How to grow tomato plants in containers

The one good thing about the big shut down a few years back is that so many people are more interested in growing their own food! Since a large number of people live in apartments or just don't have a yard to plant in, container gardening has become a way they can still grow some of their own food...even with limited space!

tomato plant growing in pot on porch

If you would like to grow some of your own food in containers then tomatoes are the perfect plant to start with. As long as you have sunlight, tomatoes can be grown anywhere. Growing tomatoes in containers is not limited to people with a lack of gardening space though. Plenty of home gardeners grow their vegetables in containers, even when they have free space in the backyard.

There are many reasons for container gardening, but we grow tomatoes in containers mostly for convenience, control, and flexibility. Also if you have a problem with deer in your garden, putting your plants on your porch in containers can circumvent that! Not many deer are comfortable walking up onto your porch! Nor are rabbits which can really damage a traditional garden

Growing tomatoes in containers is not too different from growing tomatoes in the outdoor soil. Like planting in the ground, it's best to raise young tomato seedlings carefully indoors until they're strong enough for transplant. This gives them a few extra weeks to grow instead of waiting to plant seeds when the soil is warm enough.

How to grow tomatoes in pots

1) Transplant seedling into pot with soil amendments, burying stem as deep as possible

2) Water deeply the first day, then wait a day or so and check the soil before watering again

3) Stake plants and fasten to a fence pole, porch support etc to keep plant from falling over

4) Fertilize on a regular basis

5) Harvest fruit as soon as it's ready! 

How to plant a tomato plant in a container

Start with a container with good drainage. Without good drainage your tomato plants will stay too wet at the roots which will stunt growth and may even result in root rot which will kill your plant.

With vegetables grown in containers, you have to chose the right growing medium. The most basic recipe for a good container soil mixture to grow vegetables is 40% compost, 40% peat moss, and 20% perlite. However, many people do not like to use peat, and I totally understand that! I tend to buy the big bags of miracle grow garden soil when they go on sale for like 3 for $10. I use half bagged garden soil, a big handful of pearlite and half compost.

You never want to use dirt from the ground, as it tends to compact as you water over time. This makes it hard for roots to grow properly and can stunt your plants growth. If you have to use garden dirt make sure to add extra peat or pearlite and a ton of compost for organic material!

Transplanting tomato plants into pots is the same for containers as for ground - bury as much of the plant stem as possible. I like to toss a handful of soil in the bottom of the pot then sit the tomato seedling on top of it. Fill container with soil. If the soil covers any leaves just pinch them off.

Doing so will promote root formation along the portion of the stem that is buried, giving the plant excellent foundation, a good thing regardless of where the tomato is grown! Especially important since tomato plants tend to get top heavy!

Although tomatoes grown in containers frees you from messing with garden dirt, container vegetables do require more maintenance in terms of watering and fertilizing. Unlike traditional garden tomatoes, tomato plants in containers have limited root coverage, and their growth is limited by the amount of water and nutrients in the container.

Container vegetable plants may need to be watered daily in the heat of the summer, and sometimes even twice a day to prevent the plants from wilting. Of course, this depends on how big your growing container is (bigger is always better), and whether you mulch or not. 

Tomatoes need to be watered thoroughly by watering at the soil! Do not hold a watering can overhead! They hate that! Hold it by the dirt and water till it runs out the drainage holes! They are especially water thirsty plants, so the better you can satisfy their watering needs, the better results you will be rewarded with come harvest.

Make sure you place your containers where the plants will get 8 hours of direct sun a day or more. Since most containers are small and mobile you can also move them during the day to 'follow the sun' if you don't have a good spot to put them in. 

If you are planting large containers or raised beds (a type of container) then you'll want to determine a permanent location ahead of time. It might help to make a sun map of your property

planting tomato seedlings in containers

Are all containers the same?

Container usually refers to an individual plant pot but can also refer to a raised bed. Some people have raised beds that are several feet long, several feet wide and a few feet deep! In cases of larger containers like raised beds, you won't need to water as often as small containers like a plant pot.

Good drainage is imperative as without good drainage your tomato plants will stay too wet at the roots which will stunt growth and may even result in root rot which will kill your plant. For individual pots that means several drainage holes in the bottom that remain open. 

You'll have to check from time to time that the excess water is actually draining out of the container. It's simple though...just look for water coming out of the drainage holes after a deep watering.

Large containers can be more difficult as many people like to line them with weed barrier plastic. If you out this type of barrier under the soil, make sure to poke some holes in it to allow the water to drain out. It's much preferrable to use mulch on top of the soil to keep moisture from evaporating too quickly and keep weeds down.

How to water tomato plants in containers

Make sure you pay attention to how fast the water absorbs or is evaporated to determine how often and how much to water.

Of course, you can mitigate all the disadvantages of container growing by simply installing automated drip irrigators for your containers. Though it sounds complicated, the setup is not expensive and actually quite easy to install. An automated drip irrigation system set up for a price range anywhere between $50-100, and you will save yourself a lot of hassles later.

Depending on how many containers you have, this could be a worthy investment with great payoffs in the long run. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses are preferrable because they keep the water off the tomato plants leaves. There are several common tomato plant diseases some of which can be caused by wet leaves, so it's best to water at the base as much as possible.

Or you could just pick up a soaker hose and drape it across all the containers or beds. Simply turn it on for a short while when you wake up in the morning and let it do all the work. I water all my containers first thing in the morning before the day heats things up and evaporates the water away! Though I sometimes have to water again in late afternoon if it's particularly hot & dry out.

Applying mulching to containers may sound like an unnecessary chore associated with traditional gardening, but it's a great way to reduce water evaporation and keep weeds down (if you're using compost or garden soil). Pine bark mulch will work great, as will black plastic mulching. Mulching has the added benefit of keeping your tomato plants looking neat and organized.

cherry tomato plant growing in a pot with ripe fruit

Caring for tomatoes growing in pots 

When the first blossoms have set in on your plants, don't be afraid to use more fertilizer. Twice the amount of normal usage will work. Increasing fertilization during first blossom formation will kickstart fruit production and result in bigger yields. But whatever fertilization rate you use, try to keep it constant.

Related reading; 8 Organic Fertilizers You Can Make.

And don't forget to pick your tomato fruits as soon as they're ripe. It's not a good idea to leave tomatoes on the vines for too long, and for every tomato you pick off, you'll encourage the production of a new fruit.

Again, you really have to stay on top of watering! Even though tomatoes are generally hardy plants, too much drought can causes problems with the fruit as it growing like cracks forming from uneven water availability.

If you're not sure you want to deal with the outside weather while gardening a hydroponic garden might be a good option for you. Much smaller than what you could grow outside, but it can be effective. I grow tomatoes flowers basil and arugula in my aero garden which is a tabletop hydroponic garden. I talk about it in beginner's guide to hydroponic gardening.

Related reading: Want to learn more about growing food in containers? Check out all my differences growing food in containers vs the ground!


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