Growing tomatoes in containers
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Growing organic tomatoes in containers 
 

Introduction 

So you would like to grow a garden, but just don’t have the space?  Perhaps you live in an apartment, a townhouse, or just don’t have a suitable place in your yard.  Container vegetable gardening may be what you are looking for.  Just imagine picking ripe and delicious organic tomatoes from your porch or patio and enjoying them on salads or hamburgers?  Tomatoes are not hard to grow in a large container, and just one or two plants can keep you supplied with tomatoes all summer long. 

Just find a spot with enough space for a pot and 6 to 8 hours or more of unshaded direct sunlight a day, plus it needs to be sheltered from strong wind gusts.  Although tomatoes love heat, you don’t want a location that is over 100 degrees F, or your tomatoes might not fruit as well.  If you live in a hot climate, consider a spot where they have partial shade during the hottest hours of the day.  Perhaps there is suitable space in your yard or along the sun side of your house, or on a balcony or window sill.  Maybe a doorstep, patio, or even a hanging basket.  You have found the space for your own mini-garden! 

Choose the type of container 

Almost any type of container can be used for growing tomatoes, including wooden boxes, bushel baskets, plastic or fiberglass buckets or drums.  A 5 gallon bucket is usually about right for most varieties of tomatoes.  For cherry or dwarf tomatoes, a 2 gallon container or even a hanging basket or window box works well, since the fruit is small enough not to break the branches, as opposed to large tomatoes, which need some support for the branches. 

Tomatoes have a large root structure, which can go down 5’ or more.  They require more root space than most other vegetables.  If you use a container that is solid based, it must have adequate drainage to avoid the plant sitting in soggy soil all the time and rotting.  If no drainage holes are present, drill four or five ¼” drain holes on the sides about one half inch from the bottom.  One inch of course gravel or rock in the bottom of the container helps to keep the holes draining.  If you are using a container that has been used for other plants, make sure and scrub it well to remove any possible soil-born diseases.  We prefer plastic over clay containers, since plastic is less expensive, doesn’t break as readily as clay, and the soil will not dry out as rapidly. 

Choose a tomato variety 

Most varieties of tomatoes are suitable for growing in a container, but it is generally easiest to begin with seedlings.  You may buy your tomato seedling transplants from a nursery or gardening center, or you can grow them yourself.  Whichever you choose, you need to watch for two things.

1.  Match the tomato variety with your climate.  Most varieties require nights of at least 55 degrees F.  If you live in a cooler climate, you will need to choose a cool weather variety.

2.  Look for an indeterminate variety of tomato.  A determinate bushy variety of tomato only grows to a certain size, then stops, and only bears for a few weeks.  An indeterminate vining variety of tomato grows slower, but can bear for months.  However, if you choose an indeterminate variety, be ready to use a cage or trellis to support the vine and the ripening fruit. 

Provide a nutrient dense soil 

For your soil, choose a good quality organic potting soil.  You want a loose soil with a good amount of organic matter.  Don’t just dig up soil from a garden, since it is generally too compact for a container garden, will not drain properly, and may be infested with soil pests.  Tomatoes need a good supply of phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium.  You can mix nutrients in to your potting soil to help supply this, such as aged manure and peat moss, or your own special compost mix.  This will provide a steady supply of nutrition throughout the year.  You can add straw or dried grass clippings to supply organic matter to enhance the soil.  This will help to hold moisture, and add nutrients as it breaks down.  Another good mixture is 1 part potting soil, 1 part per line, 1 part sphagnum peat moss, and 1 part compost

Plant your tomato seedlings 

Now that you have your soil ready, we are ready to plant.  As mentioned before, start with 1” of gravel or rocks in the bottom of the container.  Place in your preformed stake, trellis, or homemade cage that fits the container for the tomato vine to climb on.  This will keep the vine off of the ground and protect branches from breaking under the weight of ripening fruit.  Then add in your soil mix. 

Next, bury a tomato plant seedling so that the soil comes up just below the first set of leaves.  This will help the plant develop a strong root structure that potted plants need, as new roots will shoot out from the stem that has been buried.  Plant the seedling close to your stake, cage or trellis.  When done, you want the soil within about an inch of the rim of your container, to allow for watering.  Now go ahead and give it a good watering.  If the soil settles, add more soil to bring it up to 1” below the rim.  You might want to add a mulch, such as pebbles, shredded bark, grass clippings, or straw, to help the soil to retain moisture.

Growing your own seedling transplants 

For most people, it is just easier to get it right by buying seedlings from a nursery or garden center than to grow them.  However, if you want to germinate your own seeds, you can use a cardboard milk carton, a pot or a baking pan.  Six to eight weeks before you want to transplant them, fill your chosen container with your soil mix, add your seeds, then cover with a quarter to half inch of soil mix.  Place the container in a warm area that receives good sunlight.  When they have 2 or 3 true leaves, you can transplant them into your waiting container, being careful not to injure the root system. 

Fertilizers 

Tomatoes require a lot of nutrition, and need foliar feedings about once every week or two throughout the growing season.  First, make sure the plants are well watered.  Add two teaspoons of GroPal Balance F per gallon of water. The sea mineral concentrate in the GroPal Balance gives your tomato plants the full spectrum of nutrients from the ocean, improving taste, shelf life and insect resistance.  Put your tea mixture into a spray bottle and wet the leaves, then wet the surface of the soil.   

In addition to foliar applications, you can spread a compost or composted manure over the soil to keep your plants thriving and to keep the tomatoes coming. Apply 64 ounces of GroPal Balance per acre of garden help balance out the nutrients in the soil, giving your tomatoes a perfect supply of nutrients.

Watering and care 

Generally, when grown in a container, tomato plants need one to two inches of water per week.  A good way to tell if your tomatoes need water is to stick your finger into the soil.  If the top 2” are dry, it is time to water.  Never let your tomatoes completely dry out.  As your tomatoes ripen, water less, so that they don’t taste too watery.  

If the soil is too heavy and you don’t get good drainage, your soil may become water-logged.  When this happens, water displaces air in the soil, and your plants suffocate.  Also, when you water, don’t water the leaves, just the soil.  This will make for a healthier plant, and allow your foliar applications of fertilizer to be more effective.

Avoiding insect damage and disease

 When you meet the nutritional needs of your tomato plants, especially the full spectrum of nutrients supplied by a product like GroPal Balance F that contains a, pests and disease become much less of a problem.  However, check for foliage and fruit-feeding insects every time you fertilize.  If you see any, pest eaters like lady bugs or green lacewings can be placed on the plant, or you may use a natural plant derived insecticide like neem oil to kill the pests.  If you find a caterpillar, crush it so it won’t return, then look to make sure there aren’t any more. 

Harvesting 

Vine-ripened tomatoes are at their peak of maturity and flavor.  When tomatoes are fully ripe, pick them.  This will help to induce continued fruit formation.  By growing tomatoes in a container, you can enjoy their delicious taste all summer long. 

Common problems for container grown tomatoes 

Plants are tall, spindly and don’t produce many tomatoes.

      -- Too little sunlight.

Tomatoes crack around the stem.

      -- The soil is too dry, or tomatoes grown in dry soil suddenly are watered too much.

Plants yellow from the bottom and lack good color.

      -- Too much water, too little nutrition.

Plants wilt even though there is enough water.

      -- Poor drainage resulting in drowning of the roots.

Browning of leaf edges.

      -- Foliar fertilizer is too concentrated.

Plants grow too slowly, look sick and have a purplish color.

      -- Temperatures are too cool.

Leaves have holes, or are distorted.

      -- A sign of Insect damage.

Leaves are spotted, have dead areas, or have powdery or rusty areas.

      -- A sign of a plant disease.

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