I have been interested in the idea of growing tomatoes upside down ever since the first time that I saw a Topsy Turvy commercial. I liked the concept, but I didn't like that it was free hanging. I have a nice patio that I put a lot of work into and did not want to clutter it with several large hanging tomato plants. The second issue I had with the product was that it was not very visually appealing. Additionally, the water reservoir still required filling on a regular basis. So with a few wooden patio barrel tubs, some scrap planks from my workshop and a little bit of effort, I came up with a durable self watering upside down planter that attached to my wall and can accommodate almost anything that can be grown upside down while adding to the landscape of my backyard. Oh, and just for fun I planted strawberries in the top portion of the planter which have done wonderfully.
Step 1: Materials Needed
As far as materials go, the most important part is the 20"x13" wooden Barrel Tub. There are many sizes, but my experiences tell me that tomatoes typically need a deep root base. So I found the 13" barrel best accommodated this. The tested variation in step 10 gives a little info regarding a smaller 7" barrel that I originally tried and how I made it work.
1 20"x13" Barrel
2 20"x13"x3/4" pieces of wood for a backing. Use Redwood if you want to be exact, but I used some scrap doug fir. Smaller pieces can also be glued to make the final size.
1 bottle of Wood Glue (water based, not polyurethane)
8 #8x1/2" pan head wood screws for securing metal banding
1 Box 1" 1/4 crown pneumatic staples- If you do not have an air compressor these can be replaced with 1 1/4" finish nails or #6 x 1" screws
Tools make all the difference in a project. I'll explain what I used, but will also try to make suggestions on safe alternatives.
Step 2: Preparing the Barrel
The ultimate goal is to cut the barrel and barrel straps in half, so it is important to spend some time strengthening it so it does not fall apart.
The barrel is strengthened by applying a good amount of glue into each of the joints. It helps to separate each panel slightly so that the glue can flow into the joint. After each joint has been thoroughly coated, move to the fasteners. The use of a Pneumatic nail/staple gun is suggested because it is fast and most accurate. But if you do not have access to this type of tool, a box of 1 1/4" finish nails and a hammer will do. If you do use a hammer and nails or screws, I would suggest gluing one section at a time and nailing or screwing each joint as you go. Remember to also secure the bottom of the barrel to the sides all the way around with nails or screws. If you must use screws, try to find finishing screws because most screws will be very visible.
When the barrel is secure, water down the leftover glue (50% glue/50% water) and brush it on the inside of the barrel. This mixture is called Glue Size and is great for sealing this sort project
Step 3: Cutting the Barrel Straps
In order to cut the wooden barrel, a track must be cut in the metal straps. The easiest way to do this is by using a dremel tool with a metal cutting attachment. However, it is important to first secure the strap so that it stays in place after it is cut. This is done by drilling a hole on each side of the planned cut and putting in a glue coated 1/2" pan or wafer headed screw. Once all 8 screws have been put in place, it is time to cut the banding. Cut an inch and a half section out of the banding to give plenty of room, keeping in mind that a smaller cut is more aesthetically pleasing.
I suggest using a dremel, but there are many options available: a grinder with a metal cutting wheel, a jig saw (if you are exact), or maybe even a pair of tin snips or a hack saw (both of these would be difficult, but we work with what we have).
Step 4: Cutting the Barrel
For the barrel cut, it is best to use a table saw. Align the fence to hold the bottom of the barrel in the middle of the blade, and raise the blade up to about 2 inches, and make the bottom cut first. Once the bottom cut is complete, line up the blade with one of the corresponding cuts on the side of the barrel and lower the blade to about an inch and cut the side. It is important to be aware of the metal banding while cutting the sides. Once one side is complete, repeat the cut method on the other side.
This is again something that several tools could accomplish. A hand saw (bit of elbow grease), jig saw, reciprocating saw or band saw would also be able to get this done. You may want to draw a cut line as a guide if you use any of these methods. REMEMBER to be familiar with the tools you use and use them safely.
Step 5: Making and Attaching the Rear Panel
The easiest way to make the back panel is to purchase a piece of wood that is already the size you need, 20"x13" or the maximum width x maximum height depending on your barrel size. I recycled planks from a previous project, so I had to cut and glue my rear panel to the correct size.
Once you have a rectangular piece to use as your backing, trace the profile of the barrel onto one of the back panels. Be sure to mark the panels so that they correspond with the correct barrel half. After you have a good trace, a jigsaw can be used to cut out the outline of your barrel half. Do this with both backings. Match up the correct backings, glue along the barrels edge and attach with staples, nails or screws.
Step 6: Cutting and Finishing the Barrel
Finishing the backing of the barrel is not completely necessary, but it offers a nice touch. These barrels were coated on each side with a Minwax stain, but if you used redwood you would not need to do this. Reseal the barrels again after staining to help the planter last longer.
Cut a hole for the plant to grow through by using a 2 1/2 inch hole saw bit and a drill to cut the center hole. Start drilling the hole from the inside of the barrel, but switch to the outside before you cut all the way through. This will prevent any splitting or fraying form occurring when the bit cuts through. Depending on how well the middle of the barrel was caught, you may need to re-drill the second watering tube hole. Re-drill using a 5/16"-3/8" drill bit.
Step 7: Hanging the Planter
The planters used in this project were attached to a block parameter wall, so two holes were drilled into the back of each box to accommodate the screws and masonry anchors. These holes were then copied onto the wall where the planter was to be hung, using a masonry drill bit, a hammer drill and 1/4" x 2 1/2" masonry screws with a 5/16" masonry drill bit. The screws used in this project came with plastic anchors that were placed into the newly drilled holes. There are many other possible alternatives, but that is a personal preference.
Step 8: Connecting the Waterline
Attach a piece of 1/4" tubing from existing water lines (if available) up through the smaller of the holes on each planter box. After the tube is through, attach an adjustable flow drip emitter to easily change the flow for any variety of plants that may be used.
Step 9: Planting the Plant
Feeding a tomato plant through a 2 1/4" hole can be tricky. First, start with a smaller plant, and remove any fruit (dont worry it will grow back). The second and most important step is to wrap the plant in foil so it looks like a spike. The spike should be gently formed down to about a 2" diameter. Once the "spike" is prepared, hold it upside down and feed it through the hole. Remove the foil, fill the planter with dirt and enjoy.
My tomato plants have produced exceeding well this year, and I contribute a lot of it to the automated watering.
Step 10: Tested Variation
When I originally made these planters I was forced to use the smaller 7" tall barrels. I had concerns about the limited root space, so I constructed an extension out of plastic netting and hanging peat moss basket material (sorry but I don't know exactly what it is called). I cut the basket material into a square and rolled it into a 6" diameter tube. I then used the plastic netting as a frame to wrap around and support this tube. The plant was feed through the planter box as normal but I positioned the tube above the plant roots and filled it up with dirt. This gave the potential for a 12" root base. Or should I call it root top? They worked wonderfully, but I like the appearance of the new design better. I am not going to add strawberries to the new design due to the ending of the season, but this fall we plan to try a butternut squash plant on the bottom with an herb planted on top.