Upside Down Tomatoes

Yes, you can grow tomatoes upside down. Based on the claims in the large number of newspaper, magazine, and television ads, you’d think it is the best way to grow tomatoes. I conducted a test last year using methods as scientifically consistent as I could manage. The results ran counter to the advertising claims.

Upside down tomato

The concept of growing tomatoes upside down is interesting and intriguing. You put a plant in the bottom of a hanging bag, fill the bag with soil, water it, and you have an abundance of disease-free and pest-free tomatoes. Wanting to see if it really worked, I tried it.

Using two tomato hanging bags, I planted a “Better Boy” tomato plant in one and a “Sweet 100” tomato plant in the other. I also planted the same two varieties, purchased from the same tray in the same store, in a raised bed. The primary difference in the beginning was that the hanging bags were filled with a name brand potting soil that contained some balanced fertilizer, while the raised bed was filled with soil amended with compost and no fertilizer.

Planted and hanging

All of the plants were located relatively close to each other and received the same amount of sun and other weather. I watered the plants regularly and similarly. The hanging plants did receive more water because the water tended to drain out faster and the bags dried out sooner.

It was noticeable right away that the hanging plants grew faster, but not bigger than the ones in the raised bed. By the end of the season, the plants in the ground were bigger, bushier, stronger, and bore more fruit.

Midseason... other tomatoes in the bed on the right

The hanging plants flowered and set fruit, but in dramatically smaller numbers. For the “Sweet 100” plants (a cherry tomato) I harvested nine tomatoes from the hanging plant and more than sixty from the plant in the ground (there were many more unripe tomatoes on that vine when the first frost hit). For the “Better Boy” plants I harvested four tomatoes from the hanging plant and more than 20 from the plant in ground (it too had many more unripe fruits that were affected by the frost).

The obvious conclusion is that tomato plants in a raised bed will produce much more fruit than ones grown upside down in a bag. I didn’t notice any difference in taste.

To be fair to the makers of the upside down growing system, they don’t directly compare their promised results to traditional garden beds. They do say that you can expect bigger and better fruit, but that is a bit vague. They are marketing to people who don’t have desire, time, or space to grow in the ground.

Topsy Turvy, the one you see advertised so much, guarantees 50 pounds of tomatoes from their Tomato Tree set that holds multiple plants. That averages out to a little more than 12 pounds of tomatoes per plant, not a lot. If you look closely at their advertising photos you can see that the individual plants only have a dozen or so tomatoes on them when fully grown. I’m used to more than that on my garden plants.

Online reviews from many of the customers of these systems seem to show similar results to those I had. If you plant upside down and expect abundant fruit, you’ll probably be disappointed. However if you plant upside down on a deck or patio because you don’t have garden beds, then it gives you the chance for tomatoes that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

I’ve tried to analyze the results and have a few conclusions. Though the claims are that the system uses gravity to draw nutrients into the vine and fruit and make them bigger and better while it allows roots to grow up, this is counter to the natural way plants grow. The tomato vines in my upside down planter were still trying to grow “up”, using extra energy and distorting the vine, while the roots also tended to grow “down” and not expanding well within the container; this led to fewer flowers and less fruit.

The weight of the fruit put them low while the vines grew up. The foliage was thin and didn’t shade it normally. This exposed the fruit to more direct sun and some of them developed sunscald. Sunscald is a white or yellow area on the fruit and can render it inedible. Though growing upside down is supposed to shade the fruit with the additional mass of the growing container, I didn’t find that to be the case. The plants in the ground shaded the fruit well.

Fruit exposed to the sun

While the hanging tomatoes did have better exposure to air flow and should consequently have fewer fungus and disease issues, there is less heat to blanket the plant. This makes a difference in a region like mine when the nights start to cool off early. Plants in the ground can use the heat of the soil to help moderate night temperatures. Hanging plants cool off faster and late fruit and flowers are less likely to develop in cool conditions. You should expect fruit later into the season with plants in the ground.

The bigger mass of the plants in the raised bed raised the overall temperatures near the plants and that may have helped produce more flowers. I also saw more bee and fly activity near these plants than in the hanging containers. That may also help explain why more fruit developed in the bed.

Bigger plants in the raised bed

It was an interesting experiment. I can recommend upside down growing only to gardeners who have no other options. Based on previous experience, I suspect that tomatoes grown in a large pot will grow better than in an upside down bag. If given the choice, plant and grow tomatoes in a raised bed with amended soil. Sure, you may have to stake and tie the vines to keep them from sprawling on the ground (one of Topsy Turvy’s negative claims), but that gives you the opportunity to help your tomatoes grow best.

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