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Growing Tomatoes in Containers


Q: Hi Mike! I just finished your "You Bet your Tomatoes" book and I'm considering trying my hand at growing some this year. But I rent, and will be moving early next year, so I'm hesitant to dig up the lawn to make a garden for just one season. Is it possible to grow any sort of tomato crop in large pots? Or should I just put it off until next year, when I will have a garden of my own? Thanks,
    ---Kelly in Reading PA
A. Thank you, Kelly, for the opportunity to announce that the classic tomato growing book you so kindly mentioned (don't worry; your check is in the mail) is being reissued in a brand new edition by Plain White Press this Spring! It should be on bookstore shelves as we speak—eh, read.

Now: You should definitely try a few plants this year. A little experience even on a small scale will help you greatly when you grow 'for real' next season.

But you have choices beyond just 'tamatas in pots' or 'no tamatas at all'. Could you possibly 'share-crop' a couple of plants with a gardening friend who wouldn't mind your putting a couple of plants in the ground; or a community garden where you could get—or share—a plot for the season? Either option would actually be preferable to containers, as there would be other gardeners around to hold your hand and teach you the tricks that will allow you to really hit the ground running next season.

Otherwise, absolutely buy some nice big containers! I get good tamata results in pots that are 17 inches high and 20 inches across the top. Yours don't have to be that exact size—anything close to it should be fine—but they DO have to be big. You can grow things like peppers in smaller containers, but tomatoes need a lot of room. And only one plant per pot, although you can grow other things in there as well. (We'll get to that in a minute.)

Don't fill those containers with lousy, weedy outside dirt; it's darned near impossible to keep plants alive in that stuff when they're imprisoned in a pot. Find a nice 'soil-free' potting mix; these lightweight blends of natural substances like peat, perlite and vermiculite are available at virtually all garden centers (just avoid the ones laced with Miracle-Gro or other nasty chemicals). Then mix some nice yard-waste compost—bagged or bulk—in with the potting soil; about ¼ compost and ¾ mix. (Don't go nuts measuring; this is cooking, not baking.)

Note: Gardens Alive potting soil already contains some nutrients like worm castings—and added minerals that are highly beneficial to plants and otherwise hard to find—so you can cut back a little on the added compost if you use it or a similar product.

Oh: No peanuts, pebbles or other nonsense in the bottom; your plants want to be able to send their roots all the way down.

Find a spot for your pots where water can drain freely out the bottoms and fill the pots up right there. Even a lightweight mix can become heavy in pots that size, and it's better to fill them up where they're going to stay. (Don't bother buying saucers for underneath; you don't want to water to sit down there—all it can do is drown your plants and breed mosquitoes.)

To get the most out of your pots, use them to grow cool weather crops like lettuce and other salad greens early in the season—before you could safely put out your tamatas. Water your mix well, spread the seeds of a nice leaf lettuce or salad green mix overtop, cover the seeds with a thin layer of potting mix and mist it well. Cover the top at night with clear plastic to retain heat, but take the plastic off during the day. Spritz the surface daily and the lettuce should sprout in about five or six days. No more plastic after that.

Let the lettuce grow until it's three or four inches high and then begin to harvest it with scissors 'cut and come again' style, mostly from around the edges, letting the plants in the middle grow. The cut lettuce will regrow, and you should be able to make several harvests before tomato-planting time arrives (which in Reading would be between May 15th and June 1st.). Then harvest the center plants and install your purchased tomato plants. (Don't try and start your own tomato plants from seed the first year; get used to killing grown plants outdoors before you move up to killing little tiny ones indoors.) Continue to harvest the 'outside' lettuce until it turns bitter, then replace it with some trailing nasturtiums for spicy good eating or some small flowers, "chust for nice".

If you want to keep things simple, grow bush-style determinate plants; they can get by with the support provided by a large store-bought tomato cage or similar structure. Indeterminate plants, like the big beefsteaks, can be grown in large containers, but you have to enclose them in full-sized tomato cages made of welded wire animal fencing.

Q. You have always advised us to plant our tomatoes deeply in the ground. Would you bury them the same way in a container?
    ---Janice in Woodbury, New Jersey
A. Absolutely, Janice! Tomatoes develop auxiliary roots along their buried stem; and planting half of the stem under the soil line to grow those extra roots provides many benefits. While you're at it, add a dozen crushed eggshells to the hole to provide calcium; it'll improve their flavor and prevent blossom end rot.

Click HERE for a previous Question of the Week with lots more details on growing in containers.

Click HERE for one on the use of eggshells with tomatoes; and HERE for one filled with basic tamata growing tips.

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