Gardens are a joy to maintain and a beauty to behold, and often times tomatoes are the crown jewel among the veggies and flowers of home gardens: not only are they lovely to look at, but they’re delicious to eat, too! The catch is that not everyone has the luxury of having a plot of land, or even a small backyard, to cultivate tomatoes in.
If that sounds like you, don’t give up hope! If properly grown, tomatoes can flourish in pots just as well as they can directly in the ground.
Read on to learn how to grow tomatoes in pots!
Why Grow Tomatoes in Pots
For those of you who have the luxury of choosing between planting them in the ground and growing them in pots, you might be wondering, is there any benefit in learning how to grow tomatoes in pots? The answer is yes!
Besides the fact that it allows gardeners with any kind of land size to enjoy tomato plants, the most obvious benefit to growing tomatoes in pots is how easily you can protect them from critters, pests, diseases, and intemperate weather.
How can this be? For starters, potted tomato plants are usually kept on decks or balconies. This lowers the chances of animals like deer, chipmunk, and squirrels from getting to the tomatoes before you can!
Secondly, a more isolated location close to your home also makes it more difficult for pests to transfer from other plants to your tomato plants.
And in regard to disease, since you’ll be using fresh potting soil, there is less risk of introducing diseases to the young plants that might exist in your garden soil.
Last but not least, when growing tomatoes in gardens, you have to keep a close eye on night time temperatures to make sure it never goes below freezing again. If it does, you have to find some way to protect your tomatoes from the cold by wrapping and covering them. But guess what—if you grow tomatoes in pots, you can just take them inside for the night!
How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots
Choosing the Right Tomato Plant
The first step in learning how to grow tomatoes in pots is choosing the right tomato plant for your endeavor. This is because tomatoes are actually not small plants: they usually range at a height of three to 12 feet! That means that you must choose a tomato plant best suited for the kind of space available to you.
To begin with, it’s well known that determinate tomato varieties are better suited to be grown in pots than indeterminate tomato varieties. Determinate tomato plants are plants that grow to a certain expected height and mature most of their fruits within a short period of time. Indeterminate tomato plants continue growing and producing fruit throughout the entire season. As you can imagine, these are the plants that grow very tall and become very heavy, and so this makes it trickier to grow them in pots.
Choosing a Container
When learning how to grow tomatoes in pots, the second step is choosing the right container for them. For tomatoes specifically, there is one important rule: bigger is always better!
Determinate tomato plants will thrive in at least 10 gallon containers, whereas, as you might imagine, indeterminate tomato plants need much larger containers: at least 20 gallons. Tomato plants can likely still grow in smaller containers than these, but their tomato output and growth will certainly be lacking. The container should have excellent drainage—the pot must retain moisture while also ensuring breathability.
Some gardeners strongly advise the use of fabric pots instead of plastic ones, because the former “air prunes” the roots. What does this mean? Roots in plastic pots continue growing even when they hit the inside of the pot, twisting and curling into themselves until the plant is positively rootbound.
This, however, doesn’t happen in fabric pots, because the outside air filters into the soil and, because of this exposure, changes the growth of roots. Instead of growing long and twisted, they grow shorter and denser roots that spread through the soil more evenly and increase the tomato plant’s absorption of water and nutrients.
Now comes the time to actually handle the tomato plant! If you’re transplanting young tomato plants, feel free to skip to the next section. If you’d like to learn how to grow tomatoes in pots from seed, keep on reading!
If you’re growing your tomato plants from seeds, you should plant them indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost of the winter season. Plant your seeds one-fourth of an inch deep into starting trays with potting soil specifically for seed starting. Keep them by a window or under grow lights to maximize their exposure to the sun, and consider using fertilizer.
If you keep the soil moist and the temperature within your home at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit, you can expect your tomato plants to germinate between one to two weeks. You can then transplant them to their final pot when they are six to 10 inches tall!
If you choose to buy tomato transplants from your local nursery, make sure to select plants with thick and strong stems and leaves, and check for damage and pests. At home, use high-quality potting soil, and avoid using old potting soil or even soil from your own garden, which heightens the possibility of spreading pests and diseases, and is usually too compact. Of course, don’t transplant until after the last winter frost.
When it comes to learning how to grow tomatoes in pots, which obviously includes transplanting tomato plants, it’s important to remember that tomatoes thrive when planted deeply. Whereas most vegetable plants are repotted at their original depth because they cannot grow roots any further along their stems, tomato plants are different: they can grow roots along any part of the stem, as long as it is buried beneath the soil.
For this reason, you should remove some of the bottom-most leaves, and plant the tomato plant deeply into the planting hole (we’re talking two-thirds of the plant!).
This makes for stronger roots, and sturdier plants. Fill the hole with quality potting soil without pressing down too much: it should remain light and fluffy to better breathe and drain.
Choosing the Right Spot
Next in how to grow tomatoes in pots is choosing the perfect spot for them. Because of how portable these potted tomato plants are—and the fact that you’re not limited by literal roots in the ground!—it might be easy to forget that they still have specific needs in terms of environment.
The most important aspect of the environment is, by all means, sunlight. Your tomato plants should be receiving between eight and 10 hours of sunlight every day.
Remember that the light changes depending on a season, so just because a particular corner of your deck is sunny all summer long, it doesn’t guarantee that same kind of exposure later on. As you might guess from the amount of sunlight they need, tomato plants also thrive in warm weather.
As with any plant (and most other things as well!), however, tomato plants will also be unhappy if they get too much sun or heat, which can kill young plants and dry the soil too quickly. Keep the temperature between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind can also be damaging to young tomato plants, so make sure they are sheltered.
If you have multiple pots of tomatoes, keep them close together enough so that they can profit from each other’s shade, but not so close that they end up rubbing against each other, which can facilitate the spread of disease.
Tomatoes are made from over 90 percent water, so it comes as no surprise that tomato plants can only thrive if they drink enough! This is an important thing to master when learning how to grow tomatoes in pots. The secret to success is making sure the soil is consistently moist. Water isn’t retained as well in pots as it is in the ground, so this might be the greatest challenge in your tomato potting endeavors!
The soil shouldn’t, however, be soggy, either. This could cause the tomato plant to wilt and eventually rot. Inconsistent watering—dry to soggy to dry to soggy—too can cause tomatoes to crack or split. Lastly, remember to water the soil directly rather than letting the water spray on the plant, which could also bring on rotting and fungus.
Just like they’re heavy drinkers, tomato plants are heavy feeders, too—especially when potted. Plus, a good drainage system (which is necessary!) will keep the right moisture level in the soil, but might also drain away some essential nutrients. If your potting soil doesn’t already include fertilizer, use tomato-specific fertilizer and feeder with primary nutrients.
You’ve almost learned how to grow tomatoes in pots—here’s just a few more tips!
- When transplanting tomato plants into pots, leave enough room in the pot to add mulch if necessary. This will help avoid spillage!
- Taller varieties of tomato plants will need supports to keep the stems upright. Stick these in the soil before your plant has grown too much to avoid damaging the roots later on.
Wrapping Up How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots
Gardens are beautiful, but there’s no denying the advantages of learning how to grow tomatoes in pots. The convenience is too obvious to ignore—especially when it comes to a frosty night that sneaks in one last time before spring really takes a hold of the land. Now that you’ve learned how to grow tomatoes in pots yourself, you will be able to grow this delicious vegetable from the comfort of your own patio, deck, and even kitchen!
Excited for more tomato content? Then visit our tomato page for growing tips, comprehensive guides, and tasty recipes!
- About the Author
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Margherita Bassi is a freelance writer, journalist, and editor. She grew up between the US and Europe, and nurtured her love for nature and the outdoors in both countries.
In the US, she went on dozens of RV trips with her family, scouted out the best restaurants in every city she visited, and learned how to grow herbs and veggies of all kinds by watching her mother.
In Europe, she experimented with gardening in small spaces, like the small balcony of her apartment in France. With an MA in International New Media Journalism, Margherita is also a skilled researcher in a wide range of topics, and has extensive experience interviewing both individuals and experts.