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Growing Tomatoes and Vegetables in Containers

Growing tomatoes in containers can be easier than growing using any other method and the results can be stunning! There are some basic rules for successful container growing and we are here to help. In climates with lots of hot summer heat, large pots can really heat up and the soil can be much warmer than in the ground so it is important to keep them well watered and as cool as possible. Potting soils are designed to drain well but that can be a problem in the summer when you want them to hold water a little bit longer. A little compost added to the pots can make all the difference. Fertilizer can wash out with frequent watering and leave your plants wanting more but a simple dose of slow released fertilizer goes a long way.

Here are some important ways to prevent these problems:

  • Use Large Containers

    Keep in mind that the more root space the plant has, the better the roots will grow. This will allow the top part of the plant to grow large. Tomatoes can grow to over 6-8 feet tall and 2 feet across, a half whiskey barrel sized pot is just enough to accommodate the roots for that size plant. Small pots do make smaller plants but that also means a lot less fruit and many of the problems mentioned above. This plant on the left is in a container that is 19″ in diameter and has our decorative tomato support which is 5′ tall. View our selection of containers in our catalog.

  • Use Compost in Your Pots

    You add compost to the ground when you plant, why not add it to the containers too? Compost is the best stuff for plants and it helps keep them cooler and moist during the summertime. Add about 25% or so to your potting soil mix. Mulch on top of the soil helps keep moisture in pots too. Find compost in our catalog.

  • Fertilizing Regularly is Very Important
    I love using worm castings for this purpose because I can add it anytime and never overfeed. It works like compost and feeds too. As an alternative,we recommend Organic fertilizers which last from 6 weeks to 3 months before they need to be added again. Check out Mater Magic and other organic slow released fertilizers in our catalog.

  • Never Leave Plants Sitting in Water

    You should always use good Potting Soil in your containers and be careful about using trays under pots because they hold water and can actually drown the roots of the plants by providing too much water in the early part of the season when the plant is small. Dump them out frequently after rains. Good drainage holes should be in every pot you plant in. View our selection of Organic Potting soils and compost.

  • Make Sure Your Plants Get Enough Sunshine

    Balconies and sun porches are great for growing plants but make sure there is sun at least 6 hours a day for vegetables to produce fruit well. Lettuces & Herbs will be satisfied with only 3-4 hours a day. Supports keep tomato plants upright and getting all the sunshine they can soak up. View our selection of Supports and Tomato ties. .

  • Too Much Heat Can Be Detrimental To Tomatoes
    They will only set fruits when the temperatures are between 55-85 degrees and containers can heat up quickly in the summertime, especially if they are dark colored. Using pots that are too small, forgetting to water them or not mulching the soil will create a situation where the plants roots are just too hot for them to set tomatoes. They will blossom but the flowers may just fall off. Learn about other products that can help keep your plants healthy and disease free.

What You Need (The Minimum)

All you need is a sunny, warm place and containers large enough for the plants you want to grow. Sunny decks, patios, and other areas are great for container gardening and do not require the difficult digging that starting a garden usually requires. Most vegetable plants will grow quite large so your containers must be large enough and not too crowded. Container gardening requires diligent watering and regular feeding, but it can be easy and fun for kids and adults.

The main things you will need are:

  • Large Containers approximately 18″ or larger in diameter

  • Watering Can or Hose

  • Good Potting Soil (enough to fill your pots)

  • Plant fertilizer and good compost

  • A cage or some kind of support to hold the tomato upright

For Planting Vegetables
You will need to allow approximately 18-24″ in diameter for each plant. This includes tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, beans, squash, peppers and other large plants. These can be planted first and then you can add smaller vegetable plants such as onions, carrots, lettuces, or herbs around the bottom of the plant to fill in a large container.

Prepare Your Potting Soil
First prepare your potting soil by filling the container and adding plant food according to the directions on the package for vegetables. I prefer to use organic plant food or worm castings. Moisten the potting soil by adding water and mixing soil until it feels damp all the way through. Place the pot in the sun and you are ready to plant. Next, dig a hole large enough for the vegetable transplant, turn the plant upside down, tap the bottom, and gently pull the base of the stem until the plant comes out of the container. Place the plant in the hole and fill around the edges pressing gently. Water the plant immediately after planting.

Plants Should Get at Least 6 hours of Sunshine per Day
They can grow with less, but they will not produce fruit in the shade. It is also very important to keep your plants watered regularly. Put your finger down into the soil approximately 2-3″ deep and see if the soil is dry at that level. If it is, then water well until water runs out of the bottom of the pot.

Staking or Supporting Plants
You will need to stake or support plants such as tomatoes, beans, & cucumbers, tomato cages or bamboo stakes work well. Follow the directions on your fertilizer package for feeding vegetables. Check occasionally for bug damage and worms which can do serious damage to tomato plants. There are organic treatments if needed in our catalog and you may visit our Insect Information page for common bug issues.

Picking Tomato Fruit
Pick tomato fruits when they are almost completely red and finish ripening them on your kitchen counter. Once they are soft and totally colored, slice them immediately on to a sandwich and enjoy. Growing vegetables is easy and fun and the payoff of harvest from your own garden is worth the wait.

How to Choose Containers for Growing Tomatoes in Pots

What size container should you choose for growing tomatoes in pots?

Containers suitable for growing tomatoes in pots on your patio or deck come in all shapes and sizes. A good container should be large enough for adequate soil and roots.

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Most successful container gardeners choose larger containers (5 gallons or more), small to mid-size containers (1-3 gallons), or hanging baskets.

A common mistake is to select a pot that is too small for the tomato variety. Tomatoes have extensive root systems. When they get root-bound, they produce fewer fruit.

Even varieties that are supposed to grow well in 1- or 2-gallon pots will likely do better in a larger pot. When in doubt, go with a larger pot rather than smaller.

If you’re a beginning gardener, you can succeed in growing tomatoes in pots when you select the appropriate tomato variety for your pot type. More varieties are available for container tomatoes than ever before. Learn about the best tomato variety for your container herehref>.

Why good drainage is so important

Tomatoes in pots (like other homegrown crops) need good drainage. Otherwise water will pool in the container and roots will rot, killing the plant and all its tomatoes along with it. Make sure that your container or pot has drainage holes in the bottom. Then, if you over-water the excess will seep out the bottom. Punch holes in bottoms of containers that don’t have them already. Your container should also enough room at the top to allow for adequate watering. You may also want to consider a simple and affordable deck irrigation kit or a drip irrigation kit for container gardening. You can even set the drip hoses on a water timer.

What are advantages of different container materials?

Containers come in a variety of materials – each with its advantages.

Terra cotta and clay. These are natural choices for tomatoes because they blend in well almost anywhere. Natural materials also lend themselves to good circulation. Air and water move well through them. But a word of caution: terra cotta and unglazed pottery can dry out quickly. You need to monitor tomatoes in these containers often to make sure they get enough water. Also, extreme changes in temperatures can make pottery crack more easily than other materials. You may need to replace clay pots more often than containers made of something else. Check out terra cotta planters in different sizes and shapes.

Plastic. Practical and inexpensive, plastic containers have become one of the most popular container choices. They withstand freezing and thawing. Plastic also retains moisture readily – soil in plastic pots tends to require less watering. New advances in plastics mean more variety in styles. (Here’s a terrific list of plastic garden planters).

Wood. Redwood, cedar, and cypress are the most rot-resistant woods used for containers. Avoid pressure treated wood – its chemicals seep into the soil. Wood provides excellent insulation. On the downside, wood containers may be more expensive than plastic ones. (See a selection of wooden garden planters.)

Other container materials. Concrete, fiberglass, cast iron, wire, pressed paper, metal – even old buckets, wheelbarrows, garbage cans – most any material is suitable for growing tomatoes in containers. Five gallon buckets (from drywall compound or paint), properly cleaned, are widely used – gardeners create drainage holes in the bottom with a hammer and large nail. Some gardeners even grow tomatoes in black plastic trash bags! Just make sure your container has enough room for a root system to develop and that the bottom has holes punched for drainage.
(Browse this large selection of garden planters).

Tomato grow bags are becoming an increasingly popular alternative. Make sure to select higher-quality grow bags. Some are made of felt-like double-layer polypropylene that breathes well and is resilient enough to last several seasons.

More about Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Growing tomatoes in pots: basics you need to know …
How to make your own potting mix for growing tomatoes …
Choose a potting mix for growing tomatoes in pots

5 Tips for Planting Tomatoes in Pots: Plan for Success … Choosing tomato varieties for large containers …
Best tomato varieties for small containers …
Tomato planting in pots …
Review: Self-watering tomato planter: Tomato Success Kit …
Tomato bags are sturdy, grow healthy tomatoes …
Tomato fertilizer to use for container tomatoes …
Watering tomatoes in containers, pots, baskets…
Tomato pests that attack tomatoes in containers …
Myths about growing cherry tomatoes in containers or pots …
Tips for growing cherry tomatoes in containers …
Better Boys in containers: fruit is small, what should I do?

Return from How to Choose Containers for Growing Tomatoes in Pots to Tomato Dirt home

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Trying to figure out the right way to grow potted tomatoes without killing them? We’ll show you the five most common ways people kill their potted tomato plants, and how you can avoid making the same mistakes in order to enjoy piles of fresh tomatoes this summer.

Last updated: May 7, 2019

We’re not judging you. After all, you didn’t intend to murder your potted tomato plants. It just seemed to happen.

In the spring, you started with the noblest of intentions. You filled your pots with soil, plopped in some tomato plants or seeds, then waited.

Things started off well… Your tomato plants looked happy and started growing. Then along came summer and soon your tomato plants were limp, brown, and crispy. Those bountiful summer-long harvests you’d hoped for didn’t quite materialize.

“Next time will be different,” you tell yourself.

Well, we’re here to help make sure that your next time (right now) is different! Below are the top-5 reasons that potted tomato plants die, and how you can avoid these problems with your potted tomato plants this summer.

We want you to grow piles of gorgeous heirloom potted tomatoes this summer. These are ‘Black Beauties’.

Top 5 Reasons You Kill Your Potted Tomato Plants… And How To Get It Right Next Time

1. Wrong Sized Pots for Tomato-Sized Plants

As kids grow, they need bigger clothes. Planting a large indeterminate tomato in a 1 gallon pot will eventually work out like trying to put your college kid into toddler clothing.

The roots will end up strangling each other, the plant won’t be able to get enough water or nutrition, and eventually it will die.

Solution:

Get the right size containers for your tomatoes (see below). As we’ve written about here, pot sizes are not standardized and are notoriously difficult to decipher.

However, here are some general recommended minimum pot size numbers for you to work with depending on the type of tomato you’re growing:

  • Micro-dwarf tomato varieties – minimum 3 gallon pots/grow bags
  • Dwarf tomato varieties – minimum 4 gallon pots/grow bags
  • Large/indeterminate tomato varieties – minimum 6-8 gallon pots/grow bags

Keep in mind that these are *minimum* sizes, which means these are the smallest sizes at which you can expect your tomato plants to be able to grow well. Larger sized containers would be ideal.

*Each sized pot and growbag listed above is available in the GrowJourney organic supply store, which is conveniently sectioned off by container size (in gallons).

2. Water Stress

In the intense heat of summer, tomato plants need lots of water – and they need consistent water. Planted in the ground, their large root systems and mychorrhizal fungi partners can source water from a large growing radius.

However, when grown in pots/containers, tomato plants can only access whatever water is immediately in the pot. Making matters worse, the water in the potting soil is warmed faster (heated from all sides) and evaporates faster than it does when it’s in good in-ground garden soil.

Tomato plants growing in a pot of dried out soil get stressed. Severely stressed plants are more prone to disease and are unable to set fruit or carry their fruit to maturity. Depending on how dry they get, your potted tomato plants may even die.

Solutions:

A. If growing tomato plants in conventional pots & grow bags…

Place saucers under your pots/grow bags to trap the water that flows through the pot when it rains or gets irrigated.

Also, when you’re watering your pots, fill the saucers up in the morning (if the saucers are empty) so that the water is soaked upwards through capillary action, helping ensure better moisture distribution.

B. If growing tomato plants in sub-irrigated planters…

If you haven’t already invested in pots, we highly recommend getting sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) instead. Read all about SIPs here, including how to make your own.

SIPs are much more water-efficient than traditional pots. Depending on the SIP you get, you may only need to fill the water basin 1-2 times per week in the summer, rather than watering every day like you need to with traditional pots and grow bags.

Another problem many gardeners run into when trying to grow potted tomatoes is “blossom end rot,” a dark rotten spot on the bottom of a tomato. Common causes of blossom end rot is inadequate water, calcium deficiency, and too much nitrogen fertilizer. Pot saucers and SIPs can help prevent blossom end rot as well.

*Saucers for every pot size plus our top-recommended sub-irrigated planters are available here in our store.

Fresh-picked and stunningly beautiful ‘Pink boar’ tomatoes from our back porch taste as good as they look.

3. Wrong Type of Soil

Soil is soil, right? Nope.

As we’ve written about here, seed starting mix, potting soil, and garden soil are each quite different. If you dig soil out of your garden and plop it in to your pots, it will soon form an impenetrable brick, choking your tomato plants’ roots in the process.

Make sure you use a good OMRI listed/organic POTTING soil (like this one) in your pots. Do NOT use garden soil.

4. Inadequate Nutrition

If you notice your tomato leaves looking yellow or your plants not growing, that’s more than likely due to inadequate nutrition.

For in-ground garden plants, we highly recommend focusing on biological soil fertility, e.g. developing the microbiology of your soil with composts and mulches to the point that your plants don’t need any chemical or mineral fertilizers.

However, inside a pot, nutrition is limited by space and the microbes are accordingly limited in how much nutrition they can cycle or source for your plants.

Solution:

Even though your potting mix starts off with some fertilizer already in it, you’ll still need to plan to fertilize your potted tomato plants multiple times over the summer growing season.

Two good OMRI listed organic fertilizer options for potted tomato plants:

  • liquid kelp emulsion,
  • dry/granulated pellet fertilizer formulated specifically for tomatoes and similar veggies.

5. Airborne Diseases

Sometimes you do everything right, but an airborne foliar/leaf disease (fungal or bacterial) comes along and slowly infects your previously glorious potted tomato plants.

The leaves start turning brown or getting spots all over them. Then it spreads, either killing the plant or taking enough leaves to drastically reduce fruit production.

In an organic garden or farm, you fight biology with biology and you try to design your system so as to prevent problems from happening in the first place.

We love making actively aerated worm casting “tea” to use as a soil and leaf drench on our plants. However, that might be a little more work than most gardeners want to go through.

Thankfully, there’s a fantastic organic solution that also comes in an easy-to-use spray bottle: Serenade. Serenade is a strain of beneficial bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) that either consumes or outcompetes a huge number of pathogenic bacterial and fungal species. And, yes, it’s completely safe to humans, pets, and pollinators. You can eat your produce the same day as you apply Serenade.

For best results, we recommend using Serenade preemptively before you start noticing leaf diseases on your plants. However, it also works as a treatment. Spray on early in the morning or late in the evening once per week on a dry (non-raining) day to allow the beneficial bacteria adequate time to set on your leaves. If rain is frequent, use it more often.

  • If you have a spray bottle and lots of plants, get the Serenade concentrate and make it as often as needed.
  • If you don’t have a spray bottle or a lot of plants, a single ready-to-use bottle of Serenade will get you through the summer.

Another tip to prevent tomato diseases in your potted plants: don’t grow tomatoes in the same potting soil year after year, especially if your tomato plants had diseases last year. Use different types of plants or start with new potting soil this year.

Want to learn more about growing tomatoes organically? Check out:

  • 5 tomato growing tricks you need to start using
  • GrowJourney’s complete guide to growing tomatoes

We hope this information was helpful! Have questions? Ask away in the comments section below.

The featured image for this article is a tomato harvest from Monika Melsha, who grows amazing potted tomatoes each summer in Plymouth, MN.

  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. (Be sure to look for the Bonnie Plants® logo when you’re at the garden center—that way you’ll know you’ll be getting strong, vigorous young starter plants!) 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 mix, such as aged compost-enriched Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose Container Mix, for best results. Light and fluffy, it will provide plenty of space for air and moisture move through the soil.
  5. Plant Tomatoes Properly. 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. While starting with premium potting mix will give your tomato plants a nutritious start, for best growth, you’ll want to continue to feed them regularly throughout the growing season. Fertilize them with a continuous-release fertilizer like Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose Plant Nutrition Granules. It will not only help your plants grow strong and produce lots of juicy tomatoes, but it contains calcium to help protect them against blossom end rot, too. 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.

How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots Like a Gardening Pro

Tomatoes are the holy grail of gardens. Who can resist all those sweet, juicy orbs ripening in the sun every summer, filling the air with that unmistakable heady scent of tomato vine?

Hands down, it’s one of my favorite plants to grow every year and I grew it without abandon in my last garden, in the ground, when space was not an issue for these large, unwieldy plants.

But when I uprooted to a different part of the country and found myself in a rental home for the short term, with only a deck that was suitable for gardening, I thought my tomato dreams were dashed for the next couple summers.

Not so!

That first year, I ended up growing a wide variety of tomato plants in containers, easily and successfully, in my hardiness zone 6b climate. I had enough of a harvest every week to eat fresh and cook with, and a final crop at the end of summer to preserve.

Related: Tomato Growing 101: My Top 10 Tips for a Successful Harvest

I found that an unexpected benefit of container plants is being able to protect them more easily from critters (in my case, growing tomatoes on a second-story deck deterred all the deer in my neighborhood), not to mention having better resistance against pests and diseases that naturally live in the garden (since you start with fresh potting soil).

Growing tomatoes in pots really levels the playing field in the home garden game, as it allows even gardeners short on space (say, a balcony or side patio) to grow beautiful and productive plants regardless of real estate.

The key to growing tomatoes in pots like a gardening pro is proper planning.

First, make sure you choose a location with at least 8 hours of sun (6 hours is the bare minimum, but more is much better).

Then, follow my tried-and-true tips below to learn how you can maximize the minimal space you have and cultivate healthy, vigorous tomato plants in your small-space container garden!

1. Choose the right type of tomato.

Determinate types (also called bush, compact, or patio plants) are usually the best tomato plants for containers, as they grow to a predetermined size — no more than 3 to 4 feet tall — and set flowers and fruits all at once, making them reliable and predictable in tight quarters.

However, you can still grow indeterminate tomatoes if you give them a large enough container and good support for their vines. (More on my favorite tomato supports below in Step 9.)

A good rule of thumb is to grow determinate tomatoes if you have a short growing season, got a late start in the season, or have a very limited footprint.

If, on the other hand, you have a decent growing season and enough space for a large, tall plant, indeterminate tomatoes will give you abundant harvests all summer long and are totally doable in containers!

2. Start with a strong and healthy transplant.

Ideally, the tomato plants you start with should have been repotted at least once, and hardened off properly so they’re ready to live outside in the sun.

(If you started your own plants from seed, follow my previous guides on how to repot your seedlings into larger containers, and how and why to transplant them a second time.)

Repotting assists your tomato plants in developing larger root masses, which in turn helps them survive the shock of transplanting, resist pests and diseases that prey on vulnerable young plants, and grow stronger overall.

If you’re bringing transplants home from a nursery or garden center, look for thick, sturdy stems and healthy green foliage free from insect damage, sunburn, and yellowing (which indicates watering issues or nutritional deficiencies).

I also try to avoid “top heavy” plants on tall, skinny stems, as it could be a sign they haven’t received adequate sunlight or been repotted.

3. Don’t be shy with container size, and choose a fabric pot over a plastic pot.

When it comes to tomatoes, the bigger the pot, the better.

Determinate varieties should be planted in 10-gallon containers at a minimum, while indeterminate varieties need, at the very least, 20-gallon containers to thrive. Any smaller than these sizes and your plants may not be as productive as they could be.

My favorite type of containers are fabric pots, like these ones from Root Pouch. They come in either non-degradable or biodegradable versions, but for container gardening, I prefer the non-degradable Boxer line so I can reuse them year after year.

Root Pouch Fabric Pot in Boxer Brown

Fabric pots are beneficial for plants with extensive root systems because they naturally “air prune” the roots.

The effects of air pruning in breathable fabric pots are best seen when compared side by side with plants contained in non-porous plastic pots.

When the roots in plastic pots grow long enough to hit the sides of the pot, they continue to grow round and round in a constricted pattern (spiraling, kinking, and twisting around themselves), eventually becoming rootbound.

Roots in fabric pots, on the other hand, are exposed to air as they grow. This exposure “burns off” the tips of the roots, which stops them from growing long and spindly. Instead, they branch off and form new, shorter, fibrous feeder roots.

Because growth is well distributed throughout the soil volume (and not just on the edges of the pot), the dense network of branched roots is able to increase the plant’s uptake of water, utilize all available nutrients, and aid in its natural defenses.

Image by Root Pouch.

The permeability of fabric pots also helps to promote proper drainage of excess water and improve oxygenation to the roots (which maximizes the plant’s metabolic performance and, in turn, boosts crop yields).

In cooler climates, however, black plastic pots do serve a practical function. They hold heat in and keep roots warm in late spring to early summer, when tomato transplants are most susceptible to temperature swings.

On the flip side, black plastic pots may get too hot in the peak of summer, so they need to be shaded to prevent the rootball from overheating. You can wrap or cover plastic pots with shade cloth, canvas, or towels to insulate against the heat (office binder clips work great for securing them), as well as try to keep them off heat-retaining surfaces like concrete.

Whichever kind of container you use, be sure to place a saucer (I use this one) underneath before you load it up. Not only will the saucer protect your deck or patio from standing moisture, it will allow your plant to absorb any excess water over the course of a hot day.

4. Use high-quality potting soil.

Plants in containers need a good combination of breathability, absorption, and moisture retention.

The topsoil from your garden (as well as any commercially bagged mix labeled as “raised bed soil” or “garden soil”) is generally too dense for potted plants, and it increases the risk of your tomato plant picking up a soil-borne disease that’s otherwise easily preventable.

I recommend using a high-quality premium potting soil or potting mix like this one, and try to avoid reusing potting soil from past seasons if your plants had pests or diseases.

Spread about 3 to 4 inches of potting soil on the bottom of your container, then continue with Step 5.

5. Feed your tomato plant well.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders and need ample nutrients to produce well and long into the season.

Before putting the tomato transplant in its final planting hole, add the following amendments to the soil and stir them around a bit:

  • 1/2 cup of tomato/vegetable fertilizer
  • 1/4 cup of fish meal
  • 1/4 cup of bone meal
  • 2 aspirin tablets
  • Handful of crushed eggshells

Related: Grow Bigger and Better Tomatoes This Summer!

Once the amendments are in, spread another 2 to 3 inches of potting soil on top.

6. Bury the stem of the tomato plant.

Gently pinch or snip off the lowest sets of leaves until you’re left with a bare stem on the bottom one-third to one-half of the stem.

Center the tomato plant in the pot and fill the remainder of the pot with more potting soil until it’s filled to the brim (just below the last set of leaves). Gently shake the pot to settle the soil and add more as needed.

25-Inch Saucer

Top off the soil with 1/2 cup all-purpose fertilizer (I like this one) and lightly rake it in around the base of the stem.

7. Water thoroughly and consistently.

Water the root zone thoroughly until the soil is evenly moist. I usually water the plant in, wait about 10 minutes, water again, wait 10 minutes again, and repeat until water runs freely out the bottom of the pot.

It takes a surprising amount of water (at least a gallon, from my experience) to saturate the soil fully the first time. Don’t assume that just because the water drains right away on the first watering that the soil is soaked.

Proper watering is the key to success when it comes to growing tomatoes in pots. Too little or too much water can stunt your plant’s growth, contribute to blossom end rot, or encourage pests in times of plant stress.

For those same reasons, water only the root zone (not overhead on the leaves) so you can see exactly how much water your plant is getting each time.

After the initial watering, and depending on the weather, you probably won’t need to water again until three days later. Check the first 2 inches of soil with your finger; if it feels dry, give it a good drink. As summer goes on, you’ll want to check the soil every day to ensure a consistent level of moisture.

Plants in containers tend to dry out more quickly than those in garden beds, so it’s not unusual to water once a day or more as temperatures climb higher. The smaller the pot, the more often you’ll need to water.

Remember that tomato plants like to be watered deeply, so be sure to saturate the soil until excess water drains out the bottom.

8. Protect young transplants from frost with “walls of water.”

Generally, it’s a good idea to wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 45°F before you plant tomatoes outside. But in climates with short or finicky growing seasons, sometimes you just need to get them outside sooner (or you never know when temperatures may dip below freezing). Here in Central Oregon, it’s not unheard of to get frost well into June!

One way that I protect my transplants in late spring to early summer is with “walls of water” (also known as tomato teepees). They keep plants nice and toasty and are super easy to use (no need to take frost covers on and off each day).

Walls of water enable you to plant your tomatoes up to six weeks before your last frost date, and keep them going up to six weeks after the first freeze, as they’re rated to withstand temperatures as low as 16°F. (They haven’t failed me yet, though I’ve personally never used mine much below 30°F.)

They also protect against wind, so they’re useful for delicate young plants that haven’t fully anchored themselves into the soil yet.

“Walls of water” is basically a large ring of heavy-duty plastic that’s sectioned off into long tubes. The tubes are filled with water, and the “walls” are placed over the plant with the weight of the tubes supporting them. You end up with what looks like a teepee around your plant.

(Quick tip: Place the walls of water over a bucket and fill the tubes partway with water until the walls can mostly stand on their own. Transfer the walls to your container over the plant, then continue filling them to the top with water.)

Walls of water act as mini greenhouses, collecting heat from the sun during the day and radiating it back out at night. They do need to be refilled periodically as the water evaporates, but they’re surprisingly effective in colder climates and I highly recommend using them if you want to get an early start on the growing season.

I usually remove mine once my tomato plants are a few inches above the walls (or I’m certain all danger of frost has passed).

Walls of Water

A simple way to remove the tomato teepee is to push all the walls in until water spills out the top and onto the soil. Once the tubes are mostly empty, you can roll them down, lift them up over the plant, dry them out, and store them for next year. Then proceed with Step 9.

9. Add your support structure.

To reduce chances of damaging the roots, add your tomato support at this stage before the plant grows too large.

If you are growing determinate tomatoes, the metal conical cages that you find in most garden centers will suffice. But, I am generally not a fan of them for indeterminate tomatoes, as I find they’re too flimsy to support the long, sprawling vines.

My favorite tomato supports are these tomato ladders (essentially very tall, burly stakes) and square tomato cages (which can be folded down when not in use). Both of these supports are strong, extendable, and durable (I’ve used the same ones for years and they still look good as new) and they’re also attractive, if you care about that kind of thing.

Square Tomato Cage

(Quick tip: If you use tomato ladders, you can stake your plants first and then add the “walls of water” over them, making things a little more streamlined.)

They’ve easily supported my container tomatoes that grew over 7 feet tall and are convenient to store away at the end of the season. I’d say the cages are a little better at containing the vines than the ladders, as you can simply tuck your tomato branches back into the cage if they get too unruly.

With tomato ladders, you have to stay on top of tying or clipping the vines to the stakes to keep them neat and tidy.

Tomato Ladder

Whichever support you use, don’t wait until you actually need it before you install it. It’ll be that much harder to wrangle a mature tomato plant into a cage than to just have it in place early.

10. Mulch the soil.

Mulching is essential for any garden, but it’s especially important for container gardens as it helps retain moisture in the soil.

Use an organic mulch like straw (not hay, which contains seeds) or shredded bark to cover the soil by at least 2 inches, taking care not to bunch it up against the stem. One substantial layer of mulch should last the whole summer, and can be composted with your spent tomato plants at the end of the season.

11. Fertilize your tomatoes consistently throughout the season.

Even with all that good stuff that you put in the planting hole, your tomato plants will need another shot of nutrients about six weeks into the season. I like to use a balanced organic fertilizer, like this granular tomato fertilizer or this liquid fish and seaweed emulsion. Follow the package directions for proper application, and keep the fertilizer bag or bottle next to your plants so you’ll never forget to feed them.

Try to avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, as you’ll end up with lots of lush green leaves, but no flowers or fruits.

I have a deep love for growing any and all types of tomatoes in all kinds of conditions, so if you have any questions about growing tomatoes in pots, please ask away in the comments!

Gardening Sources

Root Pouch Boxer Brown 10-Gallon Container | Root Pouch Boxer Brown 20-Gallon Container | Generic Pots Black Premium 25-Inch Plastic Saucer | FoxFarm Ocean Forest Potting Soil | Dr. Earth Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer | Down to Earth Fish Meal | Dr. Earth Pure & Natural Bone Meal | GeriCare Aspirin | Dr. Earth Premium Gold All-Purpose Fertilizer | Wall O Water Plant Protectors | Behrens Galvanized Steel Pail | Gardener’s Supply Company Stacking Tomato Ladders | Gardener’s Supply Company Square Heavy-Gauge Tomato Cages | Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Blend Fertilizer

Love Apple Farms

You CAN grow any tomato in a pot, if you do it right! Growing tomatoes in pots or containers is much more demanding than growing them directly in the ground. They rely on you for all of their needs. It took master tomato grower Cynthia Sandberg four years of trial and error before she perfected her technique. Here it is:

Size matters: We recommend a 20 gallon GeoPlanter pot. GeoPots are made of a durable fabric, rather than plastic or wood, and lets roots breathe. When roots reach the fabric edge in the pot, they are air pruned, rather than becoming root bound. This pruning of the root tips at the wall of the container forces branching of thousands of fibrous feeder roots throughout the plant container. GeoPots are also convenient because they are light weight and able to be folded for storage. A 20 gallon container will hold only one plant. Anything smaller will hamper the plant’s ability to produce fruit and remain healthy. Love Apple Farms will have the 20 gallon GeoPlanter pot available for purchase at our Tomato Plant Sale in Scotts Valley. The 20 gallon size is 20″ tall and 15″ wide. If you are using something other than a GeoPot, it must hold 20 gallons of soil and it must have drainage holes. A half wine barrel will hold two plants.
If you are re-using a container, you should disinfect it first. We use a bleach solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water. A simple quick dunk or spray, followed by a rinse with fresh water, should do the trick.

Potting Soil: Do NOT use garden soil or home-made compost in your pots. Tomatoes are disease-prone and one of the benefits of growing in a pot is that they cannot pick up any soil- or compost-borne diseases if you use a sterile potting mix. We recommend G&B Organic Potting Soil. It’s available at our retail greenhouse in Scotts Valley, CA. You should also be able to pick it up at your good local California nursery. Check the Kellogg Garden website to locate your closest supplier. You can go very wrong with potting soil, so don’t deviate from this instruction. We still want you to put in the container all our recommended additives, but first add four inches of soil on the bottom of the pot.

Fertilizers: Our perfect planting amendments for pots are: One cup of G&B Fish Meal, one cup of G&B 4-6-3 dry organic Tomato, Vegetable & Herb fertilizer, one cup of G&B Bone Meal, three or four crushed chicken eggshells, one cup of 100% pure worm castings (available at our Plant Sale), and two aspirin tablets.

Once the amendments have been added (stir them around a bit), add more potting soil and place your tomato plant in the container, backfilling with soil as you go, until you’ve put at least half the stem under the soil. Tomatoes like to be planted deep – they benefit from it. Continue filling around the plant until the soil is at the very top of the pot. There’s no need to firm down, watering will do that for you.

Watering: Water them in well. We’ll water then once, wait about 10 minutes, then water again, wait, then again. It takes a lot of water to completely saturate the potting soil. Even if you see water draining out of the holes, that doesn’t necessarily mean the root ball is soaked.

After you water the new plantings three times their first day, you probably will not need to water again for at least a week and probably longer. Tomatoes do NOT like to be saturated all the time, and you can easily kill the tomato by overwatering it in a cool springtime.

As the weather really heats up and your plant is getting big, they need more water. You may end up watering once a day if your tomato plant is 6 or more feet tall and it is consistently over 80 degrees. When a tomato is grown in the ground, it never needs watering that often. But in a pot, it does indeed (once the plant gets big and the weather gets hot). And the smaller the pot, the more often they will need watering.

Staking: The tomato in the pot will still need staking. Our 7 foot tall custom-made tomato cages can be popped right over them. If you treat the plants right, they can and will get up and over that 7 foot cage. We have a tutorial for you on how to make these mondo cages, found here.

Supplemental fertilizing: Even with all the goodies in the pot, your plants will start to decline in health around week six or so if you don’t start fertilizing them from the top down. We use worm casting tea, made out of pure organic worm castings. Mix a handful in a five gallon bucket of water and fertilize with two gallons of that at least once a week. If you can’t get worm castings, then use a good all-purpose organic liquid fertilizer once a week. You’ll need at least two gallons of the diluted-according-to-directions fertilizer per pot per week. Start the fertilizing regimen around week six to avoid the summer doldrums.

We love to spray the worm casting tea on the foliage (along with an aspirin tablet for disease suppression). But tomatoes in a pot need more fertilizing than that, hence pouring a fertilizer mix IN the pot as noted above.

Shading the pots: If you’re growing in a black plastic pot, the tomatoes love soaking up the extra warmth in late spring and early summer when the temperatures are still mild. But you need to take extra care starting in mid-summer to protect the rootball from overheating from excess sun on the black plastic. No amount of watering will keep the rootball happy. This realization was the last piece of the puzzle when we were trying to figure out how to grow a really great tomato in a pot. Here is a photo of our tomatoes in pots, with their 7 foot tall cages on them, with shade cloth pinned to the south side:

You need only shade the lower part of the cage, but we still pin it about a foot above the top of the pot, all the way to the ground. Small binder clips work great for pinning. Shade cloths can be purchased at good hardware stores.

Finishing up the season: As your tomato plant winds down in vigor in the fall, you can compost your plants and the soil, but you should not re-use the soil next year in the pot. Re-using potting soil inside a container is never a good idea, as viruses and other harmful diseases can infect your plants the following season.

There is one way, however, to salvage your soil for next year, and that is by sowing a cover-crop in your pots and nurturing that throughout the winter. When you are planting your tomatoes in these same pots the following spring, simply pull out the cover crop (compost them), then remove half the soil to a tarp, add your amendments listed above, and plant accordingly using the remainder of the soil you initially removed. You will no doubt need to top off the pot, as you will have lost several inches of soil throughout the year. Top off with G&B Potting Soil.

Any questions? Email Cynthia at [email protected] Or take Love Apple Farms’ Tomato Masters class or Container Vegetable Gardening Class.

You can find more information all about tomatoes on the World Tomato Society website.

When we tested growing bags in 2016 we found huge differences in quality when we tested growing bags. Our Best Buy scored 71%, while one scored just 46%. However, more shocking was the discovery that two of the bags contained a hormone weedkiller: Levington Original Gro-bag and Levington Tomorite Giant Tomato Planter.

The weedkiller probably got into the growing bag in green compost, which is made from councils’ green waste collections, and is a common ingredient in many peat-based and peat-free composts.

We first became aware of the problem when we spotted ‘nettling’ on some of our tomato plants. This is when the leaves and stems at the top of the plant curl in on themselves and become twisted.

Weedkiller damage

Tomatoes are particularly sensitive to hormone weedkillers. These target lawn weeds, but will also affect any other susceptible plant, by accelerating growth so much that the plant can’t take up enough nutrients and eventually dies. Green compost should be tested to make sure there is no weedkiller contamination.

A Levington spokesperson admitted checks had failed to pick up the problem: ‘We identified the batch code of the affected green compost, which is limited to one supplier of one of our sites. Analysis detected very low traces of herbicide residue in the affected batch of Levington Gro-Bags and Planters. We can confirm that this poses no risk to health, and any crops remain edible.’

If you think you had a bag that was affected, contact Levington on 01276 401390 to request a refund.

Growing bags

Growing bags are a great way of growing greenhouse and salad crops, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and aubergines. They’re low cost, simple to use and can be used anywhere from the greenhouse to the patio. We tested six bags. The Levington growing bags we tested have both been reformulated, so we haven’t included these results

We tested:

  • Bulrush Grow Bag
  • Erin Gro’Bag
  • Growise Multipurpose Grow Bag
  • Miracle-Gro Gro Your Own Vegetable and Fruit Planter

As we didn’t test growing bags in 2017, we’ve now taken down the Best Buy growing bags page. However, throughout the time we tested growing bags, we consistently found that larger bags gave better plants. Look for bags that are around 50L in size, rather than the smaller 33L bags, and remember to liquid feed your plants every week.

Growing-bag watering systems

We also tested four growing-bag watering systems. When you plant directly into a growing bag, it’s not always easy to judge whether you are watering too much or too little, and for the bags to dry out between watering. Watering systems take out much of the guesswork.

We tested these systems:

  • Gardena Starter Set Terrace Basic
  • Garland Big Drippa Watering Kit
  • Greenhouse Sensations Click and Drip Grow Bag Watering Kit with Water Timer
  • Hozelock Grow Bag Waterer

Discover which of these is our Best Buy growing-bag watering system

Imagine having a successful, bountiful tomato harvest every season — juicy, red tomatoes ready for the kitchen.

The good news? You can! Tomato care isn’t hard.

When it comes to growing tomatoes in your organic vegetable garden, the secret is in the soil. Maintaining consistent soil moisture is crucial for a successful harvest.

When, and how frequently, you should water your tomato plants depends on the variety, size and location.

Start Your Seedlings

When starting tomatoes from seed, the soil can dry out quickly since seedlings are typically in small containers or trays. Check soil daily to ensure it has not dried out.

However, seedlings require very little water. Use a spray bottle to mist seedlings and keep just the top of the soil moist.

If the soil becomes too wet, move the seedlings to an area with increased air flow and hold off on watering again until needed. Never let seedlings sit in a puddle of water.

As seedlings begin to sprout and grow, they will need more water. If the soil in the tray dries in less than 24 hours, it might be time to move your seedlings to the garden or a larger container.

Growing in the Garden

When you plant tomatoes right in the ground, the roots can extend deep into the soil as they seek out water. Water newly planted tomatoes well to make sure soil is moist and ideal for growing.

Early in the growing season, watering plants daily in the morning. As temperatures increase, you might need to water tomato plants twice a day. Garden tomatoes typically require 1-2 inches of water a week.

Container Tomato Plants

Tomato plants grown in containers need more water than garden tomatoes. Soil in containers heats up faster which leads to more water evaporation.

A good rule of thumb for containers is to water until water runs freely from the bottom. Water in the morning and check the soil moisture levels again in the afternoon. If soil feels dry about 1 inch below the surface, it’s time to water again.

Keep Tomatoes Well Fed

Adding organic mulch to tomato plants reduces evaporation in the soil. That means less watering, so you can save time and resources.

Add Espoma’s organic Tomato-tone, a slow release premium plant food, for bigger, healthier roots that can withstand a little drought and excess heat.

There are many factors that affect how much water tomato plants need, such as weather conditions and the size and growth rate of the plant. Every plant is different! The best way to give your tomatoes the care they need is to closely monitor the plants and the soil moisture weather.

Visit our Organic Tomato Gardening Guide for more tips and tricks.

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