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Growing 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 Grow 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.

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.

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) garden soil, 3 parts compost, 2 parts 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.

Planting and Staking Tomatoes in Containers

Plant tomatoes in containers just as you would set transplants into 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. 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 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 instruction, 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 potGeneral 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. Choose any variety you like as long as you also 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.

 

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18 Comments

  1. Hello! I love your site!

    I’ve seen pictures of tomato gardens where the vines have no leaves, only stalks and tomatoes… so…

    Can I prune most of my tomato leaves to reduce exposure to disease and just leave the top, the ones that will actually grow more and shed flowers, etc.? Or will this leave my plant with no energy to grow vigorously?

    Thanks!

    • You can train a tomato to a single stem or leader: you will need a strong stake or cane to about 5 feet high. As the plant grows, tie the main stem to the cane–this will allow the stem to thicken. Remove all but three side shoots or trusses to develop. Pinch away other side shoots and any basal or soil level growth as they develop. Once the stem reaches the top of the stake pinch away any new top growth and allow the fruit forming on the trusses below to ripen. The yield on a single leader plant will be smaller, but you will have more room in your garden for single leader plants–you can plant them as close as 12 to 18 inches apart.

  2. Hello! Thank you so much for all you do to help!!!! I’m a newbie container gardener and your insight is helping me since I am getting important information after the fact. My question is: Should I stake a determinate cherry tomato plant? I’ve read varying opinions.

    I have a Golden Nugget plant. It is doing very well and I’m seeing my very first food I’ve grown (happy happy dance)!! It is bushing out and has fruit in varying stages of growth. I feel bad when I see it laying down even though it seems to be healthy. Thank you. Also…is there such a thing as a miniature indeterminant tomato plant? My other plant looks like it.

    • Yes, you can stake or cage a determinate tomato plant. Your stake or cage will help protect the plant from being damaged by the wind or accidental brushing on the patio or deck. Use a small tomato cage. There are semi-determinate tomato plants that are larger than determinate tomatoes, but smaller than vining indeterminate tomatoes.

  3. I have had success in growing indeterminate tomatoes in non-woven fabric grow bags. I stick with a 20-gallon size, so I have more than enough room for staking the plant, as well as to have room for growing companion plants, around the base of the tomato plant. I stick with cherry or grape tomato plants, as I have less worry about the tomato plant being “tippy”, in the bag….and because they’re my favorites, to eat!

    Tomatoes can also be easily fertilized, with the gentle use of a cotton swab (aka Q-tip). Just move from flower to flower, hopefully remembering which ones you have and have not done already, to be certain to get to all of them! (Works for pepper plants, too!)

    Wondering about your math, though. You stated, “A 5-gallon nursery pot is roughly the size of a 2-by-2-foot redwood box”. One cubic foot is equivalent to approximately 7.5 gallons, so 5 gallons would be ~2/3 of a cubic foot. Your 2×2 box could only be ~2 inches deep, in order to hold that volume of soil. Pretty shallow, for tomato roots! Even on this other page, on this site:
    https://harvesttotable.com/container-and-pot-sizes-how-much-soil-do-i-need/
    your numbers seem a bit conservative (although, granted, you don’t need to fill any container to the top). 0.48 cubic feet of soil, for a 12″ cube (12x12x12) container? Hmmm….

    • Tomatoes can tolerate plenty of sun. They do not do well with temperatures greater than 86F. The reflection from the water may help to ripen the tomatoes quickly but be careful that the unprotected fruit does not suffer from sunscald as a result of intense heat and sunlight reflection.

      • I was afraid the plant might burn or scald? Never knew over 86 was a problem in ripening. What do the high temperatures cause. We certainly had weird weather upstate NY this past summer.

        • Plant growth (and fruit ripening) is slowed and can come to a halt at temperatures over 86F; heat slows the photosynthesis process because leaves do not unfold but tend to curl in order to protect themselves from heat damage at temperatures above 86F.

  4. Hello!
    How early do you start pruning your tomato plants? i’m container growing a big beef indeterminate variety. Started from seedling about 10 weeks ago. Now they are quite hardy plants and starting to grow rapidly!
    I’m trying to have a single stalk. Pinching off the suckers but nervous about the trimming to many leaves to early.
    thankyou

    • Once you have determined which stalk/stem will be your main stem, loosely tie it to the stake. You can let the plant grow to the top of the stake training the single stem up the stake. When the plant reaches the top of the stake you can begin nipping off the growth buds. As the plant is growing up the stake, you will see lateral branches growing from the main stem. You can decide which ones evenly spaced you want to allow to grow. If they grow horizontally too long; nip off the tips. Once your main stem and laterals are determined, you can start nipping out new growth that appears in axil between the mains stem and your chosen laterals.

  5. My plants have early fruit on them but some of the bottom stems without fruit have turned yellow. What causes this and how do I avoid it happening to other plants?

    • The branches low on the plant are the oldest; it is not unusual for them to turn yellow and die especially as the plant grows taller and there is less light reaching the lower branches. Blight disease can also cause lower branches to yellow, but they also would turn brown and black if diseased.

    • If watering is irregular–if the soil goes dry and then wet and then dry–the tomato fruit can develop stress lines, essentially scars where the cell development has been uneven. These marks will be brown or tan and dry looking. If the marks are wet or almost rotten looking, that could be a sign of bacterial disease.

  6. I live in Los Angeles where the temperature is often 85, and many times 90 – 100°. Can I grow beef stake variety in a container? If so how can protect them in this very hot place? Thank you for all your advice, I just discovered you today! (4/25/21)

    • Beefsteak tomatoes can be grown in very hot conditions. Growing tomatoes in containers, one concern will be the even uptake of water. You will want to keep the soil moist, but not wet and never totally dry. Beefsteaks contain a lot of water. Tomatoes will crack if the uptake of water is uneven–dry then wet; they will split or burst like a balloon. When temperatures get into the mid to upper 90sF, you may want to place shade cloth directly above the plants to protect them from the hot midday sun. Sunburn can turn tomato leaves and fruit white and thin. Beefsteaks take more than 100 days from transplanting to bear fruit; so you will want to be vigilant through the process. Make sure the container contains enough soil to hold moisture and nutrients through the long growing period.

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