By Melinda Myers
Keep garden-fresh tomatoes close at hand this season. Grow one or more in containers on your patio, balcony, or front steps.
Any tomato can be grown in a pot, but determinate varieties are smaller and more compact, so they are a bit easier to manage in a container. They produce fruit in a relatively short period of time, making them great choices for preserving as well as using fresh. Look for a D or determinate on the plant tag, seed packet or in the catalog description.
Indeterminate tomatoes, often identified with an I, are large, sprawling plants. These are usually staked or grown in wire cages to save space, reduce pest problems and make harvesting easier. They continue to grow, flower, and produce fruit until the frost kills the plant. Indeterminate tomatoes usually produce more tomatoes, but the harvest is later in the season than determinate varieties. New containers with built-in trellises or creative gardeners crafting their own makes growing indeterminate tomatoes in pots an easier possibility.
Grow one tomato per container for maximum productivity. Use a 5-gallon or bigger container for large varieties and at least a two to three gallon or similar size pot for smaller varieties. Some research suggests growing tomatoes in a pot that is at least 14 inches but preferably 20 inches wide will yield greater results. Adding flowers and herbs to the container boosts the beauty and diversity of your container garden but will reduce the number of tomatoes produced.
Growing tomatoes in containers also allows you to extend the season. Start earlier by moving the planter inside when the weather is harsh and back outside when the weather is warm and sunny. As the weather turns cold at the end of the growing season, cover the planter or move it into a frost-free location as needed. Some gardeners even move a pot or two inside to finish off the tomato season.
Grow tomatoes in a container with drainage holes or a self-watering pot that has a reservoir to hold water and extend the time between watering. Further reduce the need to water by adding an organic, sustainable soil amendment like Wild Valley Farms’ wool pellets (wildvalleyfarms.com) to the potting mix. Made from wool waste, this product reduces watering by up to 25%. Adding a low nitrogen, slow-release fertilizer at planting will eliminate the need to fertilize weekly. Just make a second application, if needed, mid season.
Plant tall tomato transplants a few inches deeper than they were growing in their container. Remove the lowest leaves that would otherwise be buried in the soil. Cover with soil and water. This is also a good time to install any stakes, trellises, or cages to support taller varieties.
Initially, check tomatoes growing in containers every day and water often enough to keep the developing root system moist. Reduce watering frequency as plants become established. Feel the top few inches of soil and water the established plants thoroughly whenever this is dry. Mulch the soil with evergreen needles, shredded leaves, or other organic mulch to keep the soil consistently moist and suppress weeds. Consistent soil moisture encourages more flowering and fruiting, while reducing the risk of blossom end rot, cracking, and misshapen fruit.
Harvest tomatoes when fully colored or leave them on the plant a few more days for an even sweeter flavor. You’ll enjoy the convenience of harvesting fresh tomatoes right outside your door for use in salads, sauces, and other favorite recipes.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including Small Space Gardening and Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Wild Valley Farms for her expertise to write this article. Myers’ website is www.MelindaMyers.com.