Are Upside-Down Tomato Planters No Good?

A tipster sent us a link to this short advice column on gardening at PennLive.com, where the author says upside-down planters in general aren’t that great, and in dry hot summers are particularly bad for your tomatoes.

Patriot-News writer and gardener George Weigel writes:

Tomatoes do best growing in good soil in the ground, but if that’s not an option, the second best idea is growing them in pots — the bigger the better. My guess is that Topsy-Turvys will turn out to be a fad that disappears in a year or two.

Do any Consumerist readers have experience with upside-down planters? I’ve always wondered whether they provided any actual utility that made them a better investment than ordinary planters.

“No Topsy-Turvy tomatoes” [PennLive] (Thanks to Erin!)

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  1. leastcmplicated says:

    the atlanta botanical gardens has a couple of these and their frickin HUGE! i’ve never seen so many tomatoes on one plant. Mine, however, was a place for birds to nest… >.

    • 67alecto says:

      Their best benefit has been to keep the crawling bugs off them. We gave up on strawberries years ago because of slugs. This year, we used an upside down planter hangning from a trellis and it’s been great.

      Need to water it a lot, though.

    • chefguru says:

      I think you meant “they’re”… the anonymity of the internet is no excuse for poor grammar.

      • Kitten Mittens says:

        Your anonymity is also not an excuse for being a prick.

        • RvLeshrac says:

          I get internal work emails which read even worse than the above post. Grammar is everyone’s responsibility, as these emails make it look like my company is filled with people too stupid to know the difference between “they’re,” “their,” and “there.”

          You should see the crap email we get from vendors – most of it looks like a particularly uneducated kindergartner wrote them.

          • Ben says:

            I think most people know the difference between these words, and mistakes are mostly due to people typing fast. That’s when I make that kind of mistake.

          • Kitten Mittens says:

            Sure at work. But we’re talking about a 3-sentence comment on a website post. Methinks those that are rubbed the wrong way need a chilled beverage and a reality check.

        • Enduro says:

          I concur. That was dick-like and a waste of energy.

  2. AppleAlex says:

    I hear they’re great for growing marijuana

  3. yurei avalon says:

    Everyone I know that has one, has said theirs have done absolutely nothing all year. Of course, everything is suffering here in this part of NH due to the lack of rain this spring and summer.

    • myCatCracksMeUp says:

      Plants growing in the topsy turvys need to be watered every day. It says so right on them. We’ve got one large one that has 7 or 8 tomato plants, and a smaller one with about 5 pepper plants. All are doing great, and we’re getting ripe grape tomatos now, with some larger tomatos about to ripen soon. We’ve also gotten a lot of peppers so far, with more to be rips soon.

    • SagarikaLumos says:

      Tomatoes in general need water every day, no matter the planter. They’re so water hungry that I don’t see how they ever grew before they were domesticated.

  4. Emperor Norton I says:

    I’ve talked to several people who tried this & everyone of them said the upside down tomatoes failed!

    • womynist says:

      My parents have one of these and the tomatoes came out awesome! They also planted some basil in there as well.

    • MameDennis says:

      My friend’s mom had one last year, and it was doing *great* until the tomato blight hit. I think she probably had better-than-average luck with it since she’s retired and could easily water it multiple times a day. (I think I’ll stick to large, ground-based plastic pots myself.)

    • ageekymom says:

      We tried one this year and it was a bust! The Pepper planter, however is going gangbusters!

    • myCatCracksMeUp says:

      As I mentioned in a different response – you’ve got to water the topsy turvy every single day. On really hot days (and we’ve had a lot of ~100 degree days) I’ve watered in the morning and again in the late afternoon.

      We also put sevin on the tomatoes and the peppers.

      Our veggies are doing really great.

  5. ehrgeiz says:

    They don’t beat planted plants but if you don’t have a garden or live in a apartment where you can’t plant anything they are better then nothing.

  6. netdesign says:

    We’ve tried our own in a 2-liter bottle and it failed miserably. However, our raised-bed garden in the backyard has produced a ton of tomatoes. We just have to water it.

  7. pittpanther says:

    Only one data point. A friend said his failed because “It was impossible to give it enough water.” Dried out too quickly.

    • nbs2 says:

      Two data points – we were told the same thing. My gardening idols tried some out and decided to toss them after the season.

  8. marlathetourist says:

    We have one and it has a ton of tomatoes on it. But unfortunately we have had an unusually cold summer and none of them have rippened yet.

    • maraa01 says:

      Depending on where you are it could be tomato blight. It was here in western NY last year, and it is creeping in again now. Your tomatoes will grow in size but will not ripen.

      • marlathetourist says:

        I live in Northern California and it has been unreasonably cold. I keep watering but I think we might just have to settle for fried green tomatoes this year.

        • JayDeEm says:

          Me too. The plant is huge and has dozens of smallish tomatoes, they’re just not ripe enough to eat yet. We are also in northern California. It’s 62 degrees, overcast and I’m wearing slippers, and it’s been like this for weeks.

          I’m not really complaining though, I spent the last 4 summers in Phoenix.

        • kerry says:

          Same thing up here in Seattle. My neighbor’s tomato plants are huge but the fruit won’t ripen. It’s been just too cold and too humid for the tomatoes.

        • mythago says:

          Seriously, I want a refund on the weather this year. My peppers are sad plants :(

  9. npage148 says:

    We have a tomato one and a pepper one. The tomatoes are struggling, it dries out to fast/doesn’t hold enough moisture. The plant is constantly yellow and sickly compared to the ones we planted in dirt which are thriving. THe jalapenos on the other hand are doing crazy good

    • tsdguy says:

      You need to use special moisture holding soil. This is regular growing medium (potting soil) mixed with a water retaining polymer. This along with about 8 hours of good sun will give you good results. I generally grow the cherry type tomatoes as this is much less heavy.

    • cape1232 says:

      Yellow leaves are sometimes a sign of *over*watering. Roots need oxygen as well as water to be healthy.

  10. Spaceman Bill Leah says:

    Well they can’t be any worse than my attempt at using giant pots. I have enormous tomato plants without any actual tomatoes. It’s pretty disheartening.

    • searonson says:

      You might be over fertilizing them. If they get too much nitrogen, they might bloom but not fruit. Also, I have had problems with pollinators in the past… you might try fertilizing the flowers by hand with a paintbrush.

      • Spaceman Bill Leah says:

        Ok, wow. That is amazingly helpful and you are probably correct about the overfertilizng now that I think about it. They are in an enclosed porch so you are likely correct on both counts. I may try lugging them outside to see if some nature helps before I go the paintbrush route.

        Seriously, you are my new favorite person for today. Thank you!

      • ChuckECheese says:

        You can also pollenate by giving your tomato plants a gentle shake early in the morning.

    • MaytagRepairman says:

      I recall reading articles that suggest if they are exposed to a full night of cold of 50 degrees or less in the spring it messes the plants up and they might not fruit.

      • TouchMyMonkey says:

        FALSE. We in Upstate NY get nights in the late spring alike that all the time. I think what really kills your tomato yield is not enough sun. If it’s one of those cool, rainy summers where the sun hardly come out, our tomatoes will suck. It’s been hot (for up here) and sunny this year, so we’re looking for something to do with all ours before we have to throw them out.

        Oh, and Topsy-Turvy? I wouldn’t pay money for that. If I wanted to try that out, an oatmeal box works fine.

  11. raydee wandered off on a tangent and got lost says:

    Anyone remember the Upside-down Xmas Tree fad of a while back? I never actually saw one, but I kept hearing about them.

    I would rather use raised beds or pots–it is easier to gague the moisture level if I can actually reach the dirt. Upside-down containers tend to be sealed except for where you pour in water.

    • AstroPig7 says:

      Wasn’t that the plot of an episode of My Two Dads?

    • ArcanaJ says:

      I remember that. The idea was that, by nailing your tree to the ceiling, it kept kids and cats out of the branches so that it could stay “pretty”.

      My first thought was, “You guys are missing the point.”

      My second thought was, “I wonder how many of you dorks have accidentally walked into o’ Tannenbaum by accident, face first, because it’s hanging from the freakin’ ceiling.”

  12. Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

    My wife has several upside down planters (buckets with a hole drilled and a coffee filter keeping the soil in place) and the tomatoes turned out great. I really don’t understand it — she planted the exact same tomatoes in the ground and the hanging ones did significantly better.

  13. EllenRose says:

    We tried one, but the tomatoes did their very best to grow upwards; and they were sick and spindly.

  14. alSeen says:

    Don’t bother with a Topsy Turvy. Use a 5 gallon bucket instead. They are cheaper and better.

    We’ve done this twice and they work great. Just cut a hole in the bottom. The bucket already has a handle to hang it up by. They give your tomato plant more soil to grow in and they are easier to keep moist.

  15. Van212 says:

    I have two of these, one with large and one with plumb tomatoes. I started with them hanging on hooks on a 6 foot fence post. I have extended them now to 9 feet and they have both reached the ground and starting to spread. An automated drip system and fertilizer every few weeks is great for sombody who does not want to do all the followup tomato plants need when they grow from the ground up. For me these are doing so much better hanging than the last few tries of having them in a pot. Next year I plan on having 4 of these. So my first year impression. Well worth the 10 bucks I got them on sale for.

  16. ChiefDanGeorge says:

    We rolled our own, however we haven’t gotten that many tomatos. Tomato plants take alot of nutrients out of the soil and I think the size basket we used was too small to support its growth.
    Planting in the ground is the way to go, just remember between seasons you need to replenish the soil or plant the tomatos in a different spot next year.

  17. Leela says:

    My kids got me an upside down planter for Mother’s Day. It’s okay. The leaves however, are very mildewed. I don’t know if it’s because of the water that drips down on them every time I water or because of the yucky summer we’re having here in SoCal or both.

  18. paul says:

    From what I’ve read they only work if you are able to water them several times a day, every day.

    • LandruBek says:

      As a non-botanist I’m constantly amazed at how thirsty a little green garden plant is. They really take that “stay hydrated” thing seriously.

      • RvLeshrac says:

        As someone who grew up on a nursery, I’m never surprised at the amount of water plants take. A one-gallon plant can easily use the same amount of water on a hot day.

        Where most people go wrong is that they try to take short-cuts, such as stopping up the drain holes in pots. There’s sadly no realistic way to reduce the amount of work needed to grow decent plants, and vegetables take even more work. The best you can do to reduce the amount of water you have to put in is use some absorbent, fertilized potting soil.

  19. queenofthemountain says:

    I grew a tomato and a cucumber in a Topsy Turvy. Neither did well at all – one cucumber and zero tomatoes produced. Hard to keep it watered. It might be passable for determinate tomatoes, which do not get very large; most tomato varieties are indeterminate, which means the vines grow indefinitely. Indeterminate types probably require more root space and nutrients than a T.T. can provide. Additionally, the plastic of mine began peeling and splitting in less than a year and eventually it ripped in half.

    I have grown tomatoes for several years. If you can’t grow in the ground, for the $9.95 you are much better off getting a large plastic or terracotta pot.

    Read comments from many gardeners on GardenWeb – http://search.gardenweb.com/search/nph-ind.cgi?term=topsy+turvy&x=0&y=0

  20. dulcinea47 says:

    They don’t work for two main reasons- the primary one being, the container for the soil is small. In order to grow a decent sized plant, it needs to have room for decent sized roots. Those things simply don’t. I’ve seen some made out of five gallon buckets which are successful. The second reason is, you can’t keep the soil watered. Plants in containers dry out faster than plants in the ground, and plants that are hanging up with the wind on them dry out even faster than that. So unless you’re dedicated to watering that thing twice a day, it’s going to die.

  21. Sword_Chucks says:

    Its worked out well for my mom. Maybe its a user error? If its drying out, then better soil or water more?

  22. InsomniacZombie says:

    My girlfriend’s parents have two of these and holy crap do they produce a lot of tomatoes. The only issue they have is when watering them. The water flows right through so a lot of water ends up on the ground. That may be a design issue, or the dirt just not being packed or dense enough. That aside, they grow a lot of tomatoes, without the extra work or space required for a garden.

  23. CookiePuss says:

    Funny seeing this article. We just tried the upside down tomato planter this summer and it sucks. Only 5 tomatoes ever developed, which were all half the size of a cue ball. Definitely not worth it to wait the entire summer for 5 tiny tomatoes.

    Gonna try making a small raised garden on the deck next year instead.

  24. MongoAngryMongoSmash says:

    I have a very shady yard, two big oaks in the back and two big maples in the front. The only place I get plenty of sun is where my wife plants her flower garden. Being a cheapass, I didn’t want to spend $20 on something that may or may not work. I took some old hanging baskets and planted tomatoes and peppers in them, growing out the bottom. I then attached brackets to the side of the house abover her flower garden and hung the baskets. They are doing quite well but I don’t have any ripened ones, yet. They are all still green. I have lots of leafy branches with peppers and tomatoes which will yield a heck of a lot if they ever turn.

    Also, because of the trees, the ground is pretty much useless because all the roots have taken over, including reaching underneath my garage and breaking into the terracota pipes which sucks.

    So, yeah I stand behind upside down planters that you make yourself. I would never pay for the others. Now, my sister-in-law has a topsy turvy one hanging off her back porch and she’s got quite a few red tomatoes. Like everyone else, she says you have to keep watering it, though.

  25. DarkPsion says:

    They are good for people who don’t have room for a real garden or don’t (or won’t) dig in the dirt.

    As with all plants, you still have to take care of them. You need to use a good rich-mix potting soil, you should feed them early and often since there is a limited amount of soil for them to draw nutrients from and you must water, water, water, water…..them.

    Any hanging basket will dry out quickly, but in the heat we have been having here in Oklahoma, you may need to water them several times a day.

  26. NarcolepticGirl says:

    ” My guess is that Topsy-Turvys will turn out to be a fad that disappears in a year or two.”

    Hasn’t the product been around for years?

  27. El_Fez says:

    As an aside – dont buy into this whole “Garden yourself!” nonsense. Being unemployed, I had plenty of time and no money. I sunk a little bit of cash into some gardening supplies and seed, figuring that I could spare a couple square feet for some beans.

    Holy hell did that not work. Nothing grew, except for the weeds, what little did sprout didn’t last. My strawberries were all the size of dimes, my carrots were two inches long. The only thing that did grow were the snap peas, and those only lasted a week or two before dieing on me. A summer full of yummy vegetables? How about a summer of weeds.

    Worst 100 bucks I ever spent. I might as well have set the money on fire for all the good it did me.

    • probablykate says:

      Your soil probably wasn’t any good. Before investing time and money in planting, you need to test the soil. Of course, I learned that after making pretty much the same mistake.

    • Puddy Tat says:

      That’s because you didn’t buy my ten easy payment method of growing stuff all I need is ten easy payments of $29.98 and you will have a farm on your deck….

    • Big Mama Pain says:

      Maybe the garden picked up on your negative attitude? Lots of people have great luck with gardens, don’t discourage people from doing it just because you don’t have a green thumb.

  28. jedipunk says:

    We did the upside down tomatoes for awhile. One topsy turvy and several ice cream buckets (some painted black others not) hanging from an old swing set.

    They did well for cherry tomatoes.

    A couple years ago we moved and this year about 36″X72″X18″ garden boxes from some lumber. We also have a 6′x8′ strawberry area.

    Strawberries did excellent this year. I read there is a topsy turvey for these now.

    The tomato plants have gone crazy wild. Plenty of cherry tomatoes and some bigger one finely coming.

  29. backinpgh says:

    Well i noticed they are all on clearance at every store I’ve seen them…you know what that usually means.

  30. JohnDeere says:

    they are fine if you have the time to tend to them several times a day.

  31. andyg8180 says:

    My plant did awesome, but caught a calcium deficiency in the soil and had to trash it so that it wouldnt spread to the raised bed… Its hard to get the nutrients in that thing. Next year im going to convert it to a mini strawberry farm since those things grow easier… Overall i was impressed, but i think it was the luck of the draw with that plant…

  32. xamarshahx says:

    tried with strawberries, its soooo heavy and sucks up toooo much water. not worth it.

  33. It'sRexManningDay! says:

    What is this “dry summer” you speak of? I was not aware of this thing.

    /mid-atlantic humidity survivor

  34. IrishPride1969 says:

    I bought two last year for tomatoes, the plants did terrible. We followed all the instructions and they were in full sun. Complete waste of money (Protip: Earthboxes are awesome).

    • Sparkstalker says:

      Agreed…my best and most fruitful tomato plants came from an Earthbox…unfortunately, I don’t have an uncovered deck anymore, so I have nowhere to put one.

  35. giax says:

    I’ve used upside down ones for a few years and it has worked fine enough for me.
    But I’ve NEVER bought a ready made one – I use whatever plastic things I have for the correct size, or could use the ideas presented in this http://ikeahacker.blogspot.com/2010/07/vastlig-topsy-turvy-style-planter-for-2.html

    When growing tomatoes, there are two considerations:
    1) it will need space so you will need at least 1 gallon for the roots
    2) it will dry faster SO ideally hang them somewhere where you can water them easily, and put some herbs etc that help maintain the moisture on the top of the pot too. Catnip works great for that, but anything from basil to chives or parsley works too.

  36. Big Mama Pain says:

    This has been a granola way to plant tomatoes forever. Apparently it is the best way to grow tomatoes because the weight of the fruit isn’t dragging down the plant; also they are less prone to afids and things that creep on the ground that like to eat tomato plants because they can’t get to them. It really has to be a 5 gallon bucket, though, ideally.

  37. sybann says:

    I had one – thought it was crap. This year’s grape tomato is going gangbusters – in the ground.

  38. marillion says:

    A couple of tips… The first time I tried this it failed horribly.. I talked to a Master Gardener friend of mine and he said to make sure you put in plenty of soil and to use top/planting soil that is designed to be better at retaining water. I can’t remember the brand I ende up using, but we ended up getting a ton of cherry tomatoes.

    It definetely requires plenty of water each day. If you miss a day and it’s blazing hot, you could be in trouble. The other tip is to make sure that if you do miss a bit of watering, to break up the soil in the planter. The heat will condense and pack the soil, causing any water you put in to just drain out. If you break it up, it will retain the water.

  39. Lolotehe says:

    All of my tomato plants started to crawl up the side of the bag, once they realized they were upside-down. The ones I put in the ground, however, gave me a cup of fruit a day. (Three plants each.)

  40. El-Brucio says:

    I bought one a few years ago because I liked the idea of it being one less tomato plant to stake but it was horribly disappointing. The plant ended up being a third of the size of the ones I had in regular pots and looked kind of sad most of the time. The tomatoes it produced may have all been slug free, but they still weren’t as nice as the non-hanging ones.

    It now sits in the back of the shed for that mysterious day in the future when I experiment with something other than a tomato.

  41. FrenchysHouseParty says:

    I used these things for the last two seasons (including this one). I had two last year and while the Roma tomatoes I grew were very prolific the “slicing” tomato plant I grew in the other one got only two or three tomatoes on it. I called the local (Cape Cod) radio garden talk-show host and she said that I needed to use a variety like “celebrity” for the Topsy-Turvy as they were prolific producers. She did have a technical name for the distinction between the variety I used and the one she recommended but I can’t remember it now.

    This year I have decided to grow only Roma-type (plum) tomatoes as they were very prolific last year. I have a good crop going but I did find that as the plants got bigger (in the last couple of weeks) I’ve had to water them in the evening as well as in the morning. Also the instructions said that you need to water them slowly as the soil does take time to absorb the water. I usually water them until the water starts really flowing out of the holes, grab a cup of coffee and then come back and water them again. That usually lasts throughout the day. Then I water them again around 7pm but not so much that it comes out the drainage holes as I don’t want the leaves to be damp overnight which could cause mildew.

    Also the instructions say to feed them every two weeks when the plants are young, every 10 days when the plants are 2-3 feet long then “every few days” when the plants are 6 feet long with 15 or more tomatoes on it.

    I have been following this regimen and I believe that by next weekend I should have enough tomatoes for my tomato canning project to begin.

    Can marinara sauce from my own tomatoes be far behind?

    You can check out my progress at http://www.frenchyshouseparty.com

  42. pk says:

    My parents have one and it produced more tomatoes than any tomato plant I’ve ever seen.

  43. pdj79 says:

    I didn’t have any issues with our Topsy-Turvy last year when we grew our ‘maters. The only pain was having to clean out the dirt and the old plant….there was some funky stuff in there. All in all we got 32 decent beefheart tomatoes out of one $4 plant that we purchased from Wal-mart. We didn’t get around to using it this year….mainly because we don’t use tomatoes all that often and most ended up in the trash because they went bad.

  44. scientific progress goes boink says:

    I noticed lots of my neighbors have these. Some seem to be doing well while others look pathetic. I have been curious about the strawberry ones but i have no where to hang plants any way.

  45. cytoman says:

    My wife and I did this and it was great. The watering think turned out to be easy. We put them on a bungie and when the plant needed water it was 6 feet off the ground. After watering the weight of the water would weigh it down and it was 3 feet off the ground. Lots of tomatoes.

  46. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

    I have three that I made myself using metal planters, and they are absolutely COVERED in tomatoes. Maybe it depends on the type of soil, whether you feed the plant, how much sun/shade it gets etc. I’m growing cherry tomatoes, not the larger ones, so that might be something to consider as well.

  47. EdnaLegume says:

    ours look exactly like the ones in the picture, right down to the orange five gallon buckets. they do dry out faster, but that’s when the handy dandy hose comes in to save the day!

  48. Awesome McAwesomeness says:

    My dad’s plant in one of these gizomos grew up instead of down and produced nothing.

  49. Awesome McAwesomeness says:

    BTW, those are buckets hacked to be planters, not Topsy-Turvy’s. Bucket planters are larger and would allow the root system more room to grow, which would yield a bigger and healthier plant.

  50. komodork says:

    Im not sure how the plant is set up, Im assuming the leafs are upside down. This being said, the bottom of the leaf in a ground plant contains pores that allow exchange of air, this also however releases mositure ( since vapor rises). Now having the leaves upside down, allows the moisture to rise and escape, rather than some of it being left behind. I think you know where im going with this. Unless you load this shit up with water since its its loosing way more, you wouldnt get great yeild.
    Another telemarketing scheme imployed to stupid americans.

  51. pixelkitty says:

    I’ve seen neighbors with these things, but no ripening tomatoes on them. Admittedly, it’s been an unusually cloudy summer here. I suspect the varieties sold may not be the early harvest types that do best here.

  52. EcPercy says:

    My parents tried this back in the day. The big advantage of this vs. growing the tomatoes in the ground is that the tomatoes that are starting to get ripe aren’t sitting in the dirt and rotting.

    I noticed that when grown like this the tomatoes got HUGE.

    My parents used pretty large pots when they did this so maybe the amount of dirt used makes a difference in how much moisture the plants are able to retain.

  53. JANSCHOLL says:

    I tried this stupid contraption for the first time this year. I needed to keep my plants away from my dog who loves tomatoes, peppers etc. So far I have two tomatoes. One is split in half and inedible. The other is so small, and there are no leaves on the plant. Good thing this dumb thing was cheap. I might try growing weeds next year or something the birds might like to munch on, but never again for tomatoes etc. Pots it is.

  54. Snullbug says:

    I have one cherry tomato in one of these and at one time it had in excess of 40 tomatoes on it. We have been picking half a dozen tomatoes a day for 3 weeks and it is still going strong. But it must be watered heavily every day.

  55. Brunette Bookworm says:

    I used to have them and they worked okay but when the apartment complex redid my patio, they didn’t seem to get enough sun. Now I use the Earthboxes and my tomatoes are HUGE.

  56. elliemae says:

    It’s hot where I live – the upside down planters dry up in the hot sun.