The Nickel Pincher: Make Your Own Upside-Down Tomato Planter

Celebrate Earth Day by growing your own food—not wasting money on expensive garden gadgets that you can make yourself.

April 21, 2010
RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you watch much TV, chances are you’ve seen ads for the “Topsy Turvy Upside Down Tomato Planter,” which promises to provide you with up to 30 pounds of delicious fresh fruit with no staking, weeding, or pest problems—all without digging or bending—and to deliver them sooner than planting tomatoes in the ground, all for about $28 for one planter. But what does this actually get you? A sturdy plastic bag with a hole in the bottom and a hanger on the other end. No tomato plants are included, and it isn’t clear whether potting soil is included, either, so you'll need to buy more stuff. Even if you harvest that full 30 pounds, your tomatoes will be pretty pricy.

There’s got to be a better and less costly way. And there is!
materials to build an upside down tomato planter
jean nick
The Nickel Pincher's Crazy-Cheap Upside-Down Planter

What you'll need:
• 1 sturdy, reusable shopping bag (new or used, it doesn't matter)
• A broom with a long handle
• 3 small tomato plants (organic, if you can find them); choose different kinds for variety—perhaps a cherry, a big red slicing tomato, and a yellow one
• 1 used natural dryer sheet or an unbleached coffee filter (a used filter is fine; just dump out the grounds)
• A napkin
• About 16 quarts of organic potting mix
• 1 empty half-gallon jug, two-liter pop bottle, or paper milk carton with the top cut off, leaving about 8 inches of sidewall, with a few dozen small holes poked through the bottom and sides

You'll need a place to hang it that will support at least 50 pounds (wet potting soil and tomatoes can get pretty heavy). Choose a spot where your plants will get full sun for at least half of the day.
upside down tomato planter
jean nick
Step 1: Create your "planter."

Cut a small X, about 1 to 1½ inches long, in the center of the bottom of your reusable bag. Rest the bag on its side, and carefully remove the seedlings from their little pots. To make it easier to slide your plants through the X, wrap a napkin around the leaves of the plants. This will keep the leaves from getting torn off. Very gently work the leaves and stem of each plant through the X from inside the bag, leaving the roots undisturbed in their soil inside the bag, and the stem and leaves outside (so they're below it when it's hanging). Finally, tear your dryer sheet or coffee filter into two pieces, and slip the halves along the bottom of the bag, on either side of the plant's stem, so that the paper blocks the cut-out hole. This will prevent loose potting mix from leaking out in the next step.

making an upside down planter
jean nick
Step 2: Fill 'er up.

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Rest the broom across two supports, such as chairs, and slide the bag handles onto the broom handle so the bag hangs open. Add potting mix to fill the bag about halfway, pressing it in gently with your hand. Then, set your perforated jug, bottle, or milk carton in the center of the piled-up potting mix (open end up). Fill the bag with the rest of the soil, up to the level of the container you just put in place. That reused food container acts as a well that you can fill rapidly, but that will slowly provide water to the plants as the soil mix dries. Hang your planter onto the hook or other support you have ready for it, and fill the well with water. As your plants grow, add water whenever the soil begins to dry out. In the heat of the summer, this may be as often as twice a day. And, once a week, you'll want to fertilize your tomatoes. You can add liquid organic fertilizers to the water, diluted according to the label, or just spoon dry fertilizer per label instructions into the well so the water can take it to the roots.

upside down tomato planter
jean nick
Step 3: Enjoy your harvest!

It should take about a month before you start seeing tomatoes. You can also let your planter do double-duty by topping it off with a few dozen pea seeds, four small pinches of lettuce seeds, a dozen radish seeds, or two cucumber seeds on the top of the bag. Alternatively, you can cut small Xs about halfway up the sides of the bags, and once you’ve filled the bag to their level with potting mix, carefully insert small herb plants (perhaps thyme, oregano, marjoram, or summer savory), and finish filling the bag with potting mix. To use your bag as a hanging strawberry planter, place strawberry plants in the Xs you cut in the sides and along the top of the bag.

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.

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