Permies try some pretty odd things to get as many yields as possible out of their gardens. I had too many tomato starts and too little garden space, so I thought I would try out one of the more eccentric permaculture ideas out there: upside-down hanging tomatoes. Supposedly, this not only saves space, but also helps the tomatoes access water better and keep their leaves dry (which they prefer). I came to this project dubious it would work. I tried some upside down herbs once that quickly died. I was also suspicious because many of the online instructions explained how to plant a tomato in a bucket with a hole in the bottom, something I consider pretty self-explanatory, but offered no instructions how to build a structure strong enough to hold over one hundred of pounds of wet soil! Despite my skepticism, I (with help) took on this project and here is how we did it:
First is the tomato rack. I used spare wood we had around the homestead. I have no expertise in carpentry, so I just tried to put something together that would be strong enough, won’t tip over, and would keep its shape and not buckle. A 5 gallon bucket filled with water weighs about 40 pounds. Eight buckets will fit on the rack, so it needed to be able to hold 320 pounds of weight. I used an electric drill, long screws, and a chop saw to assemble this baby. To test it my boss and I hung from the top beam like it was a set of monkey bars.
I planted my starts in their buckets several weeks before hanging them up. I wanted the roots to be established, so they would hold the plant and soil in place when upside-down. I believe this is an important often ignored step, and why my herbs died when I tried upside-down planting before. The growing medium is about half potting mix and half garden soil, but if you have access to more light weight potting soil I suggest trying to keep your buckets as light as possible, while keeping the depth needed for tomato roots.
This is how I held the soil in the buckets while the plants were being established (buckets upside-down, plant right side-up), cardboard and duct tape. We hung up the tomatoes just in time because the cardboard was starting to disintegrate.
We set up cement blocks to keep the tomatoes from being crushed while we removed the cardboard lid and got ready to tie up the buckets.
Many instructions online called for drilling holes in the lip of the buckets to hang them up, but I doubted the structural integrity of that design, especially as the sun bakes the plastic and makes it brittle through the summer. We devised this knotting system with paracord to cradle the whole weight of the bucket, rather than put all of the weight on two small points on the bucket’s lip.
The rope square must be smaller than the bottom of the bucket, and the bucket must be secured in some way to keep it from tipping over. We used old wire clothes hangers twisted tight around the bucket to keep the strings evenly spaced.
And this is how they hang! You will need a friend to help you tie up the buckets. We unfortunately did this project right after heavy rains, so the tomatoes were especially heavy. Double and triple knot everything.
This is how the rope square sits around the tomatoes. Be careful when you put the rope over the tomato plants. You might want to put the rope on the buckets while the tomatoes are still small, well before hanging them up to avoid getting tangling, but we hand no significant tomato damage putting the ropes on at this bigger stage.
This is the finished product! Several days later all the tomato plants are still alive though many of them are reaching upwards trying to right themselves. Supposedly, as they grow and produce fruit their weight will pull back down. These tomatoes are up against the wall, a thermal mass, and the wall is white reflecting light back at them, so I anticipate, that if being upside-down doesn’t hurt them, they will do very well in this sunny warm microclimate.
Wish my tomatoes luck! I will keep you updated on their success.