Growing In Containers
Container gardening is a great way to garden when you don’t have much space, and tomatoes are the king of containers. The structure and limited space actually encourages upward growth for this vining plant, and when you combine a good tomato pot with a trellis or cage, you have a recipe for successful, tasty tomatoes this summer.
Choosing A Variety
While you can grow your prized heirloom tomatoes in containers with proper care and attention, the varieties that succeed the best in containers are dwarf varieties like grape and cherry tomatoes. Try Tiny Tim, Pixie II, or Florida Basket, which was bred to grow in containers. These smaller tomatoes lend themselves well to vining downward in hanging baskets, but you also can train them upright with the use of stakes, poles and cages.
If you want full-size tomatoes but need the plants to be compact in size to fit within your container, choose a determinate variety of tomato. These stay at a more manageable height and produce their juicy red fruits more closely together, making them desirable for container gardening. However, pay attention to fruit size when choosing a determinate tomato for a container; stay away from giant or jumbo varieties, as these plants will not be able to grow and fruit well within the confines of a pot.
Sun, Soil and Water
Tomatoes grown in containers need the same amount of sun as they would in the garden; be sure to place the container in a spot that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sun during the day. Containers should be well-drained, with plenty of drainage holes. You can use regular potting mix for small containers and hanging pots, but soil needs to be mixed especially for larger containers. It needs to be light, and retain moisture well.
A soilless potting mix can work, as can garden soil mixed thoroughly with vermiculite or perlite to loosen it up. Water much more often than you would in the garden, since the plant’s roots can’t reach out for any other nearby water. In the hot summer months, water container tomatoes every day.
If you are planning to grow tomatoes with upright stakes or cages, you should place the supports in the pot in the planting stage, so that you don’t disturb the roots later, when the plant needs the supports. A cage has the benefit of supporting the tomato plant from all sides, and containing it within the limits of the cage when the plant is in its mature stages.
Stakes provide the same upward support, but don’t limit the outward growth as effectively. You can use both if desired; some gardeners place a stake just to one side of the center of the pot for the young seedling to grow along, then surround the seedling with a cage to help shape it once it has leafed out.
Want to learn more about growing tomatoes in containers? Check out these Web sites chosen by us for more quality information on the subject.
The National Gardening Association has a great guide to growing container tomatoes.
The University of Illinois Extension’s basics on growing tomatoes has more details on varieties, care and harvest.
The Ohio State University Extension provides a good fact sheet on container gardening with vegetables.
- How To Grow Tomatoes In Pots and Containers
- Growing Tomatoes in Containers
- Types of Container Tomatoes
- How to Grow Tomato Plants in Pots
- Caging Heirloom Tomato Plants:
- Staking Heirloom Tomato Plants
- Sprawling Tomato Plants on the Ground:
- HeathGlen’s Method of Trellising Heirloom Tomatoes:
- Other Popular Methods of Supporting Tomato Plants:
- Tomato Varieties that don’t require support
- Conclusion on Supporting Heirloom Tomato Plants:
- Staking Tomatoes
- How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots Like a Gardening Pro
- 1. Choose the right type of tomato.
- 2. Start with a strong and healthy transplant.
- 3. Don’t be shy with container size, and choose a fabric pot over a plastic pot.
- 4. Use high-quality potting soil.
- 5. Feed your tomato plant well.
- 6. Bury the stem of the tomato plant.
- 7. Water thoroughly and consistently.
- 8. Protect young transplants from frost with “walls of water.”
- 9. Add your support structure.
- 10. Mulch the soil.
- 11. Fertilize your tomatoes consistently throughout the season.
- 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
- Help your tomatoes stand tall with a DIY tomato cage
How To Grow Tomatoes In Pots and Containers
Growing tomatoes in pots is nothing new. This is a great way to enjoy your favorite crops in areas with limited space. Tomatoes can be grown easily in hanging baskets, window boxes, planters, and many other types of containers. To successfully grow tomatoes in pots or containers, simply match the variety you want to a suitable container and provide the proper care.
Growing Tomatoes in Containers
It’s easy to grow tomato plants in pots. To get the most from container-grown tomatoes, you need to match the eventual size of your plant tomato plants to the overall size of your container. For instance, smaller varieties are well suited to hanging baskets or window boxes, whereas you might want to choose a sturdier planter or 5-gallon (18.9 l) bucket for larger types.
Make certain the pot is deep enough to accommodate the plant’s root system. A standard 12-inch (3.65 m) deep pot with the same diameter is suitable for most plants. Anything from bushel baskets and half barrels to 5-gallon (18.9 l) buckets can be used to grow tomato plants. Just make sure that the container has adequate drainage.
Types of Container Tomatoes
There are several types of tomatoes suitable for containers. When choosing tomatoes, first consider whether they are determinate (bushy) or indeterminate (vining). Generally, the bush varieties are preferable but nearly any type will work. These types do not require staking. Common container tomatoes include:
- Patio tomato
- Pixie tomato
- Tiny Tim tomato
- Toy Boy tomato
- Micro Tom tomato
- Floragold tomato
- Early Girl tomato
- Stakeless tomato
- Big Boy tomato
How to Grow Tomato Plants in Pots
Fill your pot with loose, well-draining potting soil. It’s also a good idea to add in some organic materials like well-rotted shavings or manure. For example, you might try an equal mix of potting soil perlite, peat moss, and compost.
Tomato seeds can be started indoors in early spring or you can purchase young plants once they become available in your area.
For tomatoes that require staking, you may want to add the cage or stake beforehand.
Place the container in full sun, checking them daily and watering as needed—usually weekly with more frequent watering during hot or dry spells. Begin using a water-soluble fertilizer about every other week during midsummer and continue throughout the growing season.
Growing tomatoes in pots is easy and can yield just as much as those out in the garden.
Trellis system Aug. 14 – Green Zebra
Many people who are new to growing heirloom tomatoes in the ground start with a tomato plant, a bag of fertilizer and a tomato “cage” purchased at a garden center. Many people also come back the next year to buy tomato plants from me and have sad tales to tell about their experience with the cages.
Range of Methods for Supporting Heirloom Tomatoes:
I too started with cages, and tried them out in a variety of ways…none successful, I might add. I also tried the “basket weave” method of trellising, letting the tomatoes sprawl on a bed of straw, staking them to posts of rebar, and using large homemade cages of concrete reinforcing wire. After years of trials (and tribulations), my husband rigged up a system for growing our heirloom tomato plants that has proven easy, efficient, and successful. I’ll show you what it looks like below, but first here is a list of pros and cons from my experience with other methods. Some of these may be very effective for the small garden and not for a larger garden.
Caging Heirloom Tomato Plants:
Empty tomato cage in greenhouse
You don’t need to worry about pruning, pinching off the suckers, or training the plant.
- There will be plenty of foliage to provide shade for the fruit and prevent sunscald.
- Due to plenty of leaf cover, the soil will stay shaded and retain more moisture. Keeping the moisture level more consistent will help prevent cracking and blossom end rot.
- You can easily adapt the cages to do double duty and give the tomatoes a head start in the spring. Wrap a circle of one-foot-high plastic around the bottom of the cage at ground level and secure the overlapping ends. This will give the plants some extra heat, protect them from winds, and may help protect them from cutworms.
- Cages fall over. Tomato plants can get quite large (both in height and width), and they can become too heavy for the cages. This is especially true with some of the larger heirloom plants, where it is not uncommon to get one and two-pound tomatoes. The weight and size can, too frequently, topple the cage to the ground – especially in the light-weight commercial cages.
- Takes up space. Larger cages in particular can take up quite a bit of space in a small garden. They also take up space in storage, if that is a concern.
- Longer time to ripen. By late summer, the cages are so full of foliage that the fruit is shaded and doesn’t ripen as readily.
tomato cage made with concrete reinforcing wire
HOW TO CAGE:
- Make your own cage. The cages garden centers supply are simply too small and skimpy to support a healthy tomato plant all summer, especially the larger heirlooms.
- The cage should be at least five feet tall and 24 to 30 inches in diameter. It needs to be strong, made with something like concrete reinforcing wire.
- Make sure the cage has a large enough grid that you can get your hands through it to harvest the tomatoes.
- Either fasten stakes to the cages that can be driven into the ground, or cut your mesh grid so the spikes will enter the ground (see photo).
- Set the cages over the plants shortly after planting the seedling so you don’t break the plant trying to fit the cage over the plant later (under the right conditions, tomato plants grow fast).
Staking Heirloom Tomato Plants
- Staking takes up little space.
- Simple to install.
- The vines & tomatoes are up off the ground, resulting in cleaner fruit and less rotting.
- Early harvest. Staking requires you to prune the plant more frequently, which results in more of the plant’s energy directed toward ripening fruit;
- each individual tomato will be larger due to the pruning effect mentioned above
- it is easy to see the tomatoes and easier to harvest.
Sunscald on Heirloom Tomatoes Grown Outside
- it’s a hassle to stake, train and prune, and you have to be diligent about it (not everyone’s strong suit);
- the lack of heavy leaf cover makes the tomatoes more susceptible to sunscald problems
- total yield is often lower, since staking requires pruning which lowers the total leaf surface of the plant. Less leaf surface affects the total yield
- staked plants require more water, as they are exposed more to the sun and drying winds.
HOW TO STAKE
- Purchase a tall (6-8 foot), spiral tomato stake or use existing materials around home. I have used a six-foot piece of rebar fairly successfully, as it is quite sturdy, goes into the soil easily and has a rough texture that the plant ties adhere to.
- Try to put the stake on the downwind side so the plant will lean into it when the wind blows.
- Drive the stake into the ground right after transplanting so as not to disturb the roots.
- Set the stake in the ground about 3-5″ away from the plant, and set the stake deep (at least a foot) into the soil so it will not topple over during storms.
- As the plant grows, tie the stem of the plant to the stake with a soft tie. The coated wires they sell at nurseries work well, but nylons or cloth is fine also. Leave a couple of inches slack so the tie will not cut into the stem as it increases in width.
- As the plant grows up the stake, add more ties when it starts to flop over (you will know when).
- Regularly pinch off the unwanted, outward suckers and branches.
Sprawling Tomato Plants on the Ground:
- Least amount of work. No staking, pruning, tieing or training.
- More tomatoes. This method allows for the most leaf growth and the most amount of the plant receiving the sun. The plants bush out quite a bit and develop tomatoes on the side stems.
- Although you will get more tomatoes, many of them may not be edible. Sprawling results in tomatoes rotting from the moist soil or getting nibbled by animals and bugs. We tried several different mulches to let the tomatoes rest on, but the straw attracted mice and slugs and the plastic got wet and promoted mold.
- Space. You need at least one square yard for each tomato plant.
HOW TO GROW
- Plant the tomatoes in a weed-free area, water, fertilize and have a cool drink.
HeathGlen’s Method of Trellising Heirloom Tomatoes:
Early Spring Heirloom Tomato Plants in Trellis System
Space. The trellis requires very little space and tomatoes can be planted close together. My tomatoes are planted about 1 1/2 feet apart, alternating on each side of our trellis in a zig-zag formation (see photo).
- Maintenance. You can easily weave the tomato plants through the grid of the trellis as they grow. It doesn’t require a lot of training, pruning or tieing. I will initially tie the plant to one of the wires when the plant is about two feet tall and then just weave it through the grids after that.
- Reusable. You can leave the trellis up through the winter and just come back in the spring and add compost along the side of the trellis. Many gardeners believe you have to rotate your tomato plants constantly. I think you only need to do this if you have disease in your soil. I have grown heirloom tomatoes successfully every year for nine years in the same spot with the same trellis. Same spot – new compost – healthy seedlings – great tomatoes.
Trellis & Heirloom Tomatoes on August 14, 2012
Less cracking, less disease, less nutritional problems. The trellis allows for a lot of foliage, which shades the soil while still keeping the fruit off of the ground. When fruit are up off the ground, they don’t come into contact with soil-borne diseases or ground pests.
- Easy harvesting. No reaching through small grids on your hands and knees trying to find the ripe tomatoes that you can’t see inside the mass of leaves in the cages.
- Fruit tends to ripen one to two weeks earlier. More leaves are exposed to the sun which results in efficient use of the tomatoes food supply.
- Sturdy support. During our first three years of growing tomatoes, we would start off with beautiful organic plants in our “well-designed” tunnels and cages… and then the storms came. Consistently. Every year. We finally went to iron and steel and built a heavily buttressed structure (tunnel) and hog panel trellises secured with iron T-posts. No more problems with wind, storms or hail.
- Start-up time. It does take some time to build a good trellis initially. The amount of time depends on what kind and how long of a trellis you’re building. We took a half of a day to pound in the stakes and attach the hog panels to them, but we ended up with approximately 500 lineal feet of trellis that has never been taken down or modified since the initial building.
- Expense. It is more expensive than caging or staking. I don’t remember the amount, but it didn’t seem like that much for something that will last the lifetime of the farm.
- Time. It does take some monitoring of the plants, and some time to tie them up initially and weave them subsequently. More time than a cage would take and less time than staking.
HOW TO BUILD HEATHGLEN’S TRELLIS SYSTEM
Trellis System for Tomato Plants Using T-posts and Hog Panels
Equipment needed: 5-foot T posts, 16-foot hog panels, aluminum wire ties, two-handled post-driver, electric hacksaw, a good strong man or woman and a patient assistant.
- Allowing 1 1/2 feet between each tomato plant, use the hacksaw to cut panels in desired lengths. We used the full 16-foot panels, which allowed 10 plants per panel. We placed posts 9 feet apart down the length of 72 feet of panels, overlapping the panels slightly to add stability.
- Lay the panels down flat on the ground where your trellis will stand. Laying the panels on the ground will help you determine where to pound in the posts, and help you keep your posts in a straight line.
Trellis System for Tomato Plants – Outside Setup
Starting 3″ in from one end of the panel, pound in a T-post approximately 18″ deep. Go to the other end of the panel and pound in a T-post 3″ in from that end. Go to the middle and pound in another T-post.
- Lift the panel 6″ from the ground, with the narrower parts of the grid at the bottom (towards the ground). Have your assistant hold the panel in place while you secure the panels to the T-posts with the aluminum ties.
- Till in compost on each side of the panel and plant you tomatoes 1 1/2 feet apart, alternating each one to a different side of the panel.
- Run some T-tape or a soaker hose down the row of tomatoes so you don’t have to water from above. This helps keep moisture consistent and prevents disease from soil splashing up onto the plants.
Other Popular Methods of Supporting Tomato Plants:
Many commercial growers use a method called “Basket Weave”, and many others use a “Stringing” method where the plants climb up the strings secured to the top of the greenhouse. I am not covering these, as they are designed more for the commercial grower and they require more in-depth information than I can present on a blog post.
Tomato Varieties that don’t require support
Raspberry Lyanna Determinate Tomato Variety
Most tomato plants are considered either determinate or indeterminate (a few varieties are also considered dwarf). Most heirloom tomato varieties have an indeterminate growth habit, which means they will continue to grow in height throughout the season (sometimes considered a vining habit). If you have a long growing season, and continue to fertilize, indeterminate tomato plants can get quite tall, anywhere from six to 20 feet high (in Minnesota, mine will usually grow to around six or seven feet).
Determinate tomatoes sill stop growing at a certain height, usually around three to four feet. Determinate plants tend to be quite bushy and have thick stems that will support them without the need of stakes or cages. Determinate varieties will produce a large amount of fruit in a relatively short timeframe, whereas indeterminate varieties will produce a lesser amount of fruit over a longer period of time.
I usually recommend determinate varieties to people who want to grow tomatoes in containers, as it is a little more difficult to place larger cages in pots. If you want to grow indeterminate tomatoes in containers, it is best to grow them near a trellis or fence that you can train them up, or use very large pots that will allow large cages.
Determinate varieties that I have grown and found to be sturdy enough to not require staking include: Bush Champion (hybrid), Raspberry Lyanna (heirloom), Principe Borghese (heirloom), and Oregon Spring (hybrid). Determinate varieties also tend to be early.
Dwarf (or patio) tomatoes never need staking, but they only grow two or three feet tall and produce small tomatoes (cherry size). I have not grown the dwarf tomatoes before, but popular varieties in the catalogs seem to be Pixie and Small Fry.
Conclusion on Supporting Heirloom Tomato Plants:
Early season basket of heirloom tomatoes
Grow some tomatoes. Experiment. Do what fits your space and your personal comfort level of maintenance. Grow some tomatoes.
To keep indeterminate tomato plants from gobbling up too much garden space and to insure cleaner, healthier tomatoes, many gardeners support their plants, train them to grow a certain way and regularly pinch off unwanted growth. Staking is one popular way of supporting tomatoes.
Advantages of Staking:
- It saves space. You can grow more plants in a given area.
- It keeps vines and tomatoes off the ground. Fruit is cleaner with less rotting.
- You’ll get an earlier harvest. The pruning that staked tomatoes require forces more of the plant’s energy into ripening fruit.
- Each tomato is larger than if not staked. Pruned plants put more energy into fewer tomatoes.
- It’s easier to pick tomatoes and to work around plants.
Disadvantages of Staking:
- It takes time and effort to stake, train and prune plants.
- Staked tomatoes are more susceptible to cracking, blossom end rot and sunscald problems.
The total yield of staked plants is often lower than similar plants that are not staked. You have to prune off side shoots and branches to support the plant with a stake and that actually reduces the total leaf surface of the plant. The leaf surface is the site of the plant’s food manufacturing operation, so less leaf surface means a smaller total food supply, and that affects total yield.
Staked plants usually need mulching with materials such as hay or grass clippings. The mulch helps retain moisture in the soil. Staked plants actually need more water than unstaked tomatoes because they are held up and exposed to the sun and drying winds. They are also more susceptible to sunscald.
Not all tomato plants need staking. Determinate tomatoes stop growing at a certain height — usually when they’re fairly short. They stop growing because the main stem forms a flower bud at the top that produces fruit. Most of the determinate varieties are early types, and they’re bushy plants with short, stout stems that support them pretty well. Some popular determinate varieties include ‘First Pik’, ‘Oregon Spring’ and ‘Sub-Arctic Maxi’.
Tomatoes with an indeterminate growth habit will continue to grow in height throughout the season if you feed them well and let them take off. You may see a photograph in the newspaper during the summer of a tomato plant being trained up the side of a house. The plant may be anywhere from 6 to 15 or 20 feet high. That’s a well-fed indeterminate plant, for sure! Popular indeterminate varieties include ‘Early Girl’, ‘Better Boy’ and ‘Rutgers’.
Another group of tomatoes are the dwarf or patio types. These varieties never need staking, grow only two to three feet tall, produce cherry-tomato-sized fruits and are great for containers or small gardens. Popular varieties include ‘Pixie II’ and ‘Small Fry’.
A new type of dwarf tomato, called the dwarf indeterminate, combines the short, bushy growth of dwarf plants with the long production season and large fruit size of indeterminate types. Examples of these varieties are ‘Better Bush Improved’ and ‘Husky Gold’.
How to Stake
When you stake a tomato plant, try to put the stake on the prevailing downwind side so the plant will lean against it when the wind is blowing hard.
Six- to eight-foot-high stakes are good for most tomatoes, although you can make do with shorter four- to five-foot stakes, if necessary. Put the stakes in the ground right after you’ve set out the plants. Drive them about a foot into the soil, three to five inches away from the plant. Remember not to put the stake on the root side of trench-planted tomatoes. As the plant grows, tie a strip of cloth, nylon stocking or coated wire tightly to the stake and loosely around the plant in a figure-eight fashion. Leave at least an inch or two of slack. Add more ties as needed as the plant grows up the stake.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Help your tomatoes stand tall with a DIY tomato cage
CORVALLIS, Ore. – Giving tomato plants a boost can make a difference in the amount of fruit the plant produces, according to Master Gardeners trained by the Oregon State University Extension Service.
“If tomatoes lie on the ground, they can rot,” said Master Gardener Bob Woods. “Animals can attack them and disease can ruin the plants. Most tomato plant diseases come from the soil. It’s important to use a support structure to keep the leaves and fruit off the ground.”
You can buy a tomato cage at garden centers – but they can be costly or flimsy. Or plan ahead to build your own creative and durable support structures out of rolls of mesh, available at most home improvement stores.
“Gardeners I know have used concrete reinforcing wire for decades,” said Master Gardener Sherry Sheng. “At the end of the season you can stack three or four together and roll them up for storage. It’s a long-lasting solution.”
Early in the season, brainstorm about if you want tomatoes for salads, sandwiches, sauce or canning, then choose varieties by reading seed catalogues or asking local Master Gardeners for suggestions.
Once you have a list of varieties, learn whether they are determinate or indeterminate by reading labels, advised Sheng. This will help you choose an appropriately sized structure. A determinate variety is bred to grow to a compact height of about 3 feet and fruit ripens within a couple of weeks late July to early August. A two-inch by two-inch wooden stake is sufficient to support each main stem of the plant. Old nylon stockings or strips of fabric are ideal ties.
On the other hand, indeterminate or “vining” tomatoes grow about 6-10 feet tall and produce fruit throughout the growing season. They need more room and stronger support to flourish.
For indeterminate tomato varieties, here are some helpful steps to building your own support structure.
- Buy a roll of concrete reinforcing mesh consisting of stiff 9- or 10- gauge wire at a garden center. Get a roll that is about 150 feet wide by 5 feet tall, which costs on average about $100-150. Using 5-foot sections for each cage, a roll can yield 30 cages. The mesh can be used to support other vining plants and for fencing.
- Use a bolt cutter to slice the mesh into the dimensions you want. You will want a panel with a row of straight vertical wire on one end and a set of sharp prongs on the other.
- A 5-foot panel will form an 18-inch diameter cage. A 6-foot panel will form a cage of 23-inch diameter. Cut a longer panel for larger cages.
- With pliers, bend the prongs at 90-degree angles to form hooks. Link the hooks to the straight vertical wires to form a cage.
- Cut and remove horizontal wires, which leaves 6-inch spikes for legs.
Finish these do-it-yourself structures by April before you begin planting. The wire will rust but should survive for years. Prune tomato plants in July and August.
For more information on growing tomatoes, go online to the OSU Extension guide, Grow Your Own Tomatoes. The guide is also available in Spanish at Cultive sus propios tomates.
In this video, we explain how to choose the best plant supports for both bush and vining tomato plants, and show how to make inexpensive homemade tomato cages. This helps to prevent branch breakage, provide air circulation, avoid slug damage, and keep tomatoes productive and healthy.
We’ve also added the video text below, at the request of our readers. After you watch this video, try our Almanac Garden Planner for free. Also, be sure to check out our Growing Guide for Tomatoes for more great tips on keeping your tomatoes healthy!
Supporting Different Types of Tomatoes
Vining tomatoes (also known as indeterminate or cordon tomatoes) grow to head height and beyond, so they need tall, sturdy plant supports. Bush tomatoes (also known as determinate tomatoes) grow up to about three feet high and therefore require less support. Falling in between are semi-determinate, or intermediate types of tall bush tomatoes. If you haven’t started to plant tomatoes yet and aren’t sure which type to pick, check out these Tomato Tips.
Vining tomatoes can be grown against tall canes or garden stakes or in a greenhouse, twisted around string.
Firmly secure canes or garden stakes into the ground so they will be able to support the considerable weight of fruit-laden plants and withstand sudden gusts of wind. Tie stems to their canes at regular intervals, leaving enough slack for the stem to continue growing in girth. Secure a tie just above a truss, as this will support the weight of fruits better than a tie secured below a truss.
String supports are easy to set up. Dangle strong string directly from the greenhouse’s framework, or from a horizontal length of string secured and stretched taut between the gable ends. Remember that the greenhouse will be bearing the entire weight of the plants, so it must be strong enough for the job.
Loop the string around the rootball of the tomato plant at planting time to secure it in place. As plants reach up, twist the string around the stem, completing a full loop around the stem every two leaves. When you reach a truss, tuck the string above or behind it, never below it.
Vining tomatoes can also be trained up a wigwam structure, one plant to each cane.
In theory, bush tomatoes do not need support, but in reality plants can be weighed down onto the ground by heavy fruits, increasing the chances of diseases and slug damage.
Tie plants to sturdy garden stakes, or secure two parallel rows of horizontal canes to short, upright garden stakes hammered into the ground, and plant the tomatoes in between the two rows of canes. Lift up the branches and drape them over the canes as they grow.
How to Make Tomato Cages
Tomato cages offer fuss-free supports for bush and semi-determinate tomatoes. It’s easy to make your own from concrete reinforcing mesh. The 6-inch squares will allow you to easily flex the mesh into a tube to make your cage. They’re inexpensive to make, and can be reused for many years.
Start by cutting a length of mesh five to six feet long. When rolled into a tube this will give a cage diameter of 18 to 22 inches—tight enough to support a plant, while giving it enough room to expand. Use sturdy wire- or bolt cutters to make the cuts, and wear gloves to protect your hands from snagging cuts.
Once cut, roll the length of mesh into a tube. Tie the ends together with heavy gauge wire or strong string, then cut off the bottom wire from the cage to leave just the vertical wires sticking out. These wires can be used to push the cage into the ground. For added stability, tie the cage to a vertical length of rebar or a similar sturdy upright. You can also pin the bottom wire to the ground with tent pegs.
Lower your tomato cage over the top of a plant and pull through any stray branches. As the plant grows, encourage growth upwards through the center of the cage, leaving fruiting trusses to grow outside of the cage to make picking even easier. At the end of the season, store the mesh flat to save space.
Pruning Tomato Plants
Tomatoes need regular pruning for the best results. This includes pruning trusses to remove excess fruits, removing unproductive lower leaves, and removing sideshoots (suckers). Pruning can even affect the flavor of your tomatoes, according to our page on Tomato Tips.
- Truss Pruning
- Thinning the fruits within the trusses of prolific fruiters such as cherry tomatoes will ensure those that remain grow larger. For varieties that bear particularly heavy fruits, such as the beefsteak tomatoes, thinning fruits to just three per truss will reduce the weight of the truss and make it less likely to snap away from the stem.
- Prune trusses by snipping off the fruits with sharp scissors while they are still small.
- Removing Leaves (Vining Tomatoes)
- Remove all leaves below the lowest ripening trusses of vining tomatoes. These older leaves divert the plant’s energy away from producing more flowers and fruits, and reduce air circulation and light penetration. Remove the leaves by pulling the leaf sharply up, then down, so it comes away from the main stem. Support the stem as you do this.
- Removing Sideshoots (Vining Tomatoes)
- Also known as suckers, sideshoots on vining tomatoes distract the tomato from producing flowers and fruits, and must also be removed. Sideshoots appear at the point where a leaf joins the main stem. Remove them by wiggling them from side to side, then using your thumb to snap them out. Remove sideshoots while they are still young, working from the bottom of the plant up.
It needn’t take long to complete these simple training and pruning tasks; it’s a once-a-week job and at the same time you can inspect your plants and check on the progress of your ripening tomatoes. You can check our Ripeness Guide to determine when your healthy tomatoes are ready for harvest.