Trying to grow plants in upside down planters is all backwards

KENNEWICK -- I've been asked what I think of the upside down planters "as seen on TV" and even sold in local stores.

Having not succumbed to the hype, I have to rely on my knowledge of plants and what other gardeners have told me about their experiences with these planters.

If you stick a plant in the bottom of a container and expect it to grow straight downward as shown in the deceptive ads, you're fooling yourself, not the plants.

Plants simply won't grow that way.

In response to gravity, the plant roots grow downward and shoots grow up. If you try to grow a plant upside down, the stems will turn upward and the roots will grow down. This response to gravity is a phenomenon known as "geotropism" or "gravitropism."

What gardeners can't see in their upside down planters is the roots responding to gravitropism. Roots will be concentrated near the bottom of the planter and not growing upwards and filling the vertical tower of potting soil.

Now, let's review comments from people actually growing tomatoes in these planters. The first thing to know is that once you get the planters assembled and filled with moist potting mix, they're extremely heavy.

Very sturdy hardware and strong support is required wherever you hang them. Users advise hanging the planters before watering them, as they becomes even heavier after watering.

Users also note that during hot summer weather it's hard to keep these planters watered. The planters tend to dry out quickly, especially if located in full sun. Many found it difficult to keep the plants alive unless they could water the planters several times a day. Others noted the problem of the water running out the bottom, a common problem with many hanging planters.

Perhaps the most critical reviews come from gardeners that went to the trouble of planting, hanging, watering, fertilizing and caring for their upside down tomato planters but ended up with no or very few tomatoes.

To be fair, some gardeners have been successful with the upside down planters. It seems that about half the gardeners using them have some success and the other half don't. So here are what gardeners say about their good and bad points:

Good Points

* A novelty and something fun to try

* Allow growing tomatoes where space is limited, such as on a patio or balcony

* No need to dig in the dirt, bend over to pull weeds, or cage the tomatoes

* Ripe fruit are easy to find and pick

Bad Points

* Extremely heavy (about 60 to 70 pounds) when filled with potting soil and water.

* Needs to be watered frequently (two times a day or more) during hot, sunny weather.

* Hard to water, you may need a ladder or a pulley system to assist in watering

* Plant roots can get very hot, stressing plants.

* Lack of success... many gardeners' note plants don't produce a bountiful harvest or plants rot at the base of the stem and die.

One gardener who had success noted that the upside down planters needed more watering and care than typical in-ground tomatoes. So much for the "easier" aspect of growing in these planters. Based on what I've heard, I won't be buying any of the upside down planters, but they might be fun for others to try.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension Office.