Since we had an absolutely despicable crop of tomatoes last year, we decided to try growing tomatoes upside-down in buckets this season. In a topsy-turvy world, full of environmental chaos, it’s never a bad idea to have multiple methods for performing the same function, a.k.a. redundancy. So, we’ll still put some tomatoes in beds to hedge our bets, but we’ve also added a new “Hanging Tomato Vineyard” to our garden line-up.
This kind of tomato growing is not new, but it is still considered a bit unconventional. If you’re considering trying it, here’s some info on pros/cons and what we’re doing.
1) You need a sturdy structure to support the weight of tomatoes grown in buckets and it must be sufficiently high-off the ground to allow for plants vining habit. This requires work and money - always a con in my book.
In our case, we put 4.5” diameter fence posts a little over 2’ in the ground at about 7’10” apart. We then topped the posts with 8’ weather-treated 2” x 4” boards. After installing heavy duty stainless steel hooks and hanging empty buckets on those hooks, we realized we needed more reinforcement. So we bought some longer 2”x 4” boards to cross over the joints on the first layer of boards. This seemed to do the trick and added stability (even when the buckets were full and watered).
Now, when I say “we” - I really mean Matt ( my big, strong, hunky, wonderfully capable man). He carefully leveled everything and made sure the posts were not going to pop-out of the ground. He mounted the 2 x 4’s and hooks, etc. I probably could have done this (spending ten times as long and cussing up a blue streak), but if you have a big strong, mathematically-minded man around, I highly recommend you put this one on his honey-do list! Thank you Matt!
**2) You will have to water a lot more, particularly in hot weather. **
Even though the tomatoes are growing down instead of up, this is essentially the same as growing tomatoes in a container and that means frequent watering since there is a limit to how far the roots can go in search of water. To help retain moisture in the soil, I made up my own potting mix. I had twenty buckets to plant so it took me four wheelbarrows of “planting medium” (to use the PC term) to fill them all. My particular mix was about 40% good old fashioned North Carolina red clay soil (naturally micronutrient rich), 40% organic matter (leaf and manure compost), and 20% peat moss. I also threw in about fifteen dozen crushed egg shells (saved from breakfast for the last couple months) since tomatoes love calcium. When I get my next batch of hardwood mulch, I’ll also top the buckets off with about an inch of mulch to help retain moisture.
I only filled the buckets about 60% full to start because I plan to throw in a handful of compost/worm castings in each bucket before watering so that as the water trickles through the compost, it will act as a compost tea for the roots. The compost layer will get thicker as the season progresses and days get hotter. By doing it this way, I ensure my nutrients don’t all leach out at once and I retain moisture when the tomatoes need it most. (This is all theoretical speculation on my part at this point, but I’ll include a follow up post with results at the end of the season.)
Fun Factoid: I didn’t list buying soil mix as a con because even if you stick these suckers in the ground - you better planning on heavily amending your soil if you want a fine tomato. Amending ground soil may be a bit cheaper than buying all new soil, but it is often more work than just making or buying your own mix, so I considered soil preparation as a “net even” on the pro/con scale.
**3) This isn’t the best answer for them giant ‘maters. **
If you want five pound Cherokee purples, you probably want to stick with traditional staking. From what I’ve read, the really big suckers would still need support even if they are dangling upside down on the vine. We’re going with Manalucie this go round because they are somewhat disease resistant and grow well in our super hot weather. They are usually medium-sized, but some can get big in the right conditions. So if necessary, we may have to harvest early and ripen off the vine.
PROS (I think…)
Once you’ve addressed the stuff in the cons - you’ve got good support, you have a watering plan, and you are growing the right variety, then here’s the good news:
- You don’t have to stake.
- Pruning is a piece of cake.
- Fertilizing is easy with the compost method covered under the cons.
- You will have fewer or easier to deal with pest/disease problems.
- You’ll have great air circulation, so your tomatoes will ripen faster.
- Harvesting will be like picking an apple instead of fighting through a nest of snakes.
- It looks cool and adds vertical interest and space to your garden. (You can plant your basil below to maximize space.)
So, if you want to do this yourself, put on your pink crocs and get started. Here’s how.
Stuff You Need
- Your favorite potting soil mix
- Drill and a 1.5” hole driller paddle-thingy
- Tomato seedling (well-rooted 2”-3” pot size is about right)
- 6” scrap of weed mat
**Basic Steps **
Put a hole in the bottom of the bucket. When you start to bust through the plastic, the drill will try to rip your arm off. So, I recommend putting the bucket on the ground and holding it in place with one well-shod foot. Use two hands to hold the drill and exert as much downward pressure as you can. (Remember to release the trigger and pull back the drill as soon as you breech the bucket so you don’t end up drilling a hole in the floor too.)
Cut a slit in your weed mat scrap. Get your tomato seedling out of the pot and wrap the weed mat around it. Basically, it’s like putting the skirt under a Christmas tree, except you do it in your hands, and you hold the vine down so the dirt and roots gets cradled in the weed mat.
Note: I start my own seedlings in our greenhouse in recycled half gallon milk boxes (eight per box). Then I just rip one end of the box open and peel out a seedling, keeping as much of the root structure intact as possible. My roots get loosened as I separate them from the others in the box, but you may need to loosen your roots at the bottom if they are individually potted.
Now you have to fit the tomato vine through the hole in the bucket. As you do this, be gentle with the leaves so they come through intact. Also make sure the weed mat covers the hole and stays crossed over on the slitted side.
If you are smart, you’ll put the bucket on a two cinder blocks (leaving space in the middle for the vine to hang down) and take your time doing this.
If you are me, you will wedge the bucket between your knees then push it against the wheelbarrow. You will then quickly (because your quadriceps are now burning) shove the seedling in, fill the bucket 60 % full with planting medium, and try not to fall over or injure your back (and simultaneously try to take pictures so I can show you what I am doing.)
If you survive potting, hang that sucker. And water it good. You don’t want the weight of the water to push the weedmat and seedling out the hole, so use a watering can and water slowly. I ended up using about a gallon per bucket. But I poured, waited, then poured again. When I saw a few droplets roll down the vines, I knew I’d watered enough. Once you’re tomatoes have a good system, you can water more haphazardly, but you want to pour slowly for the first couple weeks.
Tip: If you are like me, and prefer not to advertise that you were forced to buy your utility buckets from the mega-hardware store (because no one else had the quanities you need at the price you could afford) make sure you put the non-logoed most-visible side out before you water. These suckers get heavy once that soil draws in all that moisture.
Bonus! When you are done, you can take all that confetti you made while drilling holes and have an “I did it” party!
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