Saturday, September 19, 2015

DIY Upside Down Tomato

I recently did a presentation on vertical gardens as part of a series of gardening classes offered by my local Master Gardener chapter. While preparing for this class, I researched the history of vertical gardening from grapevines and espalier trees to modern day hydroponic and bio walls. In current day gardening - sustainability, self sufficiency and growing your own food are the top trends. However, there has also been a decreasing size of yards and garden plots. Growing up instead of out - just seems to make sense...

Advantages to vertical gardening:
  • Saves space - A traditional horizontal garden has boundaries and limitations. In a vertical garden - the sky's the limit to potential gardening space! 
  • Easier harvest - Usually at eye level instead of kneeling, bending, etc...
  • Healthier plants / Bigger harvest - Many plants are susceptible to soil borne diseases. Bringing the vines or plants up off the ground, decreases the risk of disease and improves the air circulation which contributes to a healthier plant and a larger bounty.
There are a lot of new vertical systems on the market - walls, stackable containers, hydroponic planters, etc... but I am more interested in the DIY versions.

Growing tomatoes vertically usually refers to using a trellis, arbor, or similiar structure to train or support indeterminate or "vining" tomatoes. Another option in growing tomatoes vertically would be using containers to free up the ground space. A "bush" or determinate variety is a better choice for container tomatoes because of its compact size (3-4' height). Most of the advantages of growing tomatoes in containers have to do with the ability to control of the quality of the soil. - The majority of tomato diseases are derived from a fungus, virus or other contaminant in the existing garden soil. Using a high quality "soil-less" growing medium in the container, will decrease the chance of diseased plants.

The flip-side of a vertical container would be to literally grow the plant upside down! Topsy-Turvy upside down tomato planters have been around since 2005, but I wasn't really interested in trying this container. It just seems a little too small for even a compact tomato variety. I had seen larger versions of this concept using 5 gallon buckets - so that's the option I chose...

I started with a repurposed 5 gallon bucket (mine was a cleaned and rinsed empty liquid laundry container). Using a hole saw, I drilled a 3" hole in the bottom of the bucket. I also drilled additional "drainage" holes using a 1/2" drill bit.

Next I cut a circle out of landscape cloth to fit in the bottom of the bucket. - I cut an X in the cloth and pushed the young tomato plant through the bottom of the bucket's hole. I decided a "roma" tomato would be a good variety for the upside down container. - It's a determinate or compact plant with stronger stems.

I filled the bucket with a high quality "soil-less" growing medium and mixed in a slow release fertilizer. The top of the container was planted with a drought tolerant sedum (Sedum sarmentosum) to act as a living mulch.

The tomato started off great. - It looked healthy and was producing a lot of green fruit. Then around sometime in July - I forgot to water it for a few days and realized just how quickly the container would become completely dry. I thought the plant was beyond help, but with consistent watering it revived and I harvested tomatoes into September.

The upside of this type of vertical gardening:
  • It worked (much to my surprise)...
  • It's a great option for a limited space.
  • If you have poor soil, you might have better luck at growing tomatoes in containers. My property is full of Walnut trees and it's impossible to grow tomatoes. - Black walnut trees produce a toxin, juglone, that is released into the soil and the tomato plants develop "walnut wilt" and die.
The downside:
  • Requires frequent watering.
  • Frequent watering depletes the nutrients in the soil.
  • If you grow vegetables solely for a harvest, it's a great option. If you also want an aesthetically pleasing garden, a 5 gallon bucket container might not appeal to you...

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