Sweet tomatoes bursting with juice and freshly plucked from the vine add a bit of sunshine to any meal. Tomatoes are yellow, orange, pink, striped and even green when ripe, not just red. Shapes include pear, plum, cherry, grape, ribbed and round. Unfortunately the tomatoes from the grocery store have been bred to travel well, be the same size, turn red off the vine and resist bruising. Flavor and variety don’t even make the short list. If you’re short of yard space or have no yard at all, growing your own tomatoes is still an option: grow tomatoes in containers. While tomatoes aren’t fussy, they do have a few must-have requirements: rich soil, consistent watering, regular feeding and six hours of sunlight each day.
Types of Tomato Plants
Select a variety of tomato plant that does well in your area and in containers. Tomatoes come in two types: discriminate and indiscriminate. Discriminate simply means that the tomato plant flowers, sets fruit and the fruit ripens all at the same time, sort of like an apple tree. Discriminate tomatoes mean your harvest is ready all at once. That’s fine’s if you plan on giving away some of the crop or making batches of tomato sauce, otherwise you might find yourself inundated with tomatoes.
Indiscriminate simply means that the tomato produces flowers, immature fruit and ripe fruit all summer long and is probably a better choice for gardening in containers. As long as the ripe fruit is picked and the weather is still warm the plant will keep blossoming and setting fruit. Varieties that do well in pots are bushier and don’t grow as tall as vining tomatoes for the garden. “Sweet 100’s,” “Patio Pick,” “Patio Princess,” “Health Kick,” and “Sweetheart of the Patio” are just a few suggestions to get you started.
Selecting The Right Tomato Container
Choose the right container. It must have ample drainage and that means holes in the bottom. If there aren’t holes, drill them or find another pot. Measure the pot across the top. Eighteen inch pots are the minimum size for tomatoes as they have ample root systems. Twenty-four inches is even better. Deep pots are better than shallow pots. Twelve inches deep is the minimum. Twenty-four inches gives the roots more room.
Place the pot where it receives adequate sunlight. Put coffee filters in the bottom of the pot so the soil stays inside and excess water drains out. A layer of newspapers will work as well. This isn’t critical but it will keep your patio, balcony or deck cleaner.
Fill the pot halfway with new potting soil. Don’t use garden dirt. It compacts and hardens easily making the tomato’s feeder roots work to grow through it. There’s also the chance of disease and fungus being transferred to your new plants. Mix in slow release fertilizer per package directions. Water the soil so it settles.
Planting Tomatoes in Containers
Take the tomato plant out of its nursery container. For plants up to one gallon size–that’s how much soil the container holds–remove all the leaves from 8 inches of the stem to the root ball, leaving 4 to 6 sturdy leaves at the top of the plant.
Place the tomato in the pot. Bury the stem up to the remaining leaves on top. Fill the pot with soil up to within 2 inches of the top. Tomatoes root along the stem, by burying the stem you’re giving the plant a good start. Water the plant again.
Tomatoes are a warm weather vegetable which means they need warm soil to grow in and long warm days for the tomatoes to set and ripen. If it’s below 60 degrees during the day where you live, wrap a black garbage bag around the pot. Don’t block the drainage holes. The bag will absorb the heat from the sunlight and warm up the soil. When days reach 70 degrees the bag is no longer needed.
Cool down soil temperatures when the temperature reaches 85 degrees by wrapping a white garbage bag around the pot, placing the pot inside another pot, or wrapping bamboo fencing around the container. The bamboo fencing looks more attractive than the white garbage bag and won’t blow away if wired together in the back.
Watering and Feeding Container Tomatoes
Keep the plants watered but not over watered. The easiest way to tell if the plant needs water is to use your finger as a dip stick. Stick it in the potting soil; if the soil feels moist you don’t need to water. If the soil feels dry, water the plant. Deep waterings are better than shallow waterings. Fill the pot until the water reaches the brim of the pot.
During hot dry summers or very windy conditions the pots may need to be watered every day.
Every month give the plants a deep watering to flush out accumulated salts from the water. Fill the pot with water several times and let drain.
Fertilize the pots after the first two months–the slow release food should take care of the plant until then–with water soluble food. Feed at half the strength as the package directs but twice as often.
Setting Fruit on Container Tomatoes
Ideally tomato plants require temperatures above 55 degrees at night and below 90 degrees during the day to set fruit. They also require humidity between 40% to 70% and of course insects to do the pollinating. Raise the humidity by squirting with water. Use a commercial spray specifically made to get the tomato to set fruit. Or do the pollinating yourself. Every morning, dust each flower with a soft brush transferring the pollen from flower to flower. Tomatoes in containers may be moved inside during a cold streak or out of the sun during a heat wave.
Enjoy! All that’s left is to wait for your tomatoes to ripen and then enjoy.
Container Options for Growing Tomatoes?
Looking for container ideas for your tomatoes? Here’s a round up of some products available from Clean Air Gardening.
Stick to a dwarf variety of tomatoes if you’re going to use this upside down tomato planter, because otherwise the tomato plant will grow too big for the container. Makes a great conversation piece! $79.
This self watering tomato planter is straight up awesome. Designed in Italy, it’s the coolest tomato planter that you’ll ever find, period. It comes with a tomato cage that fits it perfectly. It has a water indicator so that you can see when it needs rewatering. And the reservoir holds 4 gallons, so you can leave for the weekend and be okay. Did I mention it’s awesome?
The Garden Patch self watering planter is similar to the one above, except that it’s made in the USA. It isn’t quite as elegant, but it does a great job of growing tomatoes. I have one of these at my house from 2009, although I was using it to grow herbs in, because I have a raised bed garden for tomatoes. $49 without the staking kit. Staking kit is $28 extra.
The Tomato Grow Bag isn’t your prettiest gardening container by any means, but it’s very effective at growing tomatoes. Unlike clay or plastic pots, these grow bags will conform to the shape of the ground. As it hugs the ground, the cloth pot helps equalize soil temperature with the ground temperature, and avoids some of the common problems with heat stress that kill off potted plants. Cheap too, at just $12.99.
Don’t forget a tomato cage to go with your tomato grow bag, or any other container large enough for full sized tomato varieties.
Who could forget the Topsy Turvy Upside Down Tomato Planter? Do I really need to say more about this one?