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Gardener hangs roots and his hat

Hanging pots under the carport of Foster Ellis’ home on Sherman Avenue hold the roots of tomato plants. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[06/12/01] Foster Ellis Sr. went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad in 1953, starting out as a gang laborer on tracks throughout the company’s 14-state service area.

It took only a few years of erratic work schedules and living in motels, Ellis said, to convince him he eventually wanted to return to Mississippi, retire and pursue his lifelong hobby, gardening.

“I said, Lord, just let me get back to Vicksburg and I’ll never leave the county again,” said Foster, now 66 and a resident of Sherman Avenue.

So far, both God and Foster have kept their ends of the bargain Foster’s been back in Vicksburg since 1983, and he said he hasn’t ventured north of Eagle Lake since 1986.

But Ellis’ tomato plants, now the pride of his garden, have no such roots they’re not even planted in the ground. Instead, the plants slump upside down from holes Ellis has bored in the bottoms of buckets hung in his Sherman Avenue garage. He planted them in the containers about two months ago, making sure their roots were at least 6 inches above the bottom. If the roots were less deep, Ellis said, the plants’ weight would pull them out of the buckets.

The upside-down oddities, he said, have become a major attraction in his neighborhood.

Ellis picks the red and green tomatoes for his neighbors, giving them away along with the apples, pears, plums and conventionally grown tomatoes that adorn his yard.

“Sometimes I tell the people that I like to stand on my head and pick the tomatoes upside down,” Ellis said, emitting a high chuckle at his own joke.

The women who walk by his house always laugh at that story, he said. For some reason, he said, the men never do.

Warren County Extension Agent Terry Rector said tomato plants have been grown upside down before, as well as by numerous other methods.

“It’s one of those plants that you can do all kinds of things with,” Rector said. “It just depends on what’s most practical.”

Rector said keeping the fruit off the ground helps ward off rot.

Ellis, however, said he didn’t have healthy vegetables in mind when he started cultivating his hanging tomato gardens 20 years ago.

“I like plants that produce things,” he said. “Plus, it’s just something different.”