Count on Containers for Tasty Tomatoes
By Deb Mulvey, Greendale, Wisconsin
Nothing tops the taste of homegrown tomatoes. But what if your backyard isn't suited to growing them? Or, worse yet, your backyard is no more than a patio or balcony? Does that mean you have to cross your fingers and hope a neighbor has an overabundant harvest?
Not if you think containers. Whether your yard is small, shaded or nonexistent, you can still grow tomatoes with minimal effort.
All container-grown tomatoes really need is to be bathed in sun, a pot roomy enough to set roots, soil that drains well (soilless mix is ideal) and regular watering.
Take Your Pick
While tomatoes are best known as massive spreading plants, there are some compact varieties perfect for containers. They take up less space and still produce a steady supply of fruit. To locate the best types for your area, contact your local garden center or county Extension Service.
Some of the most popular choices include the Patio Hybrid, a compact 2-foot plant that produces 3- to 4-ounce fruits with excellent flavor. Super Bush Hybrid grows to 3 feet and produces larger fruit than most container tomatoes, while Window Box Roma Hybrid is a nice compact variety for cooks. Sweet Baby Girl Hybrid, one of the best cherry tomato plants for containers, produces heavy crops of sweet fruit in long clusters.
If space is so tight you can't even find room for a large container, check out space-saving Florida Petite, Florida Basket, Micro-Tom and Red Robin cherry tomatoes. These plants are suitable for hanging baskets, window boxes or in pots as small as 4 inches in diameter.
Just about any tomato can be container grown. A simple rule of "green thumb"—the larger the container, the less work because the soil won't dry out as fast. Holes for adequate drainage are essential.
Larger tomato plants can also be staked or caged in containers, just as they would in the garden. This practice produces earlier fruit, improves air circulation and minimizes pest damage.
If looks don't matter, you can also let container-grown tomatoes sprawl. This carefree method actually produces more fruit, but may not be practical or attractive in tight confines.
Here are some more tips to consider if your tomatoes are destined for a balcony or patio:
- Choose plastic containers over clay or wood pots if you plan on moving them frequently. For extremely large containers, fill the bottom with packing peanuts to help conserve lightweight soil mix.
- If you don't plan to move your container-grown tomatoes, stabilize the pot with a stone in the bottom, especially for top-heavy plants.
- Make feeding a one-time task by mixing in a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote with your soil.
- Tomatoes grow in any commercial planting mix. You can also combine equal parts peat moss or compost with vermiculite or perlite and topsoil. The organic matter retains moisture, so you don't need to water as often.
- Even with organic matter added to your containers, tomatoes dry out faster when grown above ground. Check them daily, keeping the soil moist, but not soggy. Water whenever the top few inches of soil is crumbly, continuing until excess water runs out the drainage hole.
- Many container tomatoes are available only as seeds, not as bedding plants. If container plants or seeds are not available at your local garden center, check out Tomato Growers Supply at http://www.tomatogrowers.com or call 1-888/478-7333.