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Grow Tomatoes in Containers

Small cherry tomato plants in pots
Cherry tomatoes in pots
Small cherry tomato plants in pots

Tomatoes are easily grown in containers—clay pots, plastic nursery pots, and wood boxes

Container-grown tomatoes have the same growing requirements as garden-grown tomatoes: 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day, nutrient-rich soil, and enough water or soil moisture for steady, even growth.

Best tips on How to Plant, Grow, and Harvest Tomatoes.

You can grow any type of tomato in a container—a miniature currant-sized or small cherry tomato or a tall, vining beefsteak tomato—as long as the container is large enough to hold enough soil to keep the plant upright and support the plant’s nutrient and water needs.

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Containers for Tomato Growing

Simply, the container to grow a tomato should be big enough to hold the plant, which means large enough to contain the soil necessary to deliver nutrients and water for plant growth, and large enough that the plant at maturity does not tip the container.

There are miniature tomato varieties that will grow in an 8-inch pot—roughly the size of a one-gallon container. A 2-gallon or a 5-gallon container can support larger, indeterminate or vining tomatoes and hold enough soil moisture for three or more days when the weather turns hot in summer. A 5-gallon nursery pot is roughly the size of a 2-by-2-foot redwood box; a 2-gallon container is the size of a 10-inch pot.

Be sure the container has large drainage holes in the bottom. Set the container up off of the patio, deck, or balcony with pot feet or on wood strips; this will allow for adequate drainage and ensure plant roots do not bake on hot days when cement or wooden decking gets hot.

If you are growing tomatoes in a window box planter or hanging container make sure the container is securely fastened and has drainage holes.

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Tomatoes on a balcony
Tomatoes growing on a high balcony.

Soil for Tomato Containers

The soil for growing tomatoes in containers should be nutrient-rich and moisture-retentive but well-draining. Use a commercial potting mix or mix your own potting soil.

Here are some quick do-it-yourself potting mixes:

· Compost mix: mix 3 parts (such as a gallon) of garden soil, 3 parts of compost, and 2 parts of builder’s sand.

· Soil mix: 4 parts garden soil (be sure the garden soil is free of stones and debris and disease-free), 1½ parts sphagnum moss, 1½ parts builder’s sand, 1 part aged, dried steer manure.

· Soilless fertilized mix: 1 part horticultural grade vermiculite and 1 part shredded peat moss, add a half spoonful or so of ground dolomite limestone, a half spoonful of superphosphate, and a half spoonful 5-10-5 fertilizer; mix thoroughly. This is a good mix for hanging baskets or window boxes.

Fill the container to about 2 inches below the rim allowing enough room for watering.

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Planting and Staking Tomatoes in Containers

Plant tomatoes in containers just as you would set transplants in the garden. Pinch off the lower leaves of seedlings and set them vertically in the pots or hanging planters as deep as you can.

Most miniature and dwarf varieties will not need staking, but if you are growing a vining, indeterminate variety, it will require a stake or cage just as it would in the garden. Large, vining tomatoes are likely to grow rapidly and fruit heavily, so be prepared to prune or pinch away leaves and fruit that could cause the container to tip.

watering tomatoes
Keep the soil in containers just moist, not wet.

Watering Tomatoes in Containers

Tomatoes growing in containers, like tomatoes growing in the garden, need a continuous, uninterrupted supply of moisture. Do not let the soil in a container go dry and conversely do not allow the soil to be overly wet or soggy

The smaller the container the more frequently you will need to water it. Keep in mind that frequent watering will likely leach nutrients through the soil mix in the containers. Add a water-soluble fertilizer to your watering can every three weeks or so or renew nutrients that are leached from the soil.

Water whenever the soil becomes dry down to about a half-inch or slightly more below the soil surface; this might mean watering once a week in mild weather or watering up to three times a week in hot, dry weather. When a plant growing in a container begins to wilt towards the end of the day it is time to water; if you find a plant wilted in the morning, it has gone too long without water and needs immediate attention.

When you water, be certain that the water reaches the soil at the bottom of the container. Water the container thoroughly, until the water runs out of the drainage hole at the bottom, or put water in a saucer or tray under the container and allow the soil to wick water up from the saucer into the container. A container should draw all the water it needs from a bottom tray in about 30 minutes. Do not let the container sit in a saucer of water longer than 30 minutes; root rot can be caused by overly wet soil.

You can place a perforated drain pipe in the container—from the soil line to the bottom of the container, fill it with builder’s sand and pour water into the pipe; that way you can be certain water reaches the bottom of the container and all of the soil in between.

Avoid watering late in the evening or watering plant leaves; this encourages disease.

Fertilizing Tomatoes in Containers

Commercial potting mixes contain enough nutrients to sustain containerized tomatoes for about six weeks; after that use add a water-soluble fertilizer to a gallon watering can and feed tomatoes in containers about every two or three weeks. Use a fertilizer high in phosphorus to support fruit growth; a 5-10-5 fertilizer will deliver sufficient nutrients to a heavy-cropping tomato. Follow label instructions, commonly 1 tablespoon of water-soluble fertilizer per gallon of water, feeding every three weeks.

Sunlight for Tomatoes in Containers

Container-grown tomatoes—like tomatoes in the garden– should receive maximum sunlight, 8 hours– 4 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the afternoon—is optimal. If you are growing on a balcony, turn the container at least once a week so that the plant develops symmetrically. If your containers are too heavy or bulky to turn by hand, set them on wheels or plant dollies so that they are easily rotated and moved.

Tomato Pollination

Tomatoes have complete flowers—meaning the male and female parts are in the same flower. Wind and insects aid tomatoes in pollination. If your container-grown plants are sheltered from light breezes or off the beaten path of bees and other insects—growing high on balconies, you can aid pollination and fruiting by gently shaking the plants once a day to ensure pollination.

Tomato in pot

General Tomato Care

Container-grown tomato plants are subject to the same diseases, insects, and disorders as plants grown in gardens. Keep an eye out for weeds and watch for pests and diseases.

If you are growing small tomatoes in hanging baskets and want to train your plants to cascade—making harvest easier, tie 1-ounce fishing weights to the end of branches early on to train them to grow over the edges of your hanging pots.

Tomato Varieties for Container Growing

You can grow large or small tomato plants in containers. Tomatoes for Small Spaces includes a list of varieties suited for small containers. But you can grow any variety you like–even the largest beefsteak varieties–as long as you choose a container large enough. There are many small plant tomatoes—some that will grow in 6-inch pots—suitable for container growing. If you are limited for space, choose a determinate variety—meaning one that will grow no larger than bush form.

Click over to this article for recommended varieties, Tomatoes for Small Spaces.

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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