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The Kitchen Gardener
Susan Banks
Douglass Oster
Garden Planner
Plant Finder
Garden Forum
Retiree turns tomato growing topsy-turvy

Saturday, August 05, 2000

By Douglass Oster, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tom Robinson loves to make things, whether it's rebuilding machinery in steel mills or building a glider for his back porch. But this retired plant manager's latest creation is probably his most unusual -- a contraption for growing tomatoes upside down.

An avid camper, Robinson spends most of his summers at Shenango Recreation Area with his wife, Rose. One day, he began growing a single "token" tomato plant at the campground, where he and his wife act as hosts. Someone mentioned that tomatoes are grown upside down in Florida. Well, that's all Robinson had to hear; he began working on an upside-down tomato bucket.

Tom Robinson grows his upside-down tomatoes in plastic buckets that have 2-inch holes in the bottoms. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

He took a plastic bucket and cut a 2-inch hole in the bottom. He inserted the plant roots in the hole so the leaves were pointed toward the ground. Then he attached a foam-rubber piece that is slit down the middle to the roots inside the bucket. This helps keep the plant in place until the root ball grows large enough to hold on. The bucket was filled with potting soil, then hung by its handle. As an added touch, Robinson began planting flowers in the top of the bucket.

As the tomatoes grew, the leaves tried to curl up toward the sun, Robinson hung lead weights on the branches. Once they were loaded with fruit, they hung straight down.

So, why would anyone want to grow an upside-down tomato? Mainly because they're "a heck of a conversation piece," Robinson says. But he found other benefits, too. The next time he planted topsy-turvy tomatoes, he planted two more of the 'Super Bush' plants conventionally in five-gallon buckets.

The upside-down tomatoes "had tomatoes on them before the others had flowers," he says.

Another interesting finding is that the hanging plants are almost impervious to storm damage. The bucket and plants sway in the wind but don't break when the weather gets bad at Robinson's Russellton home.

If you plan to grow some upside-down tomato plants next year, here are a couple tips:

Use a container or patio variety like 'Super Bush.' The plants grown by Robinson were absolutely loaded with fruit, more tomatoes per square leaf than I've seen in a long time.

Make sure the bucket used is at least 31/2 gallons; five would be better.

I plan to grow mine in a decorative bucket, maybe wooden. I'm looking forward to designing an interesting assortment of flowers for the top. And I know just where to put them. I have hanging baskets at the entryway to my vegetable garden and can't wait to see the looks on visitors' faces when they see my upside-down tomatoes.

Tom Robinson may have started a new trend for tomato growers everywhere.

For those of you with more zucchini and tomatoes than you can use, do a good deed and donate the extra produce to the hungry. The food is used by the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, which distributes it to food pantries, soup kitchens, after-school programs and senior centers across southwestern Pennsylvania.

There are two convenient drop-off points -- Evey True Value Hardware, 5779 Library Road, Bethel Park, where food can be dropped off any day of the week during business hours, and Soergel's Orchards, 2573 Brandt School Road, Franklin Park, where food is taken from 4 to 8 p.m. Mondays, through Oct. 25.

If neither of these drop-off points works for you, call your local food pantry, church or soup kitchen and it should be able to point you in the right direction.

If you still can't find a place to donate your produce, as a last resort, call Stacy Mates at the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank at 412-460-3663, Ext. 218.

I'd like to hear from readers who received tithonia (Mexican sunflower) in last year's seed give-away. Please let me know how the plants have worked out for you.

I also would like to see how the 'Juliet' and 'Spencer Green' tomatoes fared this season. One early report from 'Juliet' was positive. The reader would grow it again next year. He warns others to let the tomatoes fully ripen before picking. He picked some before they were ready and was disappointed in the taste.

Please contact me using the information below and let me know how everything is doing.

The Kitchen Gardener appears periodically throughout the year. For answers to gardening questions, click on the Garden Forum button. There is also a link to free seeds and a virtual tour of Oster's garden. Oster can be reached by e-mail at doster@post-gazette.com or by phone at 412-263-1484.

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