By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning writer and owner of Tomato Dirt, a leading online source of for growing tomatoes in the home garden.
Container tomatoes present a few unique challenges when compared with growing tomatoes in a garden plot.
For one thing, you need to water containers on a consistent schedule – even daily during the height of summer. A container tomato plant cannot extend its roots more deeply into the soil, so you need to make amends for that. Garden tomatoes, on the other hand, grow deep root systems and can thrive when watered in tandem with local rainfall.
Yet another issue: staking. Gardeners with plenty of room in their patch may choose to forego tomato stakes or cages, particularly for their determinate tomatoes – those with a bushy habit. Plants can sprawl across mulched areas and still produce.
Yet container tomatoes don’t have that luxury. Typically, they’re in a limited space. Plus, tomatoes in pots have balance working against them. As plants extend up, they become top-heavy with fruit, branches, and leaves, making them vulnerable to toppling.
That’s a big reason that staking container tomatoes is an excellent idea. Stakes and cages provide support so branches and stems don’t break. The added support helps container plants remain upright during wind or heavy rain. Plus, when you stake container tomatoes you can watch plants carefully for diseases, pests, and ripening fruit because you’ll see interior leaves and blossoms easily.
Here are tips for staking your container tomatoes to give you the healthiest plants and best yield.
Hands down, determinate tomatoes are the best varieties for growing in containers. Determinates have a compact growth habit and reach a predetermined height. That means they won’t exceed your container’s capacity, making them ideal for growing in pots. And since determinates don’t grow overly tall, you avoid the balance issue that can plague tomatoes in containers. Top-heavy plants, quite simply, can tumble over and get damaged.
Also called “bush tomatoes,” determinates average 2-4 feet in height. Some varieties top out at 5 feet tall, while other dwarf varieties never surpass 24 inches. Contrast that to indeterminates, which can reach 8 to 12 feet high or more, and it’s clear that shorter is better for container tomatoes.
Determinates reach their variety’s set height and produce fruit in a short window of about 2-4 weeks. If you choose a determinate variety for your container, be prepared for less production after the plant’s big wave. Oh, you’ll still get tomatoes, particularly if you’ve staked your plants and continue to water and fertilize them – but the volume will be much less than when the major portion of the crop comes in. (Alternatively, you can remove your determinate tomato from its pot once it has faded and replace it with a fall planting.)
Regardless, both the longer-lasting indeterminates and shorter-lived determinates grow vigorously. They continually send up new stems, branches, and blossoms. That’s why support can only help tomatoes in containers. The exception is hanging tomatoes which, by definition, like to tumble over the sides of your planter.
Even if you choose determinates, the best tomatoes for containers are those that don’t get too large and have a compact habit. Look for tomato varieties that are labeled “bush,” “compact,” or “patio.” Good options for growing in containers are …
The top rule of thumb when growing tomatoes in pots: choose the largest container possible. A common mistake is to select a pot that is too small for the tomato variety.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders. They develop extensive root systems to support their meteoric movement from seed to fruit in a few short months. When grown in a large container they have the opportunity to extend those roots as deeply as possible.
The most successful containers provide balance for plants, which means they offer a sturdy base. No matter the container size, its base must be heavy enough to support the soil and plant.
This is particularly the case if the container bottom is narrower that the top or if the container is made of lightweight material, such as plastic, fiberglass, wire, or fabric (as with tomato bags). A healthy tomato plant can become top-heavy for its container unless the base is weighted.
The easiest way to anchor a pot is to cover the bottom of it with 2–3 inches of gravel or rocks before filling it with soil. As an added bonus, the stones and pebbles will provide good drainage for the plant.
The best time to stake a container tomato is when you plant it. This way, you can insert the stake or cage while you fill the pot.
By placing the stake or cage legs carefully around the plant’s root ball you avoid damaging the seedling’s root system. If you wait until the plant has gained height, its roots will start to extend into the container and you disturb new root growth.
You can choose from at least three different ways to stake your container tomato.
Tomato trellises and vertical strings are more appropriate staking methods for garden tomatoes rather than container tomatoes. They require overhead stringing and are suitable for multiple plants set in a row.
Yes. The exceptions: hanging tomatoes – those varieties with shallow root systems that sprawl and tumble over basket sides – and tomato varieties that are particularly small, such as Red Robin, Patio F, Elfin, or Micro Tom.
Otherwise, weigh down the bottom of the container for balance. And then choose staking method for your container tomatoes. You’ll keep them from toppling over in wind, rain, storms. They will reward you with healthy plants that are chock full of luscious, healthy fruit.
More about growing container tomatoes
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