Topsy-Turvy Houseplants: Cool or Cruel?

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Two upside down plants in Sky Planters. Note the croton (left) is struggling to redirect its foliage. The yucca hasn’t yet figured out what to with its predicament. Source: http://www.connox.com

Maybe you’ve seen them in a local garden center? Or on Pinterest? Houseplants hanging upside down in a long, narrow pot. Apparently, they’re very trendy … for now. For how long, no one knows.

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Sky Planter with its lock disc and mesh, ready to be planted up. Source: http://www.icollector.com

The container I’ve been seeing is the Boskke Sky Planter, from the United Kingdom. It’s designed so that you can hang the houseplant upside down and water from the pot’s top … which, under normal circumstances, would be the bottom.

Video showing how to install a plant in a sky planter. Source: Boskke Sky Planter

There’s a slow-release terra cotta water reservoir just inside the “top,” so the idea is water will slowly work its way from the reservoir to the plant’s roots without dripping. At the “bottom,” there is a mesh grid to hold the soil in place and a “locking disc” to hold the mesh, soil and plant solidly in place. The idea is to add water once a week or so (some models even have a “float stick” that lets you know when the water level is low). It’s quite an ingenious system (although some soil does fall out), but otherwise, does it really work?

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You water from the top, filling the reservoir. Source: http://www.connox.com

Sure! Why wouldn’t it? In nature, plants sometimes end up on their sides, although rarely completely upside down, after a hurricane, a landslide or other natural disaster and they recover and continue to grow as long as the new conditions are otherwise appropriate.

And there is nothing new about using a water reservoir to keep plant roots moist.

Why Do This?

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Yes, I suppose upside down plants are space-saving… but so are all hanging plants. Source: http://www.designforuse.com

On the Web sites promoting (and, for the most part, selling) Sky Planters, the prime reason given for hanging houseplants upside down is that the system is designed for people who don’t have a lot of living space. By suspending plants from the ceiling, it keeps the floor space clear. Plus it keeps the plants out of reach of cats and children. That makes sense, right?

Well, if you hang plants right side up in hanging baskets, you meet all those goals too. The “upside down” part really has no logical use. The Sky Planter is really mostly a gimmick.

Watching Plants Squirm

The interesting thing about this system is watching the plants scramble for survival once they’re hung upside down. They do the weirdest things in their desperate effort to recover from the cataclysm of being suddenly suspended the wrong side up!

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Dieffenbachia valiantly trying to right itself. Source: http://www.designforuse.com

Their leaves were originally all placed in such a way as to capture as much sunlight as possible and light usually comes from above and somewhat to one side. However, it’s now the underside of the leaf, where, in most plants, there are fewer photosynthetic cells, that gets the light. That means that the plant is suddenly light-starved. Either the old leaves have to turn around and grow upward or new correctly oriented leaves have to form. Most plants will try to do both.

In the garden center where I saw this system, there was a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) with leaves growing every which way rather than straight up the way one would expect: it looked like it was flailing about! Very odd … and actually, none too pretty! At the same time, there was a phalaenopsis orchid, in bloom, that seemed just fine. But then, if it was in bloom with its flower stems growing straight down, it had certainly been potted up that way quite recently. Growing flower stems would usually be the first things to orient themselves in an upward direction when you flip a plant over.

What to Grow Upside Down?

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Hanging English ivy. Source: http://www.einrichten-design.com

I expect that almost any plant will adapt to growing in upside down pots, at least eventually. The leaves will readjust their position, new stems will grow (upward, for most part) and thus the plant will essentially right itself and life will go on.

Hanging plants (English ivy, hoya, pothos, donkey tail sedum, etc.) are probably going to be the ones that look best in an upside down pot in the long run, as we grow them for their trailing stems anyway. Clumping plants won’t be too bad either, at least if you can train their soon-to-be upward growing stems so they grow all around the pot and not all to one side. Single-stemmed houseplants (scheffleras, dracaenas, dieffenbachias, etc.) will eventually look … very awkward as their stem bends nearly 180 degrees in an attempt to right itself and then grows up only one side of the pot.

Many epiphytic plants, i.e. plants that grow on tree branches in the wild, like most orchids, “air plants” (Tillandsia spp.) and some ferns (staghorn fern [Platycerium spp.], for example), are designed to grow in odd positions and won’t really care much if they grow upside down. Some of them have photosynthetic cells in about equal number on both sides of the leaf and thus won’t even struggle to right themselves.

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Herbs don’t like being grown indoors. They’ll like growing upside down even less. Source: onekindesign.com

Some Web sites recommend growing herbs or vegetables in Sky Planters … and indoors at that. That would make for an interesting short-term experiment, but neither herbs nor vegetables are easy to grow indoors and most die pretty quickly. Why make their struggle to survive all that much more complicated by planting them on their rear end to begin with.

Buying Sky Planters

Trendy stores do carry them, but do note that they soon learn to put artificial plants in Sky Planters, not live ones. (Less maintenance!) However, if you can’t find them locally, here are plenty of sources for these pots on the Internet. I’ll let you do your own digging. Be forewarned: they’re not cheap!

Try It Until You Get Tired of It

So, to answer the question in the title, growing houseplants upside down is both cool and a bit cruel, but hey! Human beings are renowned for mistreating plants (just think of spray-painted cactus and pruned-near-to-death bonsais). This kind of torture (oops! I meant treatment) is no worse than many others.

Have fun with your topsy-turvy plants and when you get tired of the ridiculousness of it, switch back to growing them the way most want to: right side up.

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