried the last two years with no luck. This year I'm trying the upside down route and I thought I was doing pretty good, till a couple days ago. I used the Miracle Grow soil for tomatoes and flowers. The plant grew like crazy. I still have plenty of blooms and a few very small tomatoes, but I noticed that two of the larger ones were developing end rot. I've hung the plant on the side of my porch that get full sun from noon till around six thirty. I was told they like full sun, but I'm having to water everyday because the plant was wilting. I found if I water every day around 11 AM it doesn't wilt as much. Now I've read on line to add lime to increase the calcium and I did that and I also sprayed with stuff for end rot. I don't know what else to do. I've read I might have the get rid of the plant altogether. Should I hang it on the other side of my porch were it will get just the morning sun from around seven to noon. The sun wouldn't be as hot and maybe I won't have to water everyday. I've also been told to add Epson salt. I have not clue what to do. I hope you can help." -Sue in Covington, GA
Answer: "The right variety is essential to having a bumper crop. There are 7,500 varieties, with 600 heritage and a dozen species. Not all are suitable for upside down growing. Also, is it a determinate? One should stick to determinate tomatoes when attempting to grow upside down. This is really important. Also, a determinate should never be pruned. If you do, you will lose much of the harvest. Only prune the indeterminates. These are the vines that grow and grow, and every “sucker” is another vine in the making. I limit the really healthy young plants to 3 vines and the lesser ones to two, pruning out the rest as they begin to form. I will also remove all the stems below the first flowering group.I just enjoyed my first of what appears to be a bumper crop of Better Boy, three vine indeterminates. Delicious! I pick them before completely ripe so the birds don’t enjoy them too.
The determinates are “determined” to grow to a particular height and then produce all the fruit at once. These are the commercial varieties that allow growers to harvest all at once. The indeterminates continue to grow and produce all through the season, but can reach lengths of 10 to 12 feet.
I’m growing six indeterminates on my porch in pots and they are all over seven feet right now. Next, I will connect all the stakes they are tied to, to new stakes that connect the verticals with something side to side and begin training them sideways so they can continue. I have four more varieties in the back garden, but they are not showing a crop yet. I sort of expected a poor showing as they went in late, the soil is bad, and the sunlight is not optimal. I moved up here from Mexico where the climate is good in the winter, bad in the summer, and tomato growing is excellent until the temperature goes over 95 during the day and over 75 at night. Tomatoes will stop producing at those temperatures.
Sunlight. If there is any three things that tomatoes need, it is sunlight, more sunlight, and still much more sunlight. It’s difficult to get a bumper crop with less than six hours a day.
She mentioned she is having blossom end rot. This generally stems from watering, and either too much or too little can cause it. Either too little or too much water and the plant is not able to draw the right quantities to compensate for what is list through the leaves to the atmosphere, or transpiration. As a result, the plant will draw moisture from the fruit, causing the bottom of the fruit to desiccate (dry out) and turn dark. That is blossom end rot. In an upside down plant, if the soil is too sandy, it will not hold moisture. If too much like clay, it will hold too much, the soil should be loamy and friable.
Additionally, it is bad practice to water mid day. If you must, be very careful not to wet the foliage. If you do, you can damage the plant. Blossom end rot or fruit cracking is almost caused by poor watering techniques or soil moisture, but it is also attributable to calcium. It is so imperative that any tomato grower have the soil tested, that I’m sure she has done this. Tomatoes will not produce well in a soil that is under a ph of six. Send the sample to the county extension agent.
To best water an upside down plant, water before sunup, or after sundown. Earlier if before sunup so the foliage can dry before the sun rises. Upside down growing can easily have problems with watering because of wet foliage and sun burning. Also, tomatoes do not tolerate “wet feet” Moist, but without pooling is the key.
So, I think that should be enough to be completely confusing, so I will stop here. Please have her send me all the information I wrote about and I can go further. It would be my pleasure. I do need to have this problem taken care of before I can write any articles. I seem to confuse easily. I wrote for about three hours today and not a bit of it made any sense.
Now, if this makes any sense I hope I have helped--or will help as the questions are answered. Now I have to go to bed. I am feeling seriously weird and off balance.
So you know, there is absolutely no difference in taste between a vine ripened tomato and one picked when good and pink, showing some softening, and placed on the window ledge to ripen fully. Vine ripening only opens them up to bird damage.
Really! This is actual truth, fact, and reality.
Try it for yourself and be totally objective. Many people swear that the vine-ripened tomatoes are much better, but these folks are usually the type that make the statements and then have to prove themselves correct. They can’t be totally objective, looking to determine precisely the reality of the subject. So of course, to them there can never be any other truth—even if the window ripened one was so much better they were shocked, they could not admit it." -John Cook in Texas
05/29/09 "Butch, I have ten 5 gallon buckets, with tomatoes in three 1 inch holes on the bottom side up two inches high, I put some small drain holes in the bottom, I placed 3 inches of MIRACLE GROW POTTING SOIL in the bucket, I stuck my plants in the holes 3 inches, then I filled the bucket to three quarters full of ONLY MIRACLE GROW ONLY, other brands wont work. I now have beautiful plants with TOMATOES also growing bell peppers, I am doing this WHOLE HOG. ALL HANGING THREE FEET OFF THE GROUND.
You can go to HOME DEPOT and get all the buckets you need, they also have the 1 inch METAL saw you need. I water mine every morning, It got so dry here, you could look down in the cracks, and see the top of a CHINAMANs HEAD !!!!! WELL!!!! That's only if you live in TEXAS . I use BETTER BOY and EARLY GIRL PLANTS. My bell pepper plants are green, red, yellow. I also put the bucket lids on, and cut a 1 inch hole in the top to water them, this causes the temperature to rise inside, making the roots go wild. Raising the plants this way helps an old guy like me, not having to hoe and pull weeds, it really saves on your water bill too. Next year I am going to grow a lot more things in buckets, I have been growing my roses in buckets for a good while now." -Charley in Rio Vista, TX
05/25/09 "Hi Butch, I am a long time tomato grower, and couldn’t help but notice that two suggestions may help all the growers. 1. Know if your tomato varieties are indeterminate or determinate varieties. The determinate types seldom need pruning, have a “prescheduled” harvest where the fruit comes in at an earlier date and almost all at once. The growth and fruiting are “determined” where the indeterminate are not. They are bred this way for large commercial growers so only one harvest is required. The INdeterminate tomato is a vine (like the determinate) but requires pruning. I like to remove all the leaves and branches before the first flower set. I usually say “below” the first flower set, but in your case (upside down planting) I can’t. This hardens up the stalk and places the work of that “sugar factory” plant into producing fruit, not the unneeded lower leaves. Then I remove all the suckers as they appear, with the exception of those that come from the nodes on the first and second stems. Actually, this is a popular method of directing the growth into only three stems. There is a method of removing the suckers called “Missouri” pruning where only one or two leaves of each sucker are allowed. This provides additional leaves if they are needed. You can probably find references to this online. By removing the suckers, two things are accomplished. You get more plant growth directed into production of fruit, and there are less leaves and the sun can get to them all to create the necessary photosynthesis. When leaves are hidden, they can turn yellow and die.
2. If you want to encourage very high yields, you need to periodically fertilize the plants once they begin to set fruit. I suggest about a tablespoon of Ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) or maybe a short table spoon (2/3 -3/4 ) Ammonium Nitrate (33-0-0) every week or two. I have not grown them upside down.
But I will try it someday. Gets away from all that tying and concern about kinked branches when they are laden with fruit, disease, cutworms, etc.
I put the fertilizer around the plant in a circle about a hands width from the stem, and then water it in good, or use the “Texas” (since that’s where I am) method of placing a coffee can with plenty of holes in it, set open side up and empty between each plant with the top at soil level. Then I put the fertilizer in a quart of water and pour it in. It drains out the holes and into the soil at root level. I wash it down with a couple more fills. In the upside down method, I guess I’d mix it up and pour it around the edges of the can and put the lid back on.
While upside down seems a good method to avoid some insect damage, the sphinx moth caterpillar or the hornworm will still get at them, and those big caterpillars can go through a plant in pretty short order, so keep on the lookout for them. If you see leaves beginning to disappear, except for the central vein and some of the other veins, suspect hornworms.
Oh, by the way, I have heard all sorts of rumors about the hornworm. First, let me be specific, the hornworm is a huge green or multicolored hairless caterpillar that has this large horn on his rump. Anyway, more than one person thinks that horn is poisonous, that these caterpillars bite, and all sorts of things that make it seem dangerous. To clear the record, it is completely harmless. They could not hurt you if they wanted, so there is nothing to be concerned about. Simply pick them off when you see them. Pitch them up on the roof of your house and the birds usually eat them. No, they don’t burrow into wood. They simply eat tomato plants until mature and them spin a cocoon in which they complete the metamorphic cycle and emerge as a large beautiful moth. The moth has elongated wings, the top wing often resembles bark, and the under wing is where you find the unique colors. One of the most common is pink or reddish and with a simulated eye. They are also called hummingbird moths as they fly much like that little bird, hover at flowers in the evening sipping nectar until mating time. They will generally lay on tomato plants as that is the only vegetable the larva prefers.
If you will mix say, about 3-5 inches of peat moss (the granulated stuff from the bottom of the bog) in with your potting soil, it will greatly enhance the soils moisture retaining abilities and prevent drying out, and reduce watering needs. Additionally, placing mulch on the top of the bucket should prevent or at least slow the evaporation rate if you aren’t using a lid. I always use mulch and for that reason.
My crop this season is not doing well as I have been experimenting, and the person who said that the plants do better with plenty of sun but lower nighttime temps is correct. Frankly, when the night temps go over 75 degrees F, it can stop fruit production. Same can be true for temps under 55, so the tomato can be a tricky vine in some areas. In Texas, we have this red or yellow clay soil and it just doesn’t drain. We have to get the ph to about 6.0 and add plenty of lime plus several pickup loads of good soil for the usual 350 sq. ft. garden and 8 – 10 bags of peat moss. Then the summer heat cpomes along and it can be another problem. Good luck with your project and I will be watching." -John M. Cook in Texas
12/27/08 "Hi Butch. I came across your site while looking for info regarding hanging tomatoes. I just received a hanging kit for Christmas from a relative and I figure it probably cost them about $30.00. Well, after I put it up I got to thinkin’ that I could make one a lot cheaper. I went and purchased two reusable grocery sacks (the material is identical to the store bought kit) for a $1.00 apiece. Then I bought a 55 quart bag of Lamberts potting soil for $10.00. Throw in two Home Depot five gallon bucket lids at $1.00 each and two Celebrity tomato plant starters at $1.25 each. Toss in a couple of scoops of Osmocote that I had layin’ around and that’s it. Total cost for the two, $16.50. Below is a link to a video of my garden and the hanging tomatoes. I live in sunny south Florida so I start my garden around November when the threat of hurricanes has passed. I was gonna make a video of me making the homemade kits but I probably would have gotten the camera all dirty, haha. Hope you enjoy." -Bullseye
08/02/05 "Butch- I promised a later-in-the-season update, so here it is. As you can see from the photos, my upside-down plant is a raging success. It is touching the ground now so in the future I'll need to hang the planters higher & perhaps prune the top...or bottom, however you look at it! The plants hanging upright have also done very well, but the weight of the tomatoes on the Big Beef plant broke several branches. The branches didn't die but they have become diseased, none of which is apparent on the upside-down plant. It's branches twist down without breaking (see photo), with the increasing weight of the (large) fruit. Watering is the most difficult part of any hanging garden but next year I'll have a drip system & timer set up to take care of that chore. You'll notice that I've already built next year's hanging system onto my old clothesline pole, with 5 hangers on each side. I'll use the other pole to hang 2-3 more. I recently bought 10 more Topsy Turvey planters on eBay at an off-season bargain price. The benefits of upside-down gardening are huge: no weeding, no staking, no pruning & no recurring disease (biggest benefit IMHO). Most tomato plants develop (airborne) fungal disease as the season progresses but seldom in time to ruin the yield, unless the diseases have carried over in the soil from past seasons (see my in-ground plant photo). In such cases, the plant has little chance of surviving let alone producing any fruit. With hanging plants, you just trash all the planting medium in the fall, clean the planters & start fresh the next spring. I will probably use a moisture-control type soilless potting mix next season instead of plain sphagnum moss. More expense but probably well worth it. It may be a little work initially preparing for this type of growing system but I believe that it is the wave of the future for home gardeners with limited growing space, limited sunny area, or diseased/worn out soil. Wherever you can sink a couple of posts can be your garden. If you are diligent in keeping your plants watered, I guarantee that this system will succeed. Let gravity work for you instead of against you next year!" -Steve in Central Indiana
Photo 1 - Photo 2 - Photo 3 - Photo 4
07/16/05 "After having read about growing "upside down" tomatoes on your "This & That", I helped my wife, Clariece, established one in our back yard. She planted her own seed she had saved. It is an "Improved Porter" variety. Her plant as of today is three feet "upside down tall" and has eighteen green tomatoes from ready to ripen down to the smallest one that can be seen along with numerous blossoms. We plan to give some to you, Butch, once they begin to ripen. We have raised only Porter tomatoes since in the late 1950's. The Porter was developed by a person at a Stephenville, TX nursery; just when, we don't know. It pollinates in the hottest weather conditions that Oklahoma & Texas can produce. Its fruit has a small oblong shape, quite meaty, and low in acid. It is NOT a Cherry Tomato. In more recent years there has been developed an "Improved Porter" which bears a larger fruit than the original strain. When we had a garden, we gave volunteer seedlings to numerous neighbors and friends. We enjoyed repeat "customers" for years! A next door neighbor, Dettie Burns, kept telling us that she loved tomatoes, but couldn't eat them because they were too acid. After finally getting her to try the Porter, she helped us gather ours for the rest of her life!" -Doug Morris, Ardmore, OK Photo 1 and Photo 2
07/16/05 "Butch, Tomatoes love nitrogen. Tomatoes that do not get plenty of air flow have to be shook. This helps them to pollinate." -Jo
07/10/05 "Butch, These are tomatoes out of our garden --- just old fashioned planted in the ground. The big ones are Celebrity and Merced and the small ones are Fourth of July plants. We brought these in this week and there are more on the vines. We have 3 Celebrity, 1 Merced and 1 Fourth of July plants. I have canned four pints so far and I am going to can tomorrow. Okra is also doing great and oriental eggplant is doing good also. Wish we had room for cantaloupe but they require vine space and we don't have a large enough garden." -Ann Randolph Click Here
06/20/05 "This is my first year of trying the upside down tomatoes...... I planted two, one each in five gallon buckets. I had them hanging in one area then moved them to another area so they could get more sun, but this is what happened. I had wrapped them with black cloth, but when I moved them one of the covers fell off and I didn't replace it until almost 3 weeks later. What I did see is the one that was still covered had grown all most 10 inches longer. A friend did the same but did not cover the container as I did his is much shorter than the one the cover fell off. I used clothespins to hold the black material on. I just drape/wrap a black cloth which was one of me black tee shirts. This will hold in the heat much longer after the sun goes down. As you know they love the heat. If you plant is blooming or as soon as it puts on about 3 blooms break of one off not snip off the leaves. The plant will think it is under attack and will set up a self defense system. Exactly what that does I don't know. I learned this from an old tomato friend. He said that he has never seen a bug at all on any of his plants. Also this is for next year... Put in the bucket about half way down a whole egg they like sulfur. Plant/bury at least 30% of the stock it will make a stronger stock. If you have the area/place go to the store and buy the tall iron sheperd's hooks the double one so you can grow them in the sun. They need at least 50% sun." -Ed Tieman Click Here
06/14/05 "Butch- I'm following your upside-down planter project with great interest & thought you may be interested in my experiment. My regular garden tomato row soil has become so plagued with disease (wilt & blight) that this is the last year for quite awhile that I'll plant there. I figured that I'd try some hanging plants to see how they'd do, my trials with pots have failed miserably. I got one Topsy Turvy planter & planted a Goliath in it May 6th & at the same time planted a Big Beef in a bag of topsoil just to see what it would do. The Big Beef grew so well, I decided to find a way to hang it where there was full sun all day. I just bought a cheap landing net, drilled a hole in the handle & hung it on a clothesline pole. This plant is now far & away my biggest, healthiest plant (in-ground or hanging). The upside-down plant is also doing well (both have 4 tomatoes on) but the stem on the bagged plant is much thicker & the plant seems much more robust. I don't know if this is due to the plant being more vigorous growing up toward the sun versus growing down (with the help of gravity!) in the Topsy Turvy but I'm leaning toward planting most of my plants that way next season. I also experimented with planting mediums - there's sphagnum moss (commonly called peat moss) only in the upside-down planter & a mix of moss & potting soil in the middle bag (a mature Husky Red that I just planted last weekend, it matures in 65 days so it should do well this late). There's no disease on any of them, while the in-ground plants are starting to yellow already. Didn't mean to take up your time but I thought I'd share my project results so far, I'll keep tabs on your updates. If you'd like I can send you pics later in the season when "the jury is in" on which ones do the best. Thanks for your time & good luck - we all need a bit of that growing tomatoes!" -Steve in Central Indiana
Submitted Picture 1 Submitted Picture 2 Submitted Picture 3
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