Updated: May 18, 2021
If you love homegrown tomatoes in your favorite meals but don't have the space to plant them in your backyard, consider growing them in containers!
It’s amazing how many vegetables don’t need that much space to grow and produce healthy, edible fruits. All you need is a handy container and this guide to walk you through everything you need to know before you start your tomatoes.
Tomatoes are usually one of the first plants new gardeners try out. They’re fun to plant and sprout so quickly so you don’t have to wait too long to see results.
Let’s jump right into what you’ll need to start your tomato crop:
1. Location and lighting
Before you begin to plant, let’s talk locations.
Tomatoes need lots of sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight) to fruit, so choose a sunny balcony or space for your container. They also vine, so consider space for a trellis for the vines to train down in a hanging planter, depending on the species of tomatoes you want to plant.
Types of tomatoes
Here’s where a lot of beginner gardeners lose track: choosing the type of tomatoes to plant. There are so many things to consider, from taste to size, color and purpose.
Tomato plants come in 3 broad types:
● Determinate plants are usually smaller and shorter. They grow until a certain point, after which they stop growing.
● Indeterminate tomato plants grow and produce fruit all season long.
● Semi-determinate tomato plants continue to grow through the season, but are still smaller than indeterminate plants, with bushier vines.
Just in case you already have a tomato plant but can’t say which it is: determinate plants have flowers on the growing tip of the plant (the tallest stem), while indeterminate plants have leaves.
Always read through your tomato seed packet so you can know exactly what to expect from your plant.
2. Nursery and transplanting
After you have nailed down the type of tomato you want to plant, it’s time to start them in a nursery.
You can start tomato seeds in a seed tray, putting them on a windowsill with lots of light ahead of the planting season.
When the first frost has passed and it’s getting warmer outside, it’s time to transplant your tomato seedlings.
● Prepare the container by cleaning it thoroughly with soap and water, and letting it dry out before adding the soil in.
● Prepare the soil and add in fertilizer or compost. Some gardeners recommend adding bone meal and Epsom salts to the soil to encourage stronger root growth and kill bacteria that could potentially cause root rot.
● Plant each seedling deep into the soil. You can remove the last two leaves to make more space to put them in deeply to encourage more root growth.
● Give each tomato plant lots of space to grow into. A rule of thumb that usually works for a lot of gardeners is the width of a grocery bag for one tomato plant.
Seasoned gardeners will tell you to use the biggest container you can find for your tomato plants, and they are right. Tomato roots go quite deep, so you want a well-draining container at least 20 inches wide and 24 inches deep.
It doesn’t matter what material the container you start your tomato plants is, so far as it can hold moisture and fertilizer and has space for the tomato roots to spread out.
4. Soil and fertilizing
Your tomato plants' success depends on the type of soil you use. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so you need to give them a good growing foundation out of the nursery with a nutrient-rich potting mix.
Regular garden soil is discouraged for container gardens because they tend to dry out fast and leave the plant under-watered. That’s why you need to either buy an excellent potting mix or make yours. Here’s a short guide to mixing your gardening soil:
● 2 parts regular garden soil
● 1 part compost, worm castings, and other fertilizing m\aterial
● 1 part moisture-holding potting additives like peat, perlite, or vermiculite.
Fertilize the young plants every other month, but as soon as they start fruiting, they need more fertilizer to grow full, healthy fruits. Fertilize the plants every other week during the fruiting season with an NPK balanced fertilizer.
5. Plant support
As soon as you transplant your tomato seedlings, it’s time to give them support with a trellis or a cage, depending on their growth profile. It’s advised to put in the trellis before the plant’s roots are established so they are not damaged during the installation.
You can also give tomato plants support with upcycled poles and sturdy branches. What’s most important is that the vines have support as they grow. You can tie the vines to poles stuck deep into your container (take care not to damage the roots).
Some smaller tomato species look lovely trailing down in a hanging container and are perfect for balconies or patios with limited floor space.
Tomatoes need consistent water to thrive in containers, so if you won’t have the time to tend them every day, opt for a self-watering container instead.
Water your tomato plants deeply and slowly, making sure that the water is evenly distributed through the soil and doesn’t just run out the bottom of the container.
A tip for watering your tomato plants properly: water them lightly for a few seconds, allowing the water to run off. Give the water a few minutes to soak through the soil and prepare it for a deeper drink, then come back and water deeply.
7. Harvest and storage
You can start harvesting your tomato fruits as soon as they ripen (check your seed packet for a guide on when to expect this). As you harvest, cull diseased or rotted fruits and throw them out to encourage fuller plants and more fruits.
Tomatoes can be eaten raw, in salads, stews, canned or dried. The possibilities are endless!
With consistency, sunlight, and regular feeding, your tomato plants will give you a rich harvest you can eat, preserve or give away.
Have you planted tomatoes before? Share any tips or tricks you learned on your journey with us.