Growing crops that dangle upside down from homemade or commercially available planters is growing more popular, and its adherents swear they’ll never come back down to earth.
“I’m totally converted,” said Mark McAlpine, a body piercer in Guelph, Ontario, who began growing tomatoes upside down two years ago because cutworms were ravaging the ones he planted in the ground. He made six planters out of five-gallon plastic buckets, some bought at the Home Depot and some salvaged from the trash of a local winemaker. He cut a two-inch hole in the bottom of each bucket and threaded a tomato seedling down through the opening, packing strips of newspaper around the root ball to keep it in place and to prevent dirt from falling out.
He then filled the buckets with soil mixed with compost and hung them on sturdy steel hooks bolted to the railing of his backyard deck. “Last summer was really hot so it wasn’t the best crop, but I still was able to jar enough whole tomatoes, half tomatoes, salsa and tomato sauce to last me through the winter,” said Mr. McAlpine, who plans an additional six upside-down planters this year.
Upside-down gardening, primarily of leggy crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, is more common partly because of the ubiquity of Topsy Turvy planters, which are breathlessly advertised on television and have prominent placement at retailers like Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Bed Bath & Beyond. According to the company that licenses the product, Allstar Products Group in Hawthorne, N.Y., sales this year are twice last year’s, with 20 million sold since the planter’s invention in 2005. Not to be outdone, Gardener’s Supply and Plow & Hearth recently began selling rival upside-down planters. “Upside-down gardening is definitely a phenomenon,” said Steve Wagner, senior product manager for Plow & Hearth.
The advantages of upside-down gardening are many: it saves space; there is no need for stakes or cages; it foils pests and fungus; there are fewer, if any, weeds; there is efficient delivery of water and nutrients thanks to gravity; and it allows for greater air circulation and sunlight exposure.
While there are skeptics, proponents say the proof is in the produce.
Tomato and jalapeño seedlings sprout from upside-down planters fashioned out of milk jugs and soda bottles that hang from the fence surrounding the Redmond, Wash., yard of Shawn Verrall, a Microsoft software tester who blogs about gardening at Cheapvegetablegardener.com. Mr. Verrall turned to upside-down gardening last summer as an experiment.
“I put one tomato plant in the ground and one upside down, and the one in the ground died,” he said. The other tomato did so well, he planted a jalapeño upside down, too, and it was more prolific than the one he had in the ground. “The plants seem to stay healthier upside down if you water them enough, and it’s a great way to go if you have limited space,” he said.
While horticulturists, agronomists and plant scientists agree that pests and blight are less likely to damage crops suspended in the air, they said they are unsure whether growing them upside down rather than right-side up will yield better results.
“Growing things upside down seems like a fad to me, but I’m glad people are fooling around with it and hope they will let us traditionalist gardening snobs know what we’ve been missing,” said Hans Christian Wien, a horticulture professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Judging from gardening blogs and Web sites, those fooling around with upside-down gardening are generally enthusiastic, particularly if they have planted smaller varieties of tomatoes.
“Bigger tomatoes are too heavy and put too much stress on the vine, causing it to twist and break,” said Michael Nolan, an avid gardener in Atlanta and a writer for Urbangardencasual.com, who has four upside-down planters also made out of five-gallon buckets in which he grows bushels of cherry and patio varieties of tomatoes as well as small pickling cucumbers.
Tomato varieties are labeled as either indeterminate or determinate, and horticulture experts recommend choosing indeterminate ones for upside-down gardens. Determinate tomato plants are stubbier, with somewhat rigid stalks that issue all their fruit at once, which could weigh down and break the stems if hanging upside down. Indeterminate types, by contrast, have more flexible, sprawling stems that produce fruit throughout the season and are less likely to be harmed by gravity.
When Mr. Nolan first tried upside-down gardening, he used the Topsy Turvy planters, which are made of polyethylene bags and look like Chinese lanterns gone wrong. But he was disappointed in the yield. “I far prefer using buckets,” he said, which hang from tall metal shepherd hooks bolted to the posts supporting his backyard deck. He paints his buckets bright colors, and plants herbs and marigolds in the top to help retain moisture.
Another, less decorative solution for preventing evaporation is to top the planters with mulch or simply cover them with a lid. Regardless, Mr. Nolan said, “The upside-down planters tend to dry out really fast, so I have to water a lot — probably once a day in the heat of the summer.”
Many gardeners reported that the thinner, breathable plastic Topsy Turvy planters ($9.99) dried out so quickly that watering even once a day was not enough to prevent desiccated plants. There were similar comments about the Plow & Hearth version ($12.95) and while the Gardener’s Supply upside-down planter ($19.95) has a built-in watering system, online reviewers said it is difficult to assemble.
In addition to plastic soda bottles, milk jugs and five-gallon buckets, upside-down planters can be made out of thick heavy-duty plastic trash bags, plastic reusable shopping totes, kitty litter containers, laundry hampers and even used tires. Web sites like Instructables.com and UpsideDownTomatoPlant.com show how it can be done, and YouTube has several how-to videos. Variations include building a water reservoir either at the top or bottom of planters for irrigation, cutting several openings in the bottom and sides for planting several seedlings and lining the interior with landscape fabric or coconut fiber to help retain moisture.
Donald Rutledge, a construction project designer and manager in New Braunfels, Tex., devised a triple-pulley system so he could easily hoist his nine upside-down planters 16 feet above the ground, away from ravenous deer. He made his planters out of five-gallon buckets four years ago, following instructions on the Internet. “The tomatoes and basil worked real well upside down, but the lettuce, peas and carrots weren’t so successful,” he said. “It’s been trial and error.”
This year, he put his plantings right-side up in the buckets to see if it makes any difference. He said his suspended garden started as an entertaining summer project for him and his three children but has become more of a scientific pursuit: “Is upside down better than right-side up? I’m guess I’m going to find out.”
Courtesy of the NYTimes