By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning writer and owner of Tomato Dirt, a leading online source of for growing tomatoes in the home garden.
Can you grow tomatoes in pots successfully and get luscious, juicy fruit to enjoy all season long? Plenty of gardeners do so. Recent statistics show that 21.2 million Americans grow plants in containers. And that’s not counting the millions of others across the world. After herbs, tomatoes are the next-favorite crop that home gardeners grow in containers.
One of the beauties of growing container tomatoes is that you don’t need a lot of room. In fact, you don’t need real estate. If you’ve got a patch of sun, you can grow tomatoes in pots. Maybe your spot is on a patio, deck, balcony, driveway, rooftop – even a fire escape.
Whether you grow tomatoes in pots or grow tomatoes in a traditional garden, you follow many of the same gardening principles. But container tomatoes have some unique needs. Meet those needs and you can grow tomatoes in pots easily and successfully. And you can harvest a bumper crop without managing an entire garden.
Tomatoes like heat. To thrive and produce their best crop, they need 6-8 hours of sun a day. Grow tomatoes in pots in areas where they’ll soak up those rays, such as a sunny balcony or a patio that’s not shaded by trees or buildings. If temperatures drop below 50 degrees, bring the plants inside or protect them from the cold by covering them with frost protection (like Wall-o-Water or individual plant covers).
Hauling buckets of water each day can get old quickly. Choose a spot grow tomatoes in pots that’s convenient to your water source since you’ll water daily (or nearly daily) in the heat of the season. If your container tomatoes are located a bit of a distance from a spigot, then consider investing in a garden hose to make watering more convenient.
Convenience goes beyond watering. Choose an accessible spot so you can monitor your plants for diseases and pests and to check on how well they’re ripening as they mature.
The larger the pot, the happier the tomato plant. Look for containers that are at least 24 inches deep and at least 12 inches in diameter – two feet across is even better. Five-gallon buckets are good containers for growing tomatoes in pots.
Be sure your container has drain holes in it or drill them yourself. Containers without drainage holes or proper drainage material in the bottom can make your tomatoes are vulnerable to root rot. Good drainage solves most over-watering issues!
The best soil to grow tomatoes in pots is not garden soil or even potting soil … it’s potting mix. Tomatoes grown in containers need a loose, well-drained growing medium with lots of organic matter. Potting soil can be too heavy for containers. Soil collected straight from the garden is most likely infested with fungi, weed seeds, and pests. Choose a good potting mix or save money by make your own. Always moisten your potting mix slightly before planting.
Buy tomato seedlings rather than starting your plants from seed. Seedlings give instant gratification and quicker results, which are especially important for first-time gardeners. By using plants, you’ll also remove some variables that come with starting seeds.
The best tomatoes for containers are varieties that don’t get too large and have a compact habit. Look for tomato varieties that are labeled “bush,” “compact,” or “patio.” Many will be determinate tomatoes, which grow to a certain height and then stop. Some options are …
Plant container tomatoes deeply. A tomato plant produces roots along its buried stem. The more stem you can get in the ground, the stronger its root system will be and the sturdier the plant will become. A strong root system is important for your container tomatoes because their roots cannot go beyond the container’s sides to absorb water.
When you’re ready to plant your tomato seedling in its container, take these steps:
A 2-inch layer of mulch over the surface of your container tomato helps preserve moisture. Straw, pine bark, ground leaves, shredded hard wood – they’re all good choices for mulching your tomatoes.
If you grow tomatoes in pots on a patio, balcony, driveway, or along a fence, they may be exposed to wind. And while their roots will fill the pot, they cannot create extensive root systems anchor them and help them withstand the elements. Give them extra support on the topside with tomato cages, stakes, or ladders. And don’t wait too long to add support. Do so soon after you plant the tomato in the container. This way, you won’t interrupt the root system.
If there’s just one tip you need to follow when growing tomatoes in pots, it’s this: water consistently.
It’s common for tomatoes grown in pots to suffer from a “drought-and -drown” cycle. Containers are above ground. They dry out quickly so you’ll need to check the soil often. A tomato plant’s roots dry out in the heat of the summer. But when watered too often or without adequate drainage, they can be flooded quickly. Keeping container tomatoes watered satisfactorily is a huge challenge.
One solution to this problem is to grow tomatoes in pots that are self-watering. A self-watering tomato planter helps moderate that stress and make consistent water available to plants. The planter doesn’t dry out every day. It doesn’t “forget” to water. Nor does it over water. If you grow tomatoes in a self-watering planter, you can go away for a weekend or even on vacation and not worry about your plants.
Another option: try a container irrigation system or a drip irrigation kit. You can set your irrigation on a timer, too, so plants will be watered even if you forget to do so.
If you choose to water manually, check the plant daily. Insert your finger in the soil. If it’s not moist at a depth of two inches, then water. Plan to water daily during the heat of the summer.
Nutrients leach out of tomato containers as you water them. And while tomatoes have strong root systems, those roots cannot extend outside the container’s walls to find extra nutrients. You need to give them extra food. When you create a tomato feeding plan, you can replace nutrients in the container soil. An efficient way to fertilize tomatoes is with a water-soluble fertilizer (such as Miracle Gro Tomatoes or fish emulsion) which you can apply as you water the plants.
“At about 2 weeks after planting, begin watering weekly with a soluble fertilizer. Until the plants begin flowering, you can use a balanced fertilizer with a 1-1-1 ratio such as 20-20-20,” say the good folks at PennState Extension. “Once flowering, change over to a high potassium fertilizer. Most fertilizers blended for tomatoes fit this description.”
When you grow tomatoes in pots, you give plants mobility. Containers needn’t stay in one spot all season.
Young plants can come indoors when the forecast is for a frost or freeze. As the season progresses you may find that your mature tomato plants dry out quickly in their containers. But if you move them to an area on your patio, yard, or balcony where they may get less heat or exposure, they’ll experience less daily stress. And as summer turns to fall, you can extend your tomato harvest by once again transferring plants inside when cool temperatures threaten overnight.
You’ve been diligent to plant deeply, water regularly, and feed consistently. Now, your tomato plants are returning the love with juicy, flavorful fruit. Keep an eye on them. Harvest those beauties when they are completely ripe and don’t leave them on the plant to rot. Doing so will impact the other fruit that’s waiting patiently on the vine to turn color.
More Container Tomato Growing Tips
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