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Indoor Vegetable Garden with Topsy Turvy Planters and Window Boxes

One cool product that I’ve had the pleasure of using is the Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Tomato Planter. (Note: I’ve since stumbled up on DIY version of this product made with 5-gallon buckets. How cool is that?) It’s kind of an experimental product as is, and I was using it in an even more experimental way. I got the Topsy Turvy so that I could utilize the vertical space in my indoor container garden. Not being able to grow a garden would have been the bane of my college dorm room existence…. but I wasn’t about to let someone tell me that I couldn’t do it.

I had a couple of things going for me. First, I had a south facing window, which means I had sunlight for the greater part of the day (although, the inconvenient placing of a tree stole part of it from me). Second, I had very wide windows.

I couldn’t just hang my Topsy Turvy planters in any old way, since I was renting the dorm room and would have to pay for any damages. What I did was, I got a wooden dowel from the local lumber yard, and Adjustable Shower Rod End Flanges from the local hardware store (these have rubber ends, and you twist them to add more tension, and thus secure the wooden dowel in the window sill). They only cost me $2-3 at the hardware store. I then cut the dowel to size – with the saw on my pocket knife, no less – according to the directions that came with the flanges, and then secured it in place. I drilled a large hole through a board and placed it in the middle of the dowel to add extra support for the planters, as they can be quite heavy.

With the Topsy Turvy you either have to get plants that are already started, or start them yourself. You cannot grow from seed inside the planter. Add some soil to the planter, shake most of the dirt off of the plants roots, and insert the plant according to the instructions that come with the planter. Soil will settle after you water it, so be sure to add more than you think you need (or add it after you hang the planter).

Here’s a shot of my freshly planted garden, which includes my tomato and cucumber plants inside the Topsy Turvies (they’re not just for tomatoes after all), and then green onions, lettuce, radishes, and Parisian Market carrots (which grow round like radishes rather than long like typical carrots) in window boxes. My tomato and cucumber are both early season varieties so that they don’t require as long (or as much sun) to mature and they’re also compact varieties that have been developed to grow in containers in tight spaces.

And a few from later in the season when growth had really taken off (it’s not the best photo in the world, but you can sort of see some of the small cucumbers in the second photo):

Unfortunately, this was my first attempt at container gardening, and it was indoors to boot. I was guilty of both over and underwatering my plants. I did combat this some with the Topsy Turvy by cutting the top off of a gallon jug, and then cutting small holes into the bottom which I stuffed with bits of paper towel. I could then just keep the jug filled up and it would slowly wick water into the planter (this also kept water from dripping all over my window sill, since it didn’t land in the window boxes as much as I would have liked).

On top of the watering issues, the tomato just wouldn’t put on very impressive fruit. Got quite a few blooms, but there was either a lack of sun, a lack of fertilizer, or both. That didn’t surprise me though. We had an unusually cool and cloudy summer, so even outdoor tomatoes struggled.

Ultimately, what killed my Topsy Turvy plants was the fact that I had to move during the growing season. Because the plants grow out of the bottom of the planter they’re very difficult to move over long distances… especially if you have no way to hang them up once you get where you’re going. The plants were severely damaged in the moving process and never recovered. I’m eager to try again this year though, because I should be able to stay in one place throughout the growing season. After all, my indoor veggie garden wasn’t a total failure:



  1. Hey look! I’m famous! Haha…

    I hope those of you that don’t have any land or outdoor space to garden in are inspired by the first iteration of my windowsill garden experiment.

    Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I am experimenting with my first container garden at my home, and it is a lot harder to grow things without much light (no patio either). Am seriously considering buying a grow light of some type. Advice? Also, I saw and desired the topsy turvys, but am on limited income. Have two large Arrowhead bottles. Can’t I just cut holes in the top and bottom and it will work the same? Can you share how to place the plant (top secret topsy turvy directions)?
    And did your move come with more grow space?
    I really enjoyed your story because you are a beginner. It makes making mistakes feel less foolish when someone else does it too. I over, and under water as well. I am a nervous nellie, staring at my plants willing them to grow. It’s kind of silly I suppose.
    I had better get over it. I also will be trying to grow a large large garden simultaneously at a friend’s house who is letting me go at it full on even though I have only gardened once before 20 years ago in college! I can barely remember it but I was all organic and used the french double high bed and the trench around it–very similar to swales of the permaculture method. I had very good success, growing broccoli, peas, basil, tomatoes, garlic and onion.
    There is a seriously storm damaged green-house in the yard with glass everywhere and the hugest escargot problem I have ever seen (snails) So far I have put out seedlings three times that have only served as snail hors d’ourves , for the snails!! not of the snails!! I mean just eaten to the bone.
    So now, I am searching everywhere for copper to put up to prevent them crossing and have not yet scored any but hope to. Also I am collecting the snails to ‘purify’ by feeding them safe greens for a couple weeks while I work up the nerve to try and eat them. I also feed them to her lone hen, named ‘chiky wiky’.
    There is also alot of rot and weird scary smells (not chemical animal waste or worse) and fungi, and broken glass and cans and things, and way too many unproductive bushes, trees, ivy and low light. She has a dog, is their waste hazardous to veggie gardens?
    I also suspect a human or two has pooped back there. If I cover the suspicious areas with clay dirt, and then put raised beds on that, it is pretty safe, yes?
    I have cut back the trees a little, made some paths through, and will begin making indoor seedlings again soon.The snails ate the earlier attempts in the damaged greenhouse because they can easily get in. I will soon be trying to find out where to get eco-friendly greenhouse plastic to repair it. Advice? I have looked online and it all looks the same.
    I am so scared I am going to mess this garden up. We actually both really need the food. We live in SF CA, and are both on disability. Yards are rare and precious here.
    anyhow, no way to learn without getting in there and trying it.
    Oh, and she already has worm composting going on.
    And chinchillas. She claims it is safe to use chinchilla droppings in the veggie garden.
    Any knowledge?
    Also, on urban gardening safety, I have researched on the net and can’t tell which are the simplest and most comprehensive soil test kits regarding soil safety–any knowledge you want to share?
    One more thing, she has a pile of rotting compost with no sawdust or tarp or anything–it’s quite disgusting. And scary, I think. What do I do with it to make it safe? Buy a tarp? Buy some microbes? Buy sawdust? She saved a bunch of Christmas trees (she saves everything, which is kind of cool except for the untended compost pile) Would pine needles purify it?
    I see you said DIY-that’s do it yourself–so you do know of trying these upside down containers for free…good, the store version is 20 dollars a go here in SF! I love your dowel idea–and the wood with the drilled hole. Very inventive.
    I also really like the wicking jug idea. You are an inventor!
    Thanks again for your lovely candor
    cheers, Pam

  3. Hi, Pam! I actually had tentative plans to move to the SF Bay area, though they’ve been put on hold. Nice to see a fellow west-coaster.

    As far as your questions go, I’ll try to answer them with the limited knowledge I’ve gained over the past four years, and hopefully others will chime in with more concrete advice.

    If you want to make your own upside down planters, here’s a video: If you don’t have extra plastic buckets laying around you can usually get materials like that for free on Craigslist or Freecycle. Reuse when you can.

    Open composting piles are fine, that’s what we do out at the farm, but it does sound like your friend’s is a little heavy on the kitchen scraps since you’re describing it as rotting… that suggests it’s not the best experience. I wouldn’t quote me on the science, but I believe the kitchen scraps are heavy in nitrogen, so you need things like grass to balance it out with carbon. Don’t know if I have that exactly right, but it’s the same solution regardless. Whenever we add any kitchen scraps or nitrogenous materials, we add a dressing of straw or grass clippings to keep it in balance. If it’s outdoors, the worms and other microbes will come to it as soon as it’s suitable for them to live in. If you try to add them on your own, they’ll either die or leave. You might still be able to save your pile, it all depends on how much “brown” material you have to add to it. Many worm bins include shredded newspaper as bedding material for the worms and as so-called “brown” material. Someone else might be able to tell you if that’s a good idea or not, but you could try adding scrap paper to balance it out. Also, stale bread or old rice might help. Without seeing it, I can only make wild stabs.

    Good for you, eating the snails! I just tried meal worms a few weeks ago. It’s a strange experience since here in the west we’ve been inculcated to believe that bugs aren’t food… but they were actually pretty tasty once I got over that. There is some concern about collecting bugs from an urban environment; you don’t know what kind of toxins they’ve absorbed in their bodies. I have instructions in one of my entomophagy (bug-eating) posts for preparing earth worms. It includes soaking them overnight. That might do the trick for the snails. And, as far as keeping them out of your veggies goes, I’ve heard that putting a ring of coffee grounds and crushed egg shells around the plants help.

    Manure is nature’s fertilizer. All of it should be safe, but there are often processes of curing and such that it undergoes before being used in vegetable gardens. That said, it should be fine. The only concern I can think of is that getting manure directly on a plant may burn it–I’ve never witnessed this first hand, but that’s what I’ve been told.

    About the soil testing: don’t do it. At least, that’s the advice I’ve always been given. The basic premise is that if you don’t have many acres, it’s just not cost effective. The money is better spent on soil amendments. You might be too far south for it to be relevant, but you might look at Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon. The geologic history of the area practically guarantees that the soil is leached of almost all minerals except potassium, which we have in high quantities. You might be too far south for that to be relevant, but you might try is organic fertilizer mixture. You could also do a “jar test.” That won’t show you the soils fertility, but it will show you how much clay, sand, etc. you have. It might be a good start. If you have poor soil, root vegetables like carrots and beets (and dandelions) tend to do well in them.

    And my move? No. It didn’t come with more space. It came with less. But I survived. The college years are the worse. Everything is fleeting and temporary. Educators and administrators could take a few things from permaculture…

  4. Sorry you didn’t get more space, but yeah, college is brief though it feels long when you’re there.
    About the soil test- I was only interested in determining if there were lead and pesticide problems.
    The soil does have alot of dandelions, and is damp and clay-ey. I will look into finding the book you recommended for the veggies. Thanks for the lengthy and considerate response and the link.
    The prep for snails is to confine them and feed them safe greens from your trees or whatever for two weeks before consumption.
    I hope college is interesting and you make valuable friends.

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