Gardening in pots is a great option for those who have a limited amount of space, need a quick set up to get a garden started and have more control over the growing conditions, and various other reasons.
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Growing Tomatoes in Pots
A commonly asked question is, can you grow tomatoes in pots/containers. The answer is yes. It’s a great option if you have a limited amount of space for a garden.
The option of growing in pots may be an option for you if you live in an apartment and have a balcony or porch, a small yard or even just a patio area, access to a rooftop area of a building, or if you need an option because of poor soil on your property.
As I mentioned in previous posts, my dad got me into veggie gardening. He started growing tomato plants in ceramic pots on our apartment’s porch.
For additional information about growing in containers, check out my post “The Pros and Cons of Container Gardening”. It reviews the pros and cons of container gardening.
What You’ll Need to Get Started with Growing Tomatoes in Pots
As with any garden you plan to start, it’s important to take into consideration a number of things that will help you have a successful garden. Container gardening is the same with a few variances because of what you’ll be growing in. I’ve created a checklist for you to get started with growing tomatoes in pots.
Light and Temperature
Light and temperature are a key ingredient in the success of your garden. Tomatoes love the heat and are not fans of the cold. They do not tolerate frost and your plant will start to suffer below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping this in mind will be crucial for selecting the right spot to put your garden. Tomatoes need at least 8 hours of direct sunlight. To make sure you’re putting your plant out at the right time of year, check what your area’s frost date is. The pot must also be placed in an area that will have good air circulation. Having good air circulation will be important to ward off any illnesses that can develop from poor circulation. Poor circulation causes issues with moisture which can cause the plant to develop fungal diseases.
Watering Your Potted Tomato Plant
Potted plants need more frequent waterings than a raised bed, and even more so than an in-ground garden. Soil dries out quicker in a container. Just as with other types of gardening, waterings should occur on a regular basis. Too much water all at once can cause the fruit to split. Before any heavy rains or big storms, I make sure to pick fruit that is either close to being completely ripe or ripe to prevent splitting.
When watering, always make sure to water deeply and avoid shallow waterings. Watering deeply will ensure that the water reaches down to the roots. The soil should be soaked and water should be coming out of the bottom of the pot.
Quality soil is another key component in general, but it’s even more so in a container. Don’t use soil from your garden! Soil from your garden becomes compact in the container and won’t be able to drain properly. It can also carry pathogens thereby causing problems in your container garden. Soil from your garden may not have the proper balance of nutrients for your plant to flourish. When choosing a soil, select a high quality potting soil. Potting soil is specifically made to remain light, retains moisture, provides the right soil structure, and helps with nutrients and oxygen. Whether you’re starting from seed, or transplanting a tomato plant, consider adding organic materials like compost or worm castings.
Periodic Feedings for Your Plant
Plants need nutrients to flourish and need “feedings”, or fertilizers, added to the soil periodically. There are plenty of organic options that don’t involve chemicals.
Consider the following options:
- Liquid fish fertilizer
- Compost tea
- Liquid seaweed
- Bone meal
- Blood meal
- Garden lime
Tomato plants are heavy feeders so periodic feedings need to be occasionally added, or use a slow-release fertilizer. Prior to planting one of our tomato plants into a container, I added composted cow manure like I did for our raised beds and our in-ground garden. It grows very well in the container and is doing just as well, if not better than our in-ground and raised bed tomato plants.
Containers and pots don’t always have proper drainage. Before buying any containers or pots, be sure to check the bottom. Does it already have a hole, or several holes, to allow the water to drain out? If not, are you able to drill (a) hole(s) in the bottom? Although aesthetically pleasing pots look nice, they are not necessarily the most practical. Without drainage, the pot fills with water and causes soggy soil. Plants then develop root rot and die off.
Types of Containers and Sizes of Containers
There are a number of types of containers to consider. Consider the following options (just to name a few):
- Grow bags
- Ceramic pots or clay pots
- Concrete or stone planters
- Wood containers, like a repurposed wine barrel
- Plastic containers or pots
***With any container or pot, always make sure it’s suitable to grow food in and food grade safe.
Size of containers
For tomato plants, you will need a fairly large pot or container. Before planting anything, first consider how large it can get. Determinate plants get up to at least 5 feet tall, while indeterminate varieties grow up to 10 to 12 feet tall. Knowing the variety you have so you can properly support the plant with both the size of the container and an actual support system, like a trellis, will help you determine what you need. Tomatoes will also need room for their roots, not just for growing upwards.
Check out my post on determinate and indeterminate tomato plants to help you understand the difference between the two and what you should look out for.
Provide Support for Your Tomato in the Pot
Contrary to what people may know about tomatoes, they are not actually plants that grow standing up. In the wild, tomatoes either crawl up shrubs or neighboring plants, or they crawl along the ground. What we find in gardens is usually a practice of vertical gardening. Tomatoes need some sort of support system. It is better for the overall health of the plant, helps reduce the likelihood of pests, and helps with air circulation.
A couple of options you might want to consider are:
- Tomato cage
There are a number of options to choose from. What to use is really up to personal preference and what works best in your garden. You can even build your own supports to meet your plant’s needs.
Plant Near Your Plant’s Friends, Not Foes
If you are planting other plants besides tomato plants, keep in mind what their friends are and who their foes are. “Friends” are plants that complement a certain crop, while “foes” do not work well together. Foes can even create diseases or pests.
Examples of friends of tomato plants:
- Bell peppers
You can even plant some of tomato plants’ friends within the same pot, like a combination of tomato plants and basil.
Examples of foes:
- Pole beans
There are lots of resources out there to learn what the friends and foes of each plant is. One of my favorite and most useful tools is the “Seed to Spoon” app.
Consider Compact Varieties
Another suggestion I have for growing tomatoes in pots is using more compact varieties to help with space. Indeterminate plants grow up to 10 to 12 feet tall! They take up a lot of room so a determinate plant may be a better option. With taller plants, you need taller supports too. Don’t worry if you’re not able to figure out what’s what at the store if you’re buying seedlings.
Helpful tip: Check out the tag on the plant. It usually tells you whether it’s an indeterminate or determinate variety. Buying from local farmers or nurseries is also helpful because they usually know the different varieties compared to the big box stores.
Examples of varieties that are either compact or micro plants for small spaces:
- Bush Early Girl – we’ve always loved growing Early Girls. They’re a compact determinate variety that gets fruit that’s up to 6 or 7 ounces in size. They grow up to 3 to 4 feet tall. 54 days to harvest.
- Bush Beefsteak – great for bigger tomatoes to enjoy on food like hamburgers. It’s a compact, determinate variety that grows fruit that’s 6 to 8 ounces in size. 62 days to harvest.
- Tiny Tim – True to its name, it’s a rather small variety that only gets up to 12 inches tall. It can be planted in either containers or hanging baskets. It produces fruit the size of a cherry tomato. 60 days to harvest.
- Tumbling Tom – compact variety with high production/yield. It’s an ideal variety even for hanging baskets as the plant cascades in vines! 70 days to harvest.
- New Big Dwarf – a compact, determinate variety that grows up to 2 feet tall. 60 days to harvest.
- Early Wonder – Determinate variety of tomato that produces 6 ounce fruit. 55 days to harvest.
- Clear Pink Early – Determinate, compact plant that has long trusses of smooth, pinkish-red fruit. 58 days to harvest.
- Sungold – a compact plant that gets yellowish-gold cherry-sized fruit.
More compact and determinate varieties normally have earlier harvest in comparison to indeterminate varieties. Indeterminate varieties are usually ready later in the growing season. To extend your harvest throughout the growing season, consider getting different varieties that have different harvest dates. Don’t worry about now memorizing the days to harvest for each tomato plant. That’s normally shown on the tag of the plant when purchasing, or if you’re growing from seeds, it’s labeled on the packet.
Avoid These Mistakes When Growing Tomatoes in Pots
Choose the correct size container
Without the correct size container for your plant, things can quickly get quite crowded. To have nice strong, healthy roots, tomato seedlings need to be planted deep. When we planted our tomatoes in pots, we used large heavy ceramic pots. We did not have to worry about up potting (transferring the plant from a smaller container to a bigger container).
The more soil you have in your pot, the more water it will hold. Overwatering tomato plants can cause all sorts of problems and lead to unhealthy plants. Before watering your plant, check the soil moisture with your finger. If it’s dry, your plant needs more water. Having the correct soil in your pot is crucial. If it’s the wrong soil, you’ll wind up water logging your plant. As mentioned above, make sure you use a good quality potting soil which helps you regulate the moisture in the pot. Too much water results in things like yellowing of the leaves and root rot. Too little water can cause deformation and discoloration of the fruit. Inconsistent waterings can lead to physiological problems on the plant, deformation and discoloration of the fruit, and overall stresses out the plant. All three can cause the death of the plant.
One Plant per Pot
I would recommend planting one tomato plant per pot. Overcrowding pots is just setting up your plants for disease and pests. Overcrowding can lead to issues like poor air circulation which results in too much moisture, thereby introducing fungal problems. Vulnerable plants are overall more susceptible to pests.
Not Providing the Tomato Plant with Support
Although tomato plants naturally grow along the ground or growing up other plants, providing support makes taking care of the plant a lot easier. By providing support, it lifts the fruit and foliage off the ground which helps reduce the risk of pests. It helps the plant with air circulation. In general, it’s just better for the health of the plant.
Not Pruning Plants
Pruning plants is a good idea to implement. If you’re growing in especially close quarters in a small space, air circulation may be reduced. Pruning plants really helps to circulate air around the plant to prevent any health problems. Lately I’ve seen many people on Instagram promoting the idea of not pruning their tomato plants. Although it is ultimately your decision to prune or not, I would advise against not pruning them.
Reasons to Prune
- Pruning tomato plants helps direct the plant’s energy towards producing fruit rather than foliage. Too much foliage can result in a reduced harvest. After all, we’re growing tomato plants to benefit from its fruit.
- There’s better quality fruit. Yes, of course, you can have great fruit without pruning and you’ll have more tomatoes. While those things are both true, pruning will provide much better fruit than not pruning.
- It produces bigger fruit instead of smaller.
- It helps protect the plant from diseases and pests.
- Leaves that are in constant shade from other branches and foliage above reduce the amount of sugar produced.
- Larger limbs can break and damage the plant.
In summary, the benefits of pruning tomato plants are:
- Photosynthesize more efficiently
- Boosts growth
- Increases fruit production