For a long time, though not quite for as long as I can remember, there has been a competition between my sister and my grandfather. He has no love of sweet tea – she fares best without tomatoes. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he’s always sure to save a few ‘for Shelly’ from his backyard garden plot. She, in turn, always makes sure there’s sweet tea available when he comes to visit. Regardless, when it comes to tomatoes, they are who I think of first, both politely shoving on the other what will swiftly be refused.
I myself have always been a fan of tomatoes. Those globes of juicy ripeness always seem to glow, little suns packed with the energy and vitamins we need to grow. I can feel the soft skins of them yielding to my bite, exploding in juicy goodness, sending rivulets running down my chin like summer fruit is supposed to. Somehow, apples just don’t even compare, despite shine, despite crispness. There’s something about a tomato that flirts with temptation, which may be why Mr. John Gerard considered it ‘poisionous’ in his English Herbal, despite being eating in Italy and Spain. Those Papists, after all, were almost as bad as Eve when it came to oral fixation.
So with all this upside-down nonsense getting big, I decided to go to the experts. Just what does hanging this thing upside-down accomplish? What kind of tomatoes should I grow in such an inverted potter? Tell me about staking, because I know nothing.
As I soon found, the majority of ‘real’ tomato growers pish-posh the inverted idea. They say it has no benefits, or doesn’t provide enough soil for the plant to really root, or puts undue strain on the tomato stalk in order to support the fruit, or as one particularly irate plant vendor stated, “tomatoes weren’t made to be grown upside-down”. I suppose that’s strictly true. Elephants weren’t made to travel by roller-skate, and squirrels weren’t made to fly, but I’m not sure that means they can’t, or should be prevented from trying. I’m not sure I believe the hype about upside-down fruit being better for you in some way, but you must admit, the idea of fruit topsy-turvy is somehow appealing.
I decided I would try it. Two factors influenced my final decision. The first was the aforementioned plant lady. SHe was quick to tell me that growing a tomato plant in a pot required at least a 5 gallon bucket. And staking – these hardy little things need all the help they can get to keep from being top-heavy. Especially when planted in a giant, weighty, bucket of a planter. So, since I don’t have mountains of money to spend on mountains of dirt, I opted for the upside-down gallon jug variety. According to online instructions, this variety needs only what is necessary to top off a 2-liter bottle (or, in my case, gallon jug). The second factor was a friend’s various gardening projects. He was into making all kinds of things, tossing off ideas to turn his backyard into a wonderland. Since I have no backyard, I was jealous, but I at least have a great balcony. Hanging plants seemed like the perfect way to get DIY and still have delicious tomatoes by the end of the summer.
I have been very pleased by the results. There will be a picture update soon so that all of you lovely readers can appreciate those results as well. I ended up going with a small tomato variety, about cherry size, just in the weight on the stalk was an issue. Only one problem – once they turned color, I wasn’t sure they were really ripe. I guess I have no experience picking cherry tomatoes. On a big tomato, when they’re ready, they practically help themselves off the vine – a little twist and they’re in your hand. Not so with cherry-sized minis. Or not so for mine, anyway. After days of waiting, twisting gently, and gazing longingly at my delectable beauties, I finally called my grandparents to ask how I know when these things are really ripe.
“Well,” says my grandmother, “you know they won’t get as big as regular tomatoes”. Yes, I do know that much. “And they probably won’t get much bigger than a golf ball.” Yep. “So…I would just pick one and eat it. Then you’ll know if it’s ripe.” So why I have I been waiting days for this baby to give me a real sign, beyond color and soft pliancy to the touch, that they are ready for eating? The world may never know. But yes, all those that had changed color appropriately were quite edibly ripe. I give you, grandma’s mouth test for tomatoes! (It never fails.)
A few words of advice for anyone trying this themselves. First, if you can get clear gallon jugs, use them – it’s easier to water the plants appropriately when you can see how deeply the water is seeping and how quickly. I painted one of mine and not the other (cause I got lazy). The painted one may be prettier, but the one I can still see into is much more effective. I also ended up planting herbs on top instead of using the bottom of the jug with holes in it as a trickle-down system. This works better with plants that are really rooty – cilantro is excellent, thyme not so good.