Tomatoes year-round or marketing fad?

To increase production and decrease land use, scientists are exploring the viability of “vertical farming,” an elaborate plan for growing urban gardens in high-rise “farmscrapers.” Another involves “green walls,” also called “biowalls,” free-standing structures on which fruits and vegetables can be grown.

As far-fetched as those may sound, consider this: One of the hottest new home gardening products is an upside-down planting system mostly used for tomatoes, but which can also sustain peppers, squash, eggplant and cucumbers.

The product is a suspended 5-gallon cylindrical container with openings in the bottom. Potting soil, water, nutrients and tomato roots fill the cylinder and the vegetation grows beneath it, the ripened tomatoes dangling from the stems like grapes.

The cost of such riggings range from $12.95 to $59.95 at Plow & Hearth (www.plowhearth.com). The Topsy Turvy Tomatoes system advertised on TV runs about $20.

Manufacturers claim the method yields year-round because the plants can be moved inside during winter. The plants are easier to tend and fruit doesn’t rot on the ground.

Locally, the system has its detractors. Upside-down tomato pilgrims have inundated the Tasteful Garden in Heflin, Ala., said Cindy Martin, who owns the business with her husband, George. She likes to chide customers by telling them “it’s necessary to hang upside down to harvest upside-down tomatoes” before recommending the traditional growing method.

“My husband and I think the commercial on TV has glued their tomatoes to the vine,” she says.

“[It] is not the optimum way to grow a tomato,” says Brennan Washington, a grower from Lawrenceville, who, with his wife, Gwendolyn, owns and operates Phoenix Gardens. “I think a consumer might have better results growing them right side up in a suitable growing container with the correct mix of growing media and care. My personal opinion is that this is a marketing fad.”

For another variation on futuristic tomato growing, there is Disney World’s “the land” experimental greenhouses in Buena Vista, Fla. There, a “single-stem tomato tree” reportedly yields thousands of tomatoes each year. Perhaps Disney World and Topsy Turvy Tomatoes have taken their cues from gardening of past civilizations — the mythic Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for instance, and the Incan agriculture of Machu Picchu in Peru.

Growing tomatoes upside down may, indeed, be a “ripe” example of “back to the future.”

Make your own upside-down tomato system

Materials

● A bucket with a securely fitting lid and handle, at least 5 gallons;

metal chain, 4 to 5 feet long

● 2 coffee filters or two 5-inch-square fabric swatches

● Metal loop or strong wire

● Potting soil

● Slow-release fertilizer

● Hybrid tomato seedlings, preferably a cherry or other small variety

Method

1. Cut or drill 2-inch holes in the center of the lid and bucket bottom.

2. Cover the hole in the bucket bottom with a coffee filter or fabric swatch.

3. Fill bucket with lightweight potting soil.

4. Lay coffee filter or fabric swatch over the soil, aligning its placement with the hole in the lid.

5. Secure the lid and turn the bucket upside down.

6. Cut a slit through the coffee filter or fabric

7. Remove lower leaves from seedling and plant deeply.

8. Place the bucket in a sunny location, keeping it well watered and fed with slow-release fertilizer.

9. When the plant is 1 foot tall, run a chain through the bucket handle.

10. Hook both ends of the chain to a metal loop or heavy wire.

11. Suspend upside down from a well-anchored plant stand.

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