vertical gardening recycling two liter bottles


I am always looking for ways to enable myself to grow more in my small suburban yard.  One technique to do this is using the maximum vertical space to your advantage.  Whether this is growing your tomatoes and cucumbers up a trellis or growing some tomatoes from hanging upside down planters the more you successfully make use of this space the higher yields you can achieve.

One part of my yard has a great location which southern facing but do to concrete supported fence posts I can not grow anything there until now.  With my homemade vertical planter I can grow a variety of small root vegetables such as lettuce, herbs, cherry tomatoes, flowers, etc.

Step #1: Cut to size.  Depending on the soil needs of the plants you are growing cut off the tops using a utility knife or a good pair of scissors/kitchen shears.  Cut just a bit lower on one side of the “planter” to provide a little more room for the next step and give the plant a natural way to hang over the side of the planter.

Step #2: Drill holes in top two caps.  Not much else to describe here…this is done to restrict the flow of water to the planters below this one and prevent erosion of dirt out of the planters due to too high of water flow.

Step #3: Attach bottles. Pick any scrap piece of plywood you have around and attach the bottles with a couple of small screws.  You can be as creative as you want on this one.  A couple things to keep in mind, you want the water to flow between the planters to save yourself some time when watering these (you only have to water the top one)  You also want to thing about how the plants may mature and couple block the sun from some of the plants below it, so staggering directions can help with this.

Step #4: Fill with dirt.  Add some good potting soil (I went with my favorite coconut coil) and water from top to ensure water drips as expected.  If you aim is off you can always add another screw (or adjust) to get everything lined up.

Below is a video of this vertical planter in action.

Interviewed on NPR’s Science Friday

Another exciting day this week to be included in an interview on Science Friday with Ira Flatow. I’ll update this post and press page with a link to the interview when it becomes available.

For people who were listening live here are a few of the topics that were discussed for quick reference:


[link to radio interview] [mirror]

How to make your own upside Down Planter In your Garden


Over the past year I have created a few different versions of garden planters for growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers inspired from my daughter watching a Topsy Turvy tomato planter commercial.  Here is a quick summary of the different options which you can click the link for full instructions how to build on yourself.

IMG_1883 2 Liter – The Original — This is the one that started it all.  Very simple design using a 2 liter bottle covered with duct tape with a hole cut in the side to add soil and water as needed.Pros: Simple to create, dark color helped keep soil warm during the early part of the year, unlike the sibling seedling which I planted in the ground as a control which did not make it.Cons:  Really had to keep up on watering, given it had a 2 inch hole in the side water was able to easily evaporate and it did not get the advantage of being watered automatically on raining days/weeks and given I wasn’t watering any other plants forgot about this poor one which led to reduced yields.
046 2 liter — Version 2.0 — This year I wanted something that did not appear as hideous hanging and also took care of the watering issue from the previous version.  With this I created a slow drip watering reservoir and used spray paint and skipped the duct tape.Pros: Easy to water through manual or automatic (rain), evaporation is minimized due to small drainage holesCons: At the moment, there are none known.  I am happy with this design.
043 1 gallon milk jug (with auto-watering) — I was curious about if the extra 1.799 liters with a larger contain would significantly help yields so I went with this version.  Also decided to add an experimental external watering source.Pros: Larger volume of soil, extra watering capacityCons: Keeping the whole thing balanced was a pain, currently have it under control with a couple rubber band but will probably have to be replaced with something more permanent later.


So there you have the short evolution of my homemade upside down tomato planters all created from materials from my recycling bin.  Though if you do not want to make one yourself here are a just a few of the commercial upside down planter versions on the market right now.

1 Gallon Milk carton upside down tomato planter


I wanted to see if (how much) my yields varied by allowing more volume of dirt in my homemade tomato planter, so I made this variation with the same type and size “Husky Cherry” seedling I am using in my 2-liter planter version.

The build for this one is also very simple:

  • I started with an organic milk carton given it was already opaque, but if you have the non-organic variety you will want to paint or cover the outside with duct tape.
  • Next cut or drill a 1/2 inch hole on the bottom of the milk carton, this will be where the stem of the plant will fit through.
  • Cut four slits out from the center of the 1/2 inch hole to make it easier to insert the plant into the planter.
  • Insert plant through the bottom.
  • Fill with soil (mix of 1 part peat moss/coconut coir)
  • Finally drill a hole and feed though eyelet secured with a nut from the back side


Now here is where you can stop or you can go with the advanced auto-watering option.

Materials Needed:

  • 20 ounce water bottle
  • plastic straw
  • sponge

Build Instructions:

  • Drill hole just large enough to barely be able to pull the straw through
  • Cut a 1 inch long piece of sponge just wide enough to be able to slip inside the straw.
  • Fill with water and screw on cap and insert into top of planter


As the dirt dries it will also dry out the sponge which will release water and repeat as necessary.  This works in a very similar concept as a Aqua Globe you may have seen advertised on TV.

2-liter bottle upside down tomato planter

DIY Upside down tomato planter

Though my first attempt at an upside down tomato planter worked out great, I have a habit of forgetting to water the plants everyday.  More commonly when we have decent rains when only the hanging tomato planters need to be watered.  So this year I have modified my design a little to make this a little easier.  As a bonus you can create this new version much quicker and minimal tools.

Materials required

  • Empty 2-liter bottle
  • Spray paint
  • Drill or hot nail
  • Chopstick or 1/4 in stick


Step 1 — Cut off bottom


There is a natural ridge at the bottom of the two liter bottle, simply cut at this ridge and remove the bottom.

Step 2 — Attach water reservoir


Take the removed bottom, flip it over, and insert it into the bottom of the bottle until flush with the top.

Step 3 — Drills Holes

First you need to drill a small hole in the bottom of the reservoir (the bottom you cut of)  Use the smallest drill bit you have, this will reduce the water flow coming into the planter during rainfall and/or manual watering.  With this reduced flow there should be much less soil loss during watering.


Second you need to drill two holes about 1/4 inch from the edge with a 1/4 inch drill bit.  It is a little difficult to get enough pressure against the plastic to make this hole without causing the plastic to collapse.  To take care of this place a small piece of wood on the floor and drill the holes from the inside.


Step 4 — Paint planter


You want to protect the roots from being exposed to direct sunlight so you need to cover the outside.  This can be done with contact paper, duct tape (as I have done in the past) or for a fast cleaner look just quickly add a quick coat of spray paint to the outside.  It is probably best to use paint that is made to adheres well to plastic, though in my case I had some nice multipurpose light green paint leftover from another project that with a few hard rains appears to be holding up well.
Step 5 — Secure with stick (chopstick) and fill with soil

DIY Upside down tomato planter #2

Now add your plant (tomatoes and peppers are my favorites) to the bottom (previously the top) of the planter by carefully pushing the roots through the hole or alternatively you can the plant out from the inside.  If your plant is too large to do this safely you may also cut a larger opening in the bottom, but I would recommend wrapping a sponge or coffee filter around the plant to assist in keeping the dirt in the planter.

Fill your planter with a mixture of 1 part perlite to 2 parts (potting mix, peat moss, coconut coir) with the top 1/2 inch being only (potting mix, peat moss, coconut coir)  After a couple of waterings, this 1/2 inch layer will compact and restrict the water flow for a slower and more distributed watering.

DIY Upside down tomato planter #3

Use the thinner end of your chopsticks to thread it through both holes and both sets of plastic, attach a piece of twine attached to bother ends, and hang wherever the plants can get some good full sunshine and you should have plenty of early tomatoes this summer.

Make your own upside down tomato planter

upside down tomato planter

Every time my daughter sees the upside down tomato planter (Topsy Turvy) commercial on TV she asks when we can grow tomatoes upside down.  I am definitely not one to pay $15 to $20 to buy one of these things in the store when I could have the fun of making my own for much less money.

Though this has been commercialized recently, the concept growing plants upside down is not a new one.  Many people have been growing plants like tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets or hanging baskets for decades.  Not having any spare bucket or hanging basket to sacrifice I went with my daughters suggestion and used a 2 liter bottle.

Materials required for you upside down tomato planter

  • Empty 2-liter bottle
  • Eye bolt with washer
  • Duct tape, contact paper, or spray paint
  • Drill or hot nail


Step 1 — Create access hole

Make a hole on the side of bottle, this has two purposes: it allows adding soil much easier and also provides an convenient way to water your plant.  I used a 2-inch hole cutter, though you may also carefully cut a hole with a knife.


Step 2 — Add the hanger

By design 2-liter bottles are extra thick in on the bottom immediate center which will make a perfect place to hang it.  I used a drill of the same diameter as the eye bolt.  This allowed me to thread the bolt right into the bottle, which was pretty strong it itself.  Though expecting a great harvest, I also added a bolt to prevent the discovery of my plant on the ground after having a hard fall.


Step 3 — Covering your planter

Roots can be damaged if exposed to light for long periods of time so you need to cover your planter.  You should consider color depending on where you live.  In colder regions a darker color will help keep the soil warm on cool mornings, though in hotter climates a dark color could fry the plant.  I would recommend a medium to light green color for moderate heat absorption and little more aesthetically pleasing in the garden.  Not having any paint I used good ole duct tape.  Wrapping around the entire bottle (even covering the access hole.


I then cut an X through the access hole and bent the corners in to soften the rough edges caused by cutting the hole.


Step 4 — Decorate (optional unless you have kids)

We used permanent markers to personalize both of my daughters upside down tomato planters.


This completes the construction of your upside down tomato planter.  I will admit the first design flaw of this planter is its size.  It will be fine for root growth but it can dry out very quickly.  In response to this water retention was my primary concern when deciding on medium to fill the planters with.

I chose 2 parts (peat moss or coconut coir okay substitutes) , 1 part perlite, and 1 part Groden granulatesWonderSoil it contains coconut coir which retains water well but also contains water retaining polymers.  The perlite and Groden granulates both provide water retaining properties an allow for proper aeration for easy unrestricted root growth.

To give the plants a good head start I also mixed in a couple of tablespoons of bone meal and tablespoon of balanced organic fertilizer.  Add some water until the mix has the consistency of a wrung out sponge .

Lastly I used my tomato plants from my hydroponic experiment and carefully fed the roots into the now bottom opening of the bottle.  We then added our soil mix until it reached the bottom of the access hole.  Given the plants had a well established root system just the friction and weight of the soil is enough to keep the plant from falling out


Even though the medium retains water well the plants should be watered every day to the point until some water comes out the bottom.  Within 24 hours we can already see the leaves turning over to face the sun.

You can also try other heat loving plants such as peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini.  So if you every wanted to try growing plants upside down with the directions above you can have your own for less than $0.50.

If you want something a little more aesthetically pleasing there is always the commercial option, this one from Gardener’s Supply seems much more sturdy than the ones I have seen on TV:
upside down tomato planter


UPDATE: 05/24/09


It has finally started to get a little warmer at night in my garden so seems like a good time for a little update on the upside down tomato planter.  I wish I could give a direct comparison of the growth of these plants with plants a planted at the same time in the ground though unfortunately we had a light freeze that killed them off.  Interesting enough both plants in the upside down tomato planter survived and even are showing some small blossoms.


Now as part of my pepper planting experiment, I also put a pepper plant in an upside down tomato planter with much less exciting success.  Just to test if my super paranoid water retention worries had any backing I simply filled this one with regular potting mix.  And the plant dried out very quickly which shows in the following results.

upside down tomato planter

Given these results I am going to stick with my 2 parts WonderSoil (peat moss or coconut coir okay substitutes) , 1 part perlite, and 1 part Groden granulates recipe in the future.

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