Topy Maters and Gully Washers

Marie called me the other day and asked me if I’d seen those As Seen on TV upside down, hanging tomato planters in the magazines (we don’t watch television) and if I thought they’d really work.

The reason she asked was that she’d seen them in a local dollar store for a buck each. They had lots of them. She has seen the exact same product in our big-box department store for $8.99. The clerk in the dollar store said that the distributor and donated a semi-load of the things to the dollar store distribution center so all the stores in the region have cases and cases of the things to sell. Marie wanted to know if I’d care to try one out. If it worked as well as was advertised, she could get me more and next year I could take my tomato patch air borne. I answered that for a buck it can’t hurt to try. I even had a couple of volunteer tomato plants that had come up in places I didn’t want them, courtesy of bird droppings.

The thing is essentially a heavy vinyl cylinder with a plastic plate at the bottom and a steel hoop at the top. This bottom plate has a hole, approximately 3″ in diameter in the center of it with a ring standing up from the inside surface a little larger in diameter than the hole, forming a lip inside the ring. This ring holds a disk of dense foam rubber that is slit half way across. The idea is to poke the root of the tomato plant up through the hole on the bottom plate, slip the disk onto the stem of the young tomato plant just above (or below, since we’re working with it upside down) the root ball and seat the disk in the ring on the bottom plate.

Then, we fill the cylinder with a high quality potting soil – I used the Mel’s Mix formula used in the planting boxes in the garden. The key here is to put the “dirt” in GENTLY, at least to start, to avoid crushing the root ball and stem.

I could see even before starting that the problem here was going to be in holding the container up to avoid crushing the plant hanging out the bottom, while filling it with a couple cubic feet of soil – which would get heavy pretty quickly. I solved the problem by simply driving a stout nail into a post on my loading dock (a left-over from my furniture building days) to hold the planter at a convenient height for filling, yet keep it off the floor so the plant doesn’t get mooshed underneath. This worked very well.

Three steel cables swaged around the hoop at the top lead up to a heavy swivel/loop hanger in the center. There is also a lid that fits over the top end that forms a shallow funnel toward a hole in the center for watering, but will help keep debris out. The lid is slotted to fit over the support cables, but getting it installed after filling was something of a wrestling match.

I mounted a plant hanger bracket on a post where it would receive sunlight most of the day, and used a real heavy “S” hook to hang the filled up planter on the hanger. This thing has to be watered every day. It has drain holes in the bottom to release excess water so the roots don’t rot, and the swivel allows me to turn it to expose all sides to the sunshine, and to ease picking tomatoes off it later on.

The manufacturer claims the vinyl will not break down in the sun so the planter will last for many years. Having to water them daily could put some people off, because they only have to water the rest of the garden once a week (twice a week at most). My initial thoughts are that it is solidly built and the theory explained in the pamphlet that comes with it seems sound. It might just work. As to whether it works any better than my planter boxes – I’ll have to get back to you on that later.

* * * * *

On Monday of this week we had a gully-washer rain storm. Lots of rain came down very fast, the water ran down slopes faster than normal and washed out some areas and many driveways; including one of ours.

There is a long driveway that runs from the hard road up the hill and around a bend to my workshop / office / lumber yard. When my Mom & Step-Dad decided to move here, seven or eight years ago, we wanted to put their house up by the workshop – at the time, what is now my workshop was our home and what is now a lumber storage shed was my workshop – but the “steep” driveway scared the willies out of them, being flatlanders from Nebraska, so they wanted their house put in at the bottom of the hill, as close to the road as possible. So we carved out a flat spot down there and put their house in at the bottom of the hill. Their driveway branches off of the drive that goes up to the workshop, and I installed an 16 inch diameter tile in the drainage ditch where their drive crosses it to allow for proper drainage. Most of the time drainage is OK. Gully washers are the exception.

This photo shows a portion of our side yard. This is the area we laughingly call our “lawn”. Just out of frame to the left is my workshop and lumber yard, just out of frame to the right is our house (I’m standing at the back of our house to take the photo). That’s Mom’s house, our storage barn for lawn and gardening equipment and of course my garden. Mom’s driveway is between her house and the barn. This area encompasses… maybe a half an acre; maybe a little less. Behind me as a took this shot is another half-acre, maybe a little more of equally sloping land that I have reclaimed from the forest by cutting out all the brush and smaller tress. Beyond that are hundreds of acres of virgin forest on it’s way up to the mountain ridge above us.

In a gentle rain, most of the rain water is absorbed by the forest floor and our “lawn” and does no damage. In a gully washer the ground becomes saturated and can to take on no more, so the excess rolls along over the top and picks up velocity as it goes. This is rarely a problem in the forest because God knows how to take care of his creation and the fallen leaves and ground cover form an armor plating that holds the soil in place. But where we “silly creatures” (to borrow a term from Fraggle Rock) decide to tear things up, remove the leaves and tailor everything to suit our tastes, it’s different. Three inches of rain in two hours will do a fair bit of destruction if it is not channeled properly.

Last fall I detailed the digging of a proper ditch to replace one of my feeble hand-dug efforts, and that has proven to be an immeasurable improvement, for that driveway and not washed out since. But, I never have done much to direct the water that rolls along the photographed expanse, through my garden and across Mom’s driveway. The flood or water washed a considerable amount of mud, rock and debris into my formerly pristine, Mel’s Mix filled planter boxes, then proceeded to carve great runnels out of mom’s graveled driveway and out in the main drive, it joined with water flowing down from the top of the drive and excavated channels deep enough to make the drive unusable until we got them filled it a bit. A couple of hours with a garden rake allowed me to move enough gravel around to make things passable again. If you’ve never tried raking gravel – up hill – let me clue you in should you ever try: keep the Advil handy; your shoulders are going to HURT!

So, after the damage has been done I decided it was time to actually DO what I had been considering for several years, but kept putting off because it’s just about my least favorite job: ditch digging.

After the rain I got out a narrow spade and dug one of my piddly lil hand-dug ditches from about 8 feet in front of the barn all the way down to the main drive, next to the uphill end of Mom’s driveway tile (some would call it a culvert). This is NOT sufficient to handle a gully washer, but it’s a start.

The rains stopped and we were expecting 3 days or more of clear, sunny days, so I let the wet, heavy, clumps of red clay dry out a bit before carting them way up to the other side of the house where we have a hole I want to fill in. Why is it that the place we need dirt is NEVER downhill from the place we are removing dirt?

This ditch will need to be 3 times as wide and twice as deep at the lower end (by the tile) and taper in as it climbs the hill to the top. I’m still trying to decide how to line the ditch to prevent the clay from collapsing into the ditch and clogging it in a heavy rain. To use rock big and heavy enough to stay put in a torrent would mean having to dig the ditch even bigger than I’m planning, and that, simply, is more work than I want to put into it considering that it will be done by just me, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow. If I had access to a small backhoe, I’d be happy to dig another Panama Canal, if that’s what it took. But not by hand; I’m getting too old for that sort of stuff.

Things I’ve considered include using rectangular pavers, angling the sides out and smearing an inch of concrete into it, and simply lining it with black plastic. If you have other ideas, or an opinion on these, I’d love to hear it. I’ll let you know what I decide – and whether it works out – in a later episode.

For now, I’m just glad I don’t live in Montana, Missouri, or Iowa where the residents are having to deal with *really* serious flooding problems. My heart goes out to those folks. Thanks for reading, please come by again next time.

Published on Jul 6, 2011

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