The Upside-Down Soda Bottle Garden — Pros and Cons

forty dollar tomato

At times, the hanging garden looked very promising.

Every year I see something I’ve just got to try, and growing vegetables in a hanging garden drew me in last year. Whether I’ll try it again this year is uncertain. I had some successes and some disappointments but learned some things that would probably increase yields. What probably will decide me against it this year is that I did overwhelmingly better with the mound garden, in spite of all of last year’s adversities. If I try it, I’ll try it as a temporary thing, a way of encouraging plant growth indoors before the weather outside warms enough for tomatoes. Then I’ll right the plants and cut away the bottle and grow them in the real ground.

hanging tomatoes

An up-ended soda bottle with a 1/4 inch hole drilled in the cap provided controlled watering for the hanging planters.

[2/7/2018 Update! Ive have several years to ponder this and am about to try it again this year, having learned some things about growing things in pots. Potted plants need lots more water than garden plants do. Pots heat up, and there’s no reservoir down below. Every time you water, you wash nutrients out of the soil in the pots, and with the week long heavy rains we’ve had in the spring here in recent years, I’ve seen this happen even to corn fields. Suddenly the plants are starving. When it rains for a week you need to know this will happen and take action before you see struggling plants, reapply fertilizer whether it is chemical or compost tea. With plants in pots, you need to fertilize more often than you do in the garden, with something like MiracleGro, one TBSP per two gallons of water. Or whatever other terribly expensive organic equivalent you might prefer, if you are afraid of chemical fertilizer and vitamin pills. I would suggest doing this at least once a week, and if your plants are still stressed, do it more often.]

If you’re thinking of trying this yourself, I’m all in favor of it if you can’t plant at ground level. For a patio garden or for small spaces in general, upside-down planters expand your gardening area without greatly increasing the cost of your garden. I did not find that all the claims made by manufacturers such as Topsy-Turvy were accurate for my simple homemade garden, and I’m certain most of the problems I encountered apply to manufactured planters as well.

Tomatoes in the clay soil here usually succumb to several types of fungal blight. Infected through roots and by spores splashed onto leaves by raindrops, tomatoes here prosper for only a short period before shriveling. Last year I expected nothing from the ground-level plants, but for some reason even though the Spring weather stopped many people here from planting until late June, my tomatoes grew better than ever before. I’m crediting the mound system to that and I hope I’m right because I’d like to have tomatoes like that again. Plants grew six to eight feet tall and shrugged off the incipient blight problems. My tomatoes became delicious monsters, and the green tomatoes I picked just before the first serious frost lasted until January 2nd. (I still have some green tomato pickles, though).

hanging garden

Tomatoes and peppers grew in a symmetrical sine wave. I don’t know why.

In the hanging planters, tomatoes didn’t exactly thrive. They did live. With every feeding of very mild Miracle-Gro plant food, low-hanging leaves suffered from fertilizer burn wherever the excess water touched them. A few spots of anthracnose appeared on higher leaves, even though the plants were hung about ten feet above ground level.

Insect pests found the tomatoes in spite of their elevation, although common problems like cutworms obviously didn’t affect the hanging plants. Cutworm larvae can’t fly. Tomato hornworm moths do fly, and several plants were nearly defoliated by them late in the season. With the bright sky in the background I found it very difficult to locate and remove the worms, and since the plants grew to a miniature size compared to the giants on the garden mound, a few worms were enough to cause plenty of damage.


Now that the fad frenzy is
past, the original planters
are a bargain.

I did get tomatoes from the hanging planters. Chili peppers did better, probably because the plants grow to a smaller size anyway. One of the biggest problems with the tomatoes was that the plants became root-bound by midsummer. Whether that affected the harvest, I’m not sure, because summer temperatures put an end to fruit set anyway. I trash-canned the hanging garden at the end of the summer because the plants lost vigor and the ground plantings were supplying plenty of tomatoes.


You won’t even need to hang
the upside-down planter
from Flambeau

Problems I noticed that might be fixed include cramped growing space. The peppers fared best, and I’d think that both bell peppers and chili peppers are a good choice for upside-down plantings, even in 2-liter jugs like I used. The tomato varieties I planted need more room, and I’d bet a five-gallon container wouldn’t be too big. Smaller patio tomatoes would fit the two-liter bottle garden much better. I also started off with a bargain brand of potting soil, and saving a dollar just gave me bags of wood debris and rotten sawdust that compacted into a heavy, still decomposing mass. The plants did not respond well to it. If you’re buying potting soil, spend the extra dollar or two and get the good stuff, it makes a huge difference.

If all I could have was a hanging garden, I’d do this again. I did get a couple of dozen tomatoes from the plants and learned enough that it seems like a promising project. If you have open ground and room for a regular garden, I’d recommend planting there. Fruits picked from the ground level tomatoes made the hanging plant crop look pitiful, with distinct differences in flavor as well.

If you need to save a little money on pots, here’s what I did:

  • Collect a lot of 2-liter soda bottles.
  • Put a bamboo skewer in a hand drill and bore through the bottle sides, an inch or 1 1/2 inches above the bottom. Spinning the drill heats the bamboo tip and makes a neat hole. Space the holes at four equidistant points.
  • Cut the bottle bottoms off, leaving at least an inch of plastic above the skewer holes.
  • About two weeks before you plan to hang the bottle garden, plant selected tomato and pepper seeds in peat pots.
  • When seedlings emerge, place the new plant and its peat pot upside down in the neck of the bottle planter, carefully pushing the plant through the bottle mouth.
  • Fill the up-ended bottle planter with potting soil up to the level of the hanging holes, pressing the lower layers firmly around the peat pot. Dampen the soil before you fill the pot, to avoid possible fertilizer burn.
  • Push two bamboo skewers through the holes in the sides of the planter, making a cross.
  • Clip the ends of the skewers an inch beyond the planter sides.
  • Tie an 8-inch loop of nylon cord and slip opposite ends over opposing pairs of skewer ends.
  • Hang the planter from a hook, using the center of the loop to suspend the pot.

Tips:

Don’t water too much. The seedlings probably won’t even need water for a week or two, and then they won’t need much. If you see condensation inside the bottle and the top of the soil feels damp, that’s plenty.

Grow smaller plants. Many peppers grow well in pots, but full-sized indeterminate tomatoes don’t.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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