Planting tomatoes in containers is by far the most popular method of enjoying a fresh, sun ripened tomato for most gardeners with limited space. Of all the vegetables grown in home gardens, tomatoes by far lead the list of most planted vegetable (yes, we all know it’s technically a fruit, but will we ever get used to putting tomatoes in fruit baskets?).
The most important thing to remember is to start with a really big pot. Tomatoes grow large quickly, so before you even think about anything else, make sure you have a pot that is at least 15 gallons. Once you have your pot picked out, it’s time to think about soil.
Choosing Soil for Planting Tomatoes in Containers
Choose a high quality potting mix designed for containers. A mix with slow release fertilizer is ideal. Many potting mixes also contain polymer crystals so that you don’t have to water as often as you would with regular potting soil.
Many gardeners prefer to mix their own potting soil using garden soil, compost and peat moss. If this is your preference, there are as many potting soil recipes on the Internet as there are gardeners. A Google search will turn up many home made potting mixes for tomatoes.
Many tomato growers recommend dolomite lime. It seems to get excellent reviews from users.
Choosing Plants and Varieties for Planting Tomatoes in Containers
The big question for tomato growers is often do I start tomatoes from seed or should I buy plants? The answer depends on several questions. Are you new to gardening? If so, you may find it easier to pick up plants at your local nursery. Do you have a favorite variety that isn’t usually available at your garden center? Then seeds are the way to go. Seeds are also better if you are a gardener who wants the newest varieties or some rare or specialty tomato you just found in this years catalog. There is also a group of gardeners who find great satisfaction in growing their plants from seed.
There is no one answer to this question. This is a matter of personal preference that must be determined by each individual. For some recommended varieties check out Tomato Varieties for Containers.
Starting Tomatoes from Seed
You have only to visit a garden center to realize there is no end to the ways you can start tomatoes from seed. There are many seed potting mixes, all types of small pots from compressed peat to Jiffy pellets, and covered trays that act like miniature greenhouses.
Whatever method you choose, plant tomato seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost. Keep the soil medium moist at all times and put them in the warmest part of your home. When they have 2-3 sets of true leaves (not counting the sprouted seedling leaves), they are ready to be transplanted into larger pots.
Tomatoes should be planted deeply as they grow roots along the entire stem. Transplant them so that only one set of leaves show. When you transplant them outside, again plant them deeply so that only half the leaves are showing. This will give your plant a strong root system and produce bushy productive plants rather than tall, spindly plants that become poor producers.
Be sure to acclimate your seedlings by putting them outside on a nice sunny day for an hour or two. Then move them back to a sheltered spot such as a porch or garage. Extend the time they remain outside each day. After about a week, your plants should be ready to be planted outside once danger of frost has passed. This process of moving plants from indoors to their permanent outdoor home is called “hardening off”.
Choosing Plants for Planting Tomatoes in Containers
If you decide to start your tomatoes from plants, you’ll find when choosing tomato plants in a nursery or garden center, there are masses of plants available. You want to choose carefully so that you get healthy vigorous plants that will do well in your container garden.
Look for plants that are short and compact. Avoid yellowish, leggy plants that look like they are ready to fall over with your slightest breath. Small bushy plants with a healthy green color will transplant well and soon grow faster than larger leggy plants. Often the tall, leggy plants will never transplant well and be very slow growing and a slow crop producer.
Often, because plants are started in small containers, most of the plants will be root-bound ( you will see roots growing out from the bottom of the pot). This is not ideal but this shouldn’t stop you from purchasing these plants either. Just be sure to tease apart some of the roots when you plant your tomato. If you can find some pots that are not root-bound, choose these first.
Lastly, be sure to check the stems and undersides of leaves for insects or diseases. Misshapen or discolored leaves could indicate the plant is not in the best of health. Also any plants with insects on them should be avoided.
Maintenance when Planting Tomatoes in Containers
Now that you’ve done the work and your containers are planted, be sure to keep on top of watering and fertilizing your plants. Tomatoes are thirsty plants that require a lot of water. Never let your soil dry out. Be sure to keep your pots moist at all times. However, over watering is not a good practice. Your soil should not be sopping wet. Tomatoes that receive too much water will crack. Cracked tomatoes are a sign of incorrect watering. Either your plant is being overwatered or your watering schedule is inconsistant with your plant going from almost dry to a sudden infusion of overwatering. Try to keep your tomato soil evenly moist at all times and you will be rewarded with a crop of firm, red, ripe tomatoes.
Because of the heavy watering schedule and also the vigorous growth habits of tomatoes, frequent fertilizing is necessary to replace nutrients that are washed out of the soil. Use a liquid fertilizer every 2 weeks. Liquid seaweed works wonders on tomatoes. If you don’t want to worry about fertilizing, use a potting soil with timed release fertilizer. Midway through the growing season, sprinkle more timed release fertilizer on top of the soil.
Just remember that you are growing tomatoes, not a beautiful green plant, so avoid fertilizers that are high in nitrogen, as nitrogen promotes vigorous plant growth.
Place your container in full sun as this is the best environment for growing excellent tomatoes. Before you know it, you’ll be picking vine ripened tomatoes from your container garden. Enjoy the fruits of your labor, this is truly gourmet eating at its best.