Container Corner

How to Grow Tomatoes in Containers

By Sarah Marcheschi

There is just something about a ripe, juicy homegrown tomato that says the best part of the summer has arrived. A far cry from the hard, pale, flavorless variety that fill up grocery store produce sections, garden grown tomatoes take pride of place at my dinner table. I look forward to serving them in salads, sandwiches, and pasta dishes. If that fits your pallet as well, stay right here as this is an article about how to grow tomatoes in containers.

For Those with Limited Time and Space, Tomatoes Grown in Containers Are a Good Option

Tomatoes are the seedlings I most look forward to planting each spring. In fact, I always recommend starting with tomatoes when friends are looking to make the jump into edible gardening. After all, who doesn’t love selecting plants with names like “Sophie’s Choice” and “Whippersnapper”? And, there’s more good news. While tomatoes do require light, many varieties don’t need much space at all to grow. Examples of tomatoes that can be grown in containers include many types of cherry or grape tomatoes. Even full size “slicers” can be grown successfully in pots on a sunny deck, patio, balcony, or rooftop. Hey, they can be grown even on a fire escape!

The Best Varieties of Tomatoes to Grow in Containers

When selecting tomatoes to plant in containers, it’s a good idea to start with determinate, or “bush” varieties, so called because of their compact, bushy growth habit. Determinates generally grow no larger than 3-4 feet, then stop. All the tomatoes on the plant ripen around the same time, over the course of one or two weeks.

Cherry Tomatoes – Photo by Linzy Hotger

Since plants remain fairly small, they require little in the way of staking for support. That characteristic makes them an ideal choice for container planting. If you do go with an indeterminate variety, be sure to properly stake. Such plants can reach 6-12 feet in height, and will keep producing fruit throughout the growing season. Good support is essential to keep branches upright and fruit off the ground.

Before potting-up your seedlings, be sure to choose planters with enough room for growth. Plants may appear tiny now, but full grown tomatoes – even the determinate varieties – need space for a strong, healthy root system to develop. Planters no smaller than 18-24 inches are best suited to growing tomatoes. Indeterminate types, or course, require bigger pots.

Photo by Sarah Marcheschi

Selecting the Right Potting Soil for Container Tomatoes

Choosing an appropriate soil for your tomato plants is an important part of the growing process. For best results, don’t fill containers with soil from your garden. That’s because it’s too heavy. Then drainage problems will cause it to become compacted when wet, and plants will not thrive. Instead, use a good quality potting mix that will hold moisture. I recommend soils that are light and fluffy, and that can accommodate good air circulation. There are plenty of commercial mixes on the market specifically formulated for growing vegetables in containers. Another option, make your own mix. Combine one part inorganic material like peat moss or coir, one part perlite, coarse sand or vermiculite, and one part organic material such as compost or humus. All of these ingredients will be readily available from your local garden center or home improvement store.

Planting Instructions for Container Tomatoes

If your plants are going to be outdoors, wait until all danger of frost has passed before planting. Tomatoes grow roots all along their stems, so you can plant them deep in the soil – even up to the first set of leaves. This has the advantage of establishing a healthy root system underground. Consider adding  any stakes or tomato cages when planting, as doing so later on when the plant has started to fill out will be tricky and potentially disruptive to the root system. Adding staking material at the beginning will allow your plant to grow into and around it naturally. Be sure to select a sturdy staking system if you’re planting indeterminate tomatoes, as they will get heavy. After tomatoes are planted, it’s a good idea to add a layer of mulch to the top of your pots to keep soil moist and cool when days get hot.

Watering and Fertilizing Container Tomatoes

For healthy container-grown tomatoes, be sure to water regularly. Soil should be kept consistently moist throughout the season, with watering taking place every day during the hottest, driest days of summer. If there is ever a question, simply feel the dirt by pushing your finger into the pot – if the top inch of soil is dry, you need to give the plant a drink.

Like most other annual plants, tomatoes require a lot of nutrients to keep them fed and thriving throughout the growing season. You can fertilize seedlings once when you plant to get them off to a good start, then again when your plants set fruit, following the package instructions carefully.

When choosing a spot for your tomatoes, make sure to pick a location that gets plenty of sun. I recommend at least six hours every day. To make your life a bit less taxing, site them near a water source, since they will need to be tended frequently with the hose or watering can. Placing saucers under planters will help prevent your deck or patio from becoming stained with the water and debris that runs through the drainage holes, and also saucers also serve as a basin to collect extra water for plants to soak up on very hot days when the soil dries out quickly.

When to Harvest Container Tomatoes

Outdoor, indeterminate tomatoes are typically harvested in late summer. For the best flavor, leave tomatoes on the vine to ripen as long as possible. With some of the heavier types, you may not be able to wait long enough for fruits to become uniformly red before harvesting or they will end up on the soil. Give tomatoes a gentle squeeze to test for firmness. If they seem ripe enough, simply hold the stem with one hand and pull the fruit off. Let them continue to ripen indoors if necessary, or rinse, sprinkle with salt, and enjoy the fruits of your labor immediately!

What to Do at the ‘End of the Season’

At the end of the season, remove your tomato plants from the containers, and dispose of them. Clean out the remaining soil, then wash and sterilize pots before you out them away. That way they’ll be ready to go next spring!

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