By Julie Martens Forney
Growing tomatoes in pots levels the home garden playing field, bringing a crop of homegrown ‘maters within reach for almost anyone, regardless of real estate. That’s because you can grow tomatoes in pots just about anywhere you have a sunny spot, whether it’s on a deck, driveway, balcony, rooftop, fire escape, or somewhere else. Just follow these 10 tips.
1. Pick a Good Spot
Place pots where they’ll receive at least six hours of sun. If pots aren’t near a water source, make sure you can get a garden hose to them (or don’t mind lugging a watering can around), because tomatoes need steady moisture supply. Group pots together, but not so close that leaves rub against each other (that can help spread disease). Grouping pots helps shade the root zones of the plants in the inner pots, which can be helpful when plants are sitting on concrete or an asphalt driveway, both of which absorb and reflect heat.
2. Find the Best Tomatoes for You
Our Tomato Chooser takes the guesswork out of discovering which tomatoes will work best for your garden. In general, determinate tomatoes tend to do better in pots, so look for those. It’s also possible to grow indeterminate tomatoes in containers, of course, as long as you provide enough support and soil volume. Speaking of which….
3. Choose the Right Pot
Those seedlings may look small now, but a full-grown tomato plant needs a lot of space for a strong root system. For maximum production, the ideal pot size is 18-inch diameter for determinate tomatoes and 24-inch diameter for indeterminate tomatoes. When using a fabric pot or other type sold by volume, aim for 20 gallons. It’s fine to use a smaller container, like a 5-gallon bucket or 10-gallon container, but for best results, stick with the smaller patio- or bush-type tomatoes (such as Better Bush, Bush Goliath, or Patio). Know, too, that tomatoes in smaller pots require more watering and feeding.
All containers (except fabric ones) need drainage holes, so be sure to drill several if none are present. If you live in a warm region like the Deep South, Texas, or Desert Southwest, you may want to avoid black plastic containers. They tend to hold a lot of heat, which warms the soil and can diminish plant growth.
4. Use Premium Quality Potting Soil
Garden soil from planting beds tends to be too heavy for containers — it will over-compact — and may contain disease organisms. Tomatoes are susceptible to diseases (such as blight) and pests (like nematodes) that can hang out in soil, and one advantage of growing in pots is that doing so can reduce outbreaks. Fill containers with premium quality potting soil, such as Miracle-Gro or Nature’s Care, for best results. Light and fluffy, it will provide the air and moisture circulation needed by your plants.
5. Plant Tomatoes Properly
When growing tomatoes in containers, follow the usual instructions for planting Bonnie’s biodegradable pots. Be sure to dig a hole deep enough to cover two-thirds of the tomato stem to encourage more root growth. As a rule of thumb, wait to plant until after your area’s last frost date. If a chilly night threatens, cover pots with a frost blanket and swaddle them with blankets, straw, or burlap for extra protection. (Can’t wait to plant? Find out how to get an early start on growing tomatoes.)
6. Add Support
Insert a support when you plant each tomato, as doing so later on may disturb the growing roots. A traditional tomato cage or stake works well for determinate types. Use a string trellis, tall stake, tomato toutour, or sturdy cage for indeterminate tomatoes. To create your own tomato cages, bend metal fencing or hog wire into a cylindrical shape, then use wire to connect the ends. Insert it into the soil or slip it over the outside of the pot, then secure it to stakes driven firmly into the soil.
7. Cover the Soil
When planting tomatoes in pots, keep the soil at least one inch below the pot rim, so you can add a layer of mulch to help keep soil moist. You can use traditional mulch materials, like straw, shredded bark, chopped leaves, or newspaper (minus the glossy circulars). Paper decomposes quickly, especially in hottest regions, so plan to refresh the layer as needed during the growing season.
8. Water Regularly
Proper watering is a big key to success for growing tomatoes in pots. Keep soil consistently moist, but not saturated. (Inconsistent moisture can pave the way to blossom end rot.) Use the finger test to see if a plant needs water: If the top inch of soil is dry when you push your finger into it, it’s time to give it a drink. (Plants larger than knee-high can require almost daily watering once summer heat arrives.) Place a saucer beneath each pot to catch water that runs through the soil, so plants can absorb that extra moisture over the course of a hot day. (It will also protect decks and patios.) A drip irrigation system can help reduce the time you spend holding the hose, and will pay for itself quickly if you’re raising a large crop of potted tomatoes. If you’re only tending a few pots, time spent watering provides an opportunity to inspect plants and keep an eye out for problems. When summer vacation beckons, line up someone to do the watering if you hope to still have tomatoes to pick upon your return.
9. Feed Your Plants
Mixing a continuous-release fertilizer into the soil helps get tomatoes off to a solid start. Then, use a liquid plant food, such as Bonnie Herb, Vegetable & Flower Plant Food, every week or so throughout the season (especially once flowers have begun to form). That may seem like a lot, but each watering washes nutrients out of the pot. As with all fertilizers, follow package instructions.
10. Clean Up at Season’s End
Remove spent tomato plants from the pots at the end of the growing season. If you plan to use the same pots to grow anything in the tomato family (think tomatoes peppers, eggplants, potatoes) during the following season, you’ll want to start with fresh soil. Discard any remaining soil, wash and scrub soil from pots, then sterilize them by wiping or spraying with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water.
Follow these 10 simple tips and it won’t be long before you’ll be reaping the rewards in the form of plump, juicy tomatoes — no traditional garden space required!