How to Grow Tomatoes in Containers
Every gardener I know that grows things to eat grows tomatoes. Most grow them in the ground but it is possible to get a really good crop when you grow tomatoes in containers. Read on to get my tips on what tomatoes to grow in containers as well as how to grow tomatoes in containers.
Growing tomatoes in a container or pot can be really successful or an absolute failure and can leave you wondering why you ever tried. You can’t prevent some failures that can be caused by things you can’t control – a hail storm springs to mind – which can wipe out our entire crop in minutes but applying a few practical ideas to the things you can control will make all the difference.
Tips For Growing Tomatoes In Containers
Choose your Container carefully
Choosing the right container to plant your tomatoes in is crucial. It doesn’t matter what it looks like or even what it is made from but it needs to be big enough for the roots of the plant to grow and it needs to be big enough to hold enough soil so that it never dries out and so supplies sufficient regular water to your plant.
One of the most common mistakes when growing tomatoes in pots is a pot that’s too small, so the plants can’t get the constant water and nutrients they need throughout the growing season. To grow a bush type Roma tomato in a pot you need a pot that is between 4 and 5 gallons (approx 15 and 20 litres) in volume.
I really like these big buckets (or trug tubs) I just drill a few holes in the bottom for drainage. They come in lots of different sizes, are bright colors, which I love, and they have handles so I can move them around if I want to. Grow bags are smart pots pretty good also. It just depends on what you want and how attractive you want them to be.
Be aware that pots made out of porous material like terracotta or unsealed concrete will need more water because the pot actually sucks the moisture out of the soil.
The pot should have drainage holes so that any excess water can drain away if the roots become water logged the plant will die. There should be some space between the pot and the ground to make sure the water can get out.
There are basically two types of tomatoes:
Vine – You will often hear tomatoes referred to as indeterminate – all this means is they resemble vines and have no determined limit to their growth they just keep growing like a vine they sprawl all over the place and need a trellis or some other form of support. They will keep producing for as long as the weather conditions are suitable. You need to provide some form of trellis for this type. Vine tomatoes are generally unsuitable for containers.
Bush – or determinate are short, bushy, more compact and take less space to grow. They have determined limit to their growth and are perfect for pots.
Bush types produce most of their fruit in one spurt rather than over an extended period. They are ideal for pots or containers, grow bags and hanging baskets. Depending on which plant you choose and your conditions you may not need to stake them.
I usually stake mine as we get pretty strong winds and although they are bushy they can tend to flop around I just think staking or supporting them some way lets the air flow better and should help with disease control.
I usually get grow roma for cooking, cherry for salads and one that is a general purpose one for slicing I like Apollo but I’m not sure if it is available everywhere. I also usually get one I haven’t tried before in the hope I will find the perfect one for me. If you have a favorite let me know in the comments section below.
Use good Quality Potting mix
A good quality potting mix is the best thing to use to grow plants in containers. Unlike garden soil good potting mix maintains a good balance between holding moisture and draining well. This means that plant roots can get the water they need without drowning. Garden soil is generally not suitable to use in pots. Many potting mixes, which are based on recycled organic materials, don’t contain any soil. Don’t plant tomatoes in the same soil two seasons in a row – this is to prevent a build up of diseases.
You can get potting mixes that are specially formulated for different plants.
I usually use a potting mix that has some water holding crystals in it so that the plant has a regular water supply. Using these types of products helps guard against over or under watering. I have used this one in the past it is excellent. It also has some slow release fertilizer in it which gets the plants off to a good start.
Choose a Good Sunny Position
Tomatoes like most vegetables need to get about six hours of good sunshine a day so choose a suitable spot or get wheels to go under your containers to help you move them
around to chase the sun. Be careful not to put them near a fence or wall that will get really hot – you might cook them.
How Often Should I Water My Tomato plants
Tomatoes need regular water. Is no good to let them dry out then give them heaps of water – the water supply needs to be consistent especially when the plants are young.
Some gardeners use a drip irrigation system – personally I like to water my plants with a hose each day I think that way I am more likely to notice bugs and grubs and any sign of disease early enough to do something about it. If you do choose to water with a hose try to keep the water off the leaves and just water the soil – it helps to prevent fungus diseases. See my comments about choosing potting mix above. It’s quite hot where I live you may be able to water every second day but they need to be keep moist. Don’t panic if they wilt a little just give them some water they are tougher than you think. You can buy a moisture meter but it is usually good enough to just stick your finger in the soil and check that it’s moist.
You can get some water crystals if you need to. I have also used drink bottles with holes punched in them to supply regular water if I need to go away for a couple of days.
How often should I feed my tomato plants
Too much fertilizer isn’t good although tomatoes are pretty hungry. Too much will result in soft growth that bugs love. I generally choose a slow release one that is low in nitrogen. Fertilizer that is high in nitrogen can result in too much green growth and not many tomatoes. If you are using new potting mix it probably has added fertilizer so you will be fine for at least a few months. Well rotted compost, compost from a worm farm or “worm wee” are great organic solutions. Watering with a weak sea weed solution every couple of weeks after flowers start to come will keep the soil in good condition but read the instruction regarding how much to use. Generally it is better to under fertilize than over fertilize.
Problems growing tomatoes in containers
Most of the problems that are experienced when growing in containers are the same as growing any tomatoes. You will never get a perfect tomato crop – there will always be some wastage either from pests, weather, bugs or disease but I try to avoid using horrible chemicals on my plants. Generally if you do things regularly so that the plant never dries out or is never waterlogged and always has a good supply of nutrients you should get a pretty good crop. Variations in temperature can cause issues in pots as the soil is more exposed but don’t try to plant them too early or late and you should be fine.
Seeds or Seedlings
It’s up to you. I prefer to get a few seedlings and get them going then get a few more a couple of weeks later so that I will have fruit over a longer period of time and not all at once. It’s probably cheaper to grow seeds but I like to have a few different types of tomatoes. If you grow seeds plant them 6 to 8 weeks before you want to put them in the ground (or container). You can plant them straight in the ground in warm areas when the soil temperature reaches about 60 degrees F (15C) after the risk of frost has passed. Unlike most plants it is OK to plant seedlings deep to encourage more roots just make sure the bottom row of leaves aren’t touching the soil.
Should I prune my tomato plants?
Over the years I have heard so many people say that you have to “remove your laterals”.
Laterals are the small side shoots that grow just above a leaf and look like a baby tomato plant. They don’t bear any fruit. Many people believe that you should remove them so that the plant will put it’s energy into producing more fruit rather than supporting this non productive growth.
Over the years I’ve tried removing them on some to see what the difference is I think it made no difference at all to the amount of fruit I got. The thing I did notice is that the ones I removed the laterals on got more disease than the others. I put it down to there being more cut surfaces for the disease to get in. So my answer to this question is no.
If I want another plant I will remove a lateral and use it as a cutting – I dip it in a bit of honey or rooting powder then plant it or sit it in water until some roots grow.
I do however remove any leaves which touch the ground and just give the plant a general tidy up. The more gardeners you talk to the more opinions you will get on this in the end it’s up to you. Whatever you decide to do never remove the leaves to expose the fruit to the sun they’ll get sunburn. What do you think? Do you remove the laterals.
Just Do It!
When you read all these do and don’t and see the lists of problems it is easy to say this is all too hard and give up. Just get a big pot, chuck in some decent potting mix, plant your plant then water it regularly. You will have tomatoes before you know it. These guys will grow wild in a compost heap. Don’t over complicate it just have a go. If something looks wrong check out the problems list don’t make it harder than it is people have been growing vegetables for hundreds of years it’s not that hard.