Tomatoes are one of the most beloved and popular garden vegetables. They are grown around the world in most temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical environments.
While they are most often found in gardens and fields, tomatoes can be grown in more modest volumes of soil.
You might be wondering if tomato plants can be grown in pots? The answer is yes! In fact, a single tomato plant can thrive in as little as three gallons of soil, in a pot on your deck or patio.
Yet, there’s a lot more that goes into growing tomatoes in containers with a high yield of fruit.
If you simply drop a seedling from the garden center into some dirt in a pot you might be lucky enough to get a red tomato or three before the end of the growing season.
The truth is, there are a lot of important factors that go into growing healthy tomato plants in a container.
When done right, you might even be able to get a higher volume of quality tomatoes out of a container-grown plant, compared to a garden-grown one!
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at popular types of tomatoes to grow in containers, and how to grow tomatoes in a pot to get the most out of them.
This includes choosing the right soil, planting them the right way, tending to their needs throughout the season, and developing an effective fertilizing strategy.
Starting Tomatoes From Seeds or Seedlings
Tomato plants originated in Northern South America and Central America as a small bush that produced a husk filled with a little greenish, yellow fruit about the size of a blueberry.
Early Meso-Americans recognized that the plant was given to change and could be manipulated into other colors, forms, plant shapes, and fruit characteristics.
This means that today there are literally thousands of different types of tomatoes around the world. Every year “Eager Beaver” gardeners introduce their own takes and new varieties.
If you just want to enjoy the taste of a fresh-from-the-garden tomato sliced onto a BLT sandwich, and you don’t care for anything fancy or exotic, you will get by just fine with tomato seedlings offered in garden centers.
If you have a green thumb, and you want to try something that you just can’t find in the grocery store or garden center, then you might want to try your hand at growing a few plants from seed.
If so, you’ll need to start them Six to eight weeks before they show up in garden centers.
Should something go wrong, the pop-up greenhouse in front of your local grocery store can serve as a seedling backup plan.
How To Grow Tomatoes In A Pot
Just like a lot of other long-term projects, getting the little details right in the beginning reduces the chances of problems “Snowballing” along the way. This starts with addressing some key topics and answering some key questions.
1: Choose correct Pots size To Grow Tomatoes In
Obviously the larger the tomato plant, the more soil, and space it’s going to need. A small determinate tomato plant like Moskovitch can produce a fair amount of fruit with as little as 1.5 to 2 gallons of quality soil.
As a general rule of thumb, you want at least three gallons of soil for an average tomato plant. Five would be better.
If you’ve got a half whiskey barrel you could try growing a larger variety like Mortgage Lifter or Purple Cherokee.
With tomato, plants depth is very important. When you plant a tomato up to its bottom leaves, the stem below the soil line will start to produce new roots, which will help anchor and feed the tomato plant throughout the summer.
2: Best Soil For growing tomatoes in pots
All tomato plants need well-drained soil. This is especially important for container-grown tomatoes.
If at all possible, you should avoid using soil from your garden as it could have dangerous fungi and other plant pathogens that can exacerbate with container-grown plants. Garden soil also tends to compact easily.
What Type Of Soil Do Container-Grown Tomatoes Prefer?
Instead, it’s best to use a high-quality potting soil from a store. If you intend to grow tomatoes in containers next year, you might be able to save a lot of money on high-end potting soil, by purchasing it from a fall clearance sale.
Hardware stores will often sell big bags of it in October and November for half the price they sell it for in the spring.
Then just stash the bag in the basement. This is a practice I use every year!
When you are setting up the pot, it can help to scatter a few small rocks at the bottom and make sure there is adequate drainage.
This will help drain away excess water to prevent water-logged roots.
3: Choose an Ideal Location
Like peppers, tomatoes are members of the Solanum family. As the name implies, it means they need a fair amount of sun to thrive.
You need to place them in an area that receives at least six hours of sun per day, if not more.
Where Should I Place My Tomato Container?
The timing of those sunny hours can also be a factor. Like many other fruiting plants, tomatoes love morning sun.
This allows them to soak up energy and process it through photosynthesis right away in the day. If a tomato doesn’t get sufficient morning sun, it might start to lean or “Leg Over” toward the light, which can gradually weaken the stem.
Do Tomato Plants Prefer Morning or Afternoon Sun?
Once a tomato plant develops fruit, it can help to shade it from the late afternoon sun. This will reduce the heat and potential drying caused by the sun in late summer.
Of course, the nice thing about growing tomatoes in a container is that you can move them to more favorable locations as the seasonal light pattern changes.
4: Right Technique to plant tomatoes in pots
Tomatoes are technically a vine, that is meant to grow along the ground. This means that the stem will sprout new roots when given prolonged contact with the soil.
so, What’s the best way to plant a tomato seedling? Ideally, you want to plant the seedling deeper than it is in the original pot it came in. You can go as deep as the lowest branches or true leaves.
Within the first week or two the stalk of the plant will sprout new roots, which will give the plant a little extra boost.
5: Selecting The Type Of Tomato Plant For Your Space
There are literally thousands of different types of tomatoes grown around the world. Garden centers and popup greenhouses offer some standard varieties as well as a few popular heirloom options.
If you want something more exotic, and you have a green thumb, you can turn to the internet to source heirloom seeds.
Tomato plants are defined by different criteria. This includes the type of plant, the shape of the fruit, and timing of how the plant produces fruit.
Whether or not that plant will produce reliable seeds that you can harvest and plant the next year comes down to whether or not it’s a hybrid or a heirloom/open pollinated variety.
Best Tomato Varieties For Containers
Just about any tomato plant will grow in a pot. Though some of the giant plants like the Russian heirloom Ispolin should be avoided.
The following is a list and brief description of some of the best tomato plants to grow in pots or containers.
Beefsteak is a hybrid, indeterminate tomato plant that produces large slicer tomatoes. It’s also known under other names like “Big Boy” and “Beef Master.”
Roma is an indeterminate tomato plant that is available as a hybrid and heirloom. It produces plum tomatoes that make great sauces or chopped into salads.
Glacier is a small globe tomato that works well in fresh green salads or chopped into Panzanella.
Early Girl is an indeterminate hybrid that makes slicer tomatoes early in the season. It’s prized in northern states with shorter summers.
San Marzano is an indeterminate heirloom tomato that traces its roots back to the monastery of San Marzano near the Italian Mount Vesuvius.
It is prized for its depth of flavor and ratio of meat to seeds. It excels in slow-cooked sauces and has many alcohol-soluble flavor compounds for cooking with wine.
Moskovitch is a determinate heirloom tomato from Poland. It produces flavorful plum tomatoes early in the growing season. It also tends to tolerate cooler soil temperatures.
Sweet 100 is a very popular hybrid cherry tomato that produces up to 100 very flavorful cherry tomatoes on an indeterminate plant.
Brandywine is an indeterminate heirloom tomato from France. It has a large following, and many people describe it as one of the most flavorful slicer tomatoes in the world.
It’s also one of the heirloom tomato seedlings you are likely to find in a garden center.
Purple Cherokee is a very popular heirloom tomato that produces large purple fruit with distinct flavor on a sprawling indeterminate plant.
It is also one of the heirloom tomato seedlings you are likely to find in a garden center.
Celebrity is a hybrid determinate tomato that produces quality slicer tomatoes during a relatively short window of time.
Mortgage Lifter is a manmade heirloom tomato that produces large, flavorful slicer tomatoes. There are duplicate varieties sold in some garden centers, which are so close to the original that only an aficionado would notice the difference.
The plants can get over five feet tall in ideal conditions, so it probably represents the top end of the scale of what you can reasonably grow in a container.
Other Plants In The Tomato Family That Do Well In Pots
The tomato family is incredibly diverse. This means there are things that you might not think of as being a traditional “Tomato” that grow exactly the same way and have the same needs.
Ground Cherries are a real treat for kids and adults alike. They are essentially leftovers from the earliest days of tomato cultivation.
They produce a large number of small berries that are the size of a small cherry tomato. Only they are in a light paper husk.
To harvest them, you simply need to gently stroke a vine and the ripe ones will fall off.
They taste surprisingly sweet, with hints of cherry tomato and pineapple. Ground cherries can be eaten fresh or made into flavorful jams and jellies.
Tomatillos are essentially larger ground cherries. They aren’t quite as sweet and take a little longer to ripen.
You can raise them in containers for half the price of what you will pay for the fruits in a store. They are great for people who live to make their own salsa verde.
How to Care for Potted Tomato Plants
Once you’ve set up your pot of choice with rich, well-drained soil, and you have your preferred seedling has been placed, it will still need proper tending.
6: Support the Tomato Plants
A small determinate tomato plant like Moscovitch might not need a stake or a cage. You just need to make sure that it’s properly sheltered from high winds.
When it comes to indeterminate tomato plants, you should assume that it will need a stake or cage to help support branches and fruit.
Do I Need To Stake Or Cage A Tomato Plant In A Container?
It’s a good idea to install the support structure early on in the season to keep from damaging roots.
There are some people who will place the cage or insert the stake the same day they plant the seedling.
How To Stake Tomatoes In Pots
When it comes to square versus round cages, it really is a matter of personal preference. If your container is a little on the shallow side, you should look for a cage with shorter legs.
If possible you can use a hacksaw to cut off excess metal from the bottom. The goal is to set the cage so that the lowest run on the cage is just high enough to support the lowest branches of the tomato plant.
There are also some people to forgo using cages and instead will drive a single stout stake into the soil next to the base of the plant.
If you are going to use this method, you should insert the stake when you first plant the tomato.
7: Water More, But Less Frequently
Developing an effective watering strategy can be a little bit of a challenge when it comes to tomato plants in the garden, let alone growing them in pots. Consistency is the key!
When the plants are small and haven’t formed fruit, you simply need to make sure that the soil isn’t dry. If you stick a finger two or three inches in, it should feel slightly moist, but not damp. Overly wet soil can lead to a problem called “Damping Off” where the base of the stem essentially rots and kills the plant.
This watering strategy holds true throughout most of the tomato plant’s early life cycle, and if you have the tomatoes on a porch or deck with a covered pergola, you might need to water it lightly once per day.
How Often Do You Water Tomatoes In Pots?
When the plant starts to bear fruit, your watering strategy may need to increase. Tomatoes that are allowed to dry out, and then are saturated again can become increasingly prone to splitting and cracking.
There are few things more disheartening than spending an entire summer taking care of a tomato plant, only to see the fruit crack and be ruined because you forgot to water it for a day or two!
If the weather is going to be particularly hot and dry, you might want to try lightly watering the plant in the morning, and then again when you get home from work in the late afternoon.
8: Feeding Tomatoes Grown In Containers & Grow Bags
Tomatoes have a high nutrient demand, and their heavy feeding requirements can change throughout the season.
The Best Fertilizer for Tomatoes at Different Stages of Growth
If you are growing them from seed, you will need to give them gentle doses of a phosphorus-rich fertilizer.
This will promote healthy root growth. One telltale sign of a phosphorus deficiency is a slight purple tinge under a seedling's older leaves.
It's especially likely to happen with plants grown under artificial grow lights.
When you plant the seedling in the pot, you want to bury the stem right up to the bottom of the first true leaves.
Then give it a full dose of phosphorus fertilizer, followed up with another dose a week later. This helps the plant to sprout a good root base from the buried stem.
For the next few weeks, you should stick to a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, in either half-strength does each week, or full-strength doses every two weeks.
The nitrogen will promote vigorous foliage growth, which the plant will later use to generate sugar for the fruit.
Lush foliage also helps shade the fruit from possible problems with sun-scald.
Once the fruit starts to develop, you should switch over to a fertilizer that is rich in potassium.
Also known as "Soluble potash" this key mineral helps with fruit development and drought resistance.
If you are a proponent of "Suckering" or plucking excess branches and flowers, this is the time to start.
Identify and Correct Tomato Nutrient Deficiencies
Of course, tomatoes need more than just the basic N-P-K. They also rely on other minerals and soil nutrients to grow and bear healthy fruit. Two of the most important are calcium and magnesium.
What Does Calcium Do For Tomatoes?
Calcium helps provide structure for stems as well as fruit. When calcium levels in the soil are low, or calcium is leached out by excess water and acidity, it can leave tomatoes vulnerable to the dreaded Blossom End Rot.
One way to prevent this is to work "Garden Lime" or crumbled dolomitic limestone into the soil before planting.
How do you add calcium to tomato plants?
You will then need to apply a small amount to the soil in the container a little bit at a time, every other day, for two weeks.
This may just restore enough calcium to save later tomatoes from blossom end rot.
However, it will not be able to save any existing fruit that has a soft spot or active rot. You might as well pull them from the plant to save its energy for future fruit.
Identify and Correct Tomato Magnesium Deficiency
On a chemical level, magnesium plays a critical role in the process of photosynthesis. This means you are most likely to notice low soil magnesium levels in a tomato plant’s leaves where most of the photosynthesis takes place.
It typically shows up as a gradual yellow color that spreads through the leaves, while the “Veins” remain green.
This is a sign that the leaves are consuming more natural sugars than they are producing.
Magnesium problems are more likely to develop in container-grown tomato plants, and plants that are overwatered.
How do you add nitrogen to soil for tomato plants?
If you catch it early, you easily adjust the magnesium levels in the soil by mixing a solution of warm water and Epsom salt.
This is such a common garden remedy that most Epsom salt retailers will even put the ratio and mixing instructions on the bag!
19: Prune Tomatoes for a Big Harvest
so, Should you Sucker Or Prune your Tomato Plants? This is a point of debate for many tomato enthusiasts.
There are those who insist that suckering is absolutely necessary and those who advocate letting the plant grow naturally.
When a tomato plant is allowed to grow untended, it will naturally spout new branches and leaves from the crux or crotch of established branches.
This does consume some of the plants energy. People who swear by suckering, would rather have the plant divert it’s energy into flowering and fruiting.
As we discussed in the fertilizing section, a tomato plant needs foliage early on in its life to be able to later feed fruit.
The only way the plant can create sugar is through photosynthesis, and it needs leaves to do this.
So, early on, it’s best to just let the plant make as many leaves and branches as it wants.
Once it starts to set fruit, you might want to go in and sucker the plant by carefully pinching off new shoots.
Just bear in mind that the wounds this leaves behind can be exploited by bugs and dangerous fungal spores.
If you are a fan of suckering, it’s best to do it when the sun is still high in the sky, to dry out the wounded area.
Theoretically, a consistent suckering strategy will encourage the plant to divert more of it’s energy into producing and swelling fruit.
Should the First Bud of a Tomato Plant Be Pinched Off?
This is another hotly debated topic in the world of tomato tending. Flowering pinching advocates will tell you that plucking off flowers reduces problems with over crowding.
It’s especially handy late in the season when you are trying to get the last few tomatoes to fully ripen.
If you’ve noticed signs of blossom end rot, or other mineral deficiencies, pinching flowers might help prevent further fruit loss.
Common Tomato Problems
Tomatoes are relatively easy to care for. However, there are some common problems that can affect the soil chemistry or the overall health of the plant.
With many of these issues an ounce of prevention and thoughtful preparation will go a long way toward providing you with a bountiful harvest.
20: Dealing With Freak Frost
Frost is a concern if you are putting your tomato plants out in the spring or trying to ripen the last fruits going into the fall.
When you grow tomatoes in the garden, you have to wait until your region’s “Average Last Frost Date” before you plant them.
Even then, you have to cross your fingers against a freak seasonal frost. Should the temperatures drop too low, you’ll have to cover the plants with bed sheets.
Tarps and plastic sheets are a bad idea, as they don’t insulate and can sometimes concentrate the cold.
How to Warm Soil and Protect Seedlings from Frost
If you plant your tomatoes in containers that are relatively easy to move, you can simply bring them into the house or the garage for the night to shelter them against the cold.
With a little bit of luck and a little elbow grease, you might just be able to get a head start in the spring and ripen the last fruits of fall. Your garden-growing neighbors may even be a little envious!
There are some gardening tool manufacturers who sell special surrounds like “Walls of Water” to help protect the plants.
Since water is a natural heat sink, the water will prevent the cold from damaging the plant. This is great when a freak cold snap is in the forecast.
Just don’t leave the Walls of Water in place, once warm sunny conditions return. The water will absorb a portion of the sunlight and rob the soil of thermal energy.
The long-term cool soil temps could delay the plant from flowering and setting fruit.
21: The Dangers Of Early Blight
Early blight is one of those things you think won’t happen to you, right up until it does. It’s actually more common than most novice tomato growers think.
It’s a type of fungus that sends spores on the wind and can infect soil as well as a tomato plant’s foliage.
Other plants can harbor early blight fungus without showing overt signs. Raspberries and other brambles in damp locations are notorious for hosting early blight spores.
Control of Tomato Early Blight Disease
It’s a good rule of thumb to not plant or keep tomato containers within 50 feet of a raspberry, or blackberry patch.
Early blight tends to strike in mid-June to early July. It tends to show up as little yellow spots on a tomato plant’s oldest leaves.
Left unchecked the blight spots can spread and turn black. In time, it can kill a significant amount of foliage, and reduce your seasonal tomato yield by half. Not to mention a serious blight problem is very ugly.
If you catch it early, you can deal with it by plucking all affected leaves. You should then treat the plant and the soil with a mixture of water and organic copper sulfate. This will reduce the fungal population.
Yet, you shouldn’t expect it to be a total cure. You may need to reapply again in two weeks.
You should also wait at least three days and thoroughly wash any existing fruit on the plant before eating them. Copper sulfate is not gentle on the human digestive system!
I think you’ll be surprised at just how well tomatoes can do in a pot. This increasingly popular growth strategy has been embraced by many a patio gardener with great results.
Just make sure to keep consistently moist, adjust their fertilizing strategy as the season demands, and make sure to watch out for signs of a mineral deficiency.
With a little luck and a bit of a green thumb, you could still be enjoying vine ripe tomatoes all the way into October!
Lindsey Hyland grew up in Arizona where she attended University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture. She has supplemented her formal education by working on various organic farms, including spending a semester abroad in India.
Growing and/or raising just about anything gets her excited. She is especially passionate about environmental justice and low-tech, sustainable ways to better run small-scale farms and homesteads. Lindsey started Urban Organic Yield to discuss gardening tips and tactics.