One of the pure joys of summer is eating fresh, ripe, organic homegrown tomatoes, still warm from the sun. The quality is incomparable to the bland, mealy tomatoes that are usually available in supermarkets. The good news is that even if you don't have space for tomatoes in your garden (or don't have a garden at all) you can still grow tomatoes. As long as you have a sunny balcony, porch, or patio, you can have garden-fresh tomatoes all summer long. There are three keys to success in growing tomatoes in a container: tomato variety, planting, and ongoing care. Pay attention to these three keys, and you'll be in tomato heaven in no time.
Anyone who has seen tomatoes growing in a garden knows that they tend to be huge, sprawling plants. They require staking, and caging, and pinching just to stay manageable. So the first thing to do when considering growing tomatoes in a pot is to make sure to find a variety of tomato that will thrive in container culture. While you can grow almost any type of tomato in a container, some are more adaptable (and easier to manage) than others. Generally, this means that you need a compact, bushy (rather than vining) plant, and that it is an indeterminate variety. Indeterminate simply means that it will produce fruit fairly steadily throughout the growing season. Determinate varieties tend to produce all their fruit at the same time. To find out whether a variety is determinate or indeterminate, check the plant tag or catalog description.
Once you have found the perfect plant, it is time to plant it. The first thing to consider here is the vessel you are going to use. In general, plastic or fiberglass pots are best for growing tomatoes. There are two reasons for this. First, plastic and fiberglass, unlike clay pots, don't dry out as quickly. While tomatoes love heat, they definitely don't like being dry, and dry soil is a huge detriment to fruit production. The second reason is purely economic: tomatoes need to be grown in a fairly large pot (eight inches deep is the absolute minimum, twelve or even sixteen would be perfect), and clay gets rather expensive as you start looking for larger sizes. Plastic is inexpensive, even when you are looking for very large pots, and it's unlikely to break the way clay so often does. For a really cheap option (if not the most attractive one) you can plant tomatoes in a five gallon bucket. These are readily available at home improvement stores. They are the perfect size, and the price can't be beat.
Once you have the perfect pot, make sure that there is adequate drainage. The tomato plant will rot if it is sitting in soggy soil all the time. Most purchased pots have drainage holes in the bottom already. For the five-gallon bucket, you will have to use a drill and drill several holes in the bottom. If the pot you are using has large drainage holes, use a piece of broken pot, a piece of window screening, or a paper coffee filter to cover it. This way the water can drain out, but the soil won't end up all over the patio.
Any good quality organic potting soil will work for tomatoes. Just don't use soil dug directly from the garden. It is too heavy for container gardens, and will just compact more as the season goes on. A good peat or compost-based soil, whether purchased or mixed from your own special recipe, is ideal.
When planting the tomato, put some soil in the bottom of the pot, and set the tomato plant in. You'll want to bury the stem (to just below the lowest set of leaves) as well as the roots. New roots will grow along the buried section of stem, making for a healthier plant. Once you have the plant set at the proper level, fill in around it with potting soil, firming lightly as you go. The soil should go up to about an inch below the rim of the pot to allow room for watering. Once it's potted up, give it a good watering and set it in place.
Be sure to water regularly. The best way to tell when to water is to stick your finger into the soil. If the first two inches are dry, it's time to water. The trickiest thing about growing tomatoes in a pot is that they are heavy feeders, and every time you water, you are washing nutrients out of the soil. To combat this, you'll need to fertilize regularly, preferably with either fish emulsion or seaweed extract. Once a month is good, but every other week, applying the fertilizer at half-strength, is better. This will provide a constant source of nutrients for the tomato plants.
Two other things to consider are mulching and support. Even more compact tomato varieties benefit from some support. Pre-formed tomato cages, stakes, or homemade cages made to fit the container are all good options. Mulching, while less important in a container than in a garden bed, is still a good idea. It will keep weeds from growing in your tomato pot and retain moisture, so you won't have to water quite as often. The best mulches are pebbles, bark mulch, and straw. If you'd like to use the black or red plastic many tomato growers swear by, simply lay it over the soil before you plant your tomato, cut a slit large enough to put the plant in, and hold it down with metal stakes.
With these few easy tips, you'll be enjoying your own fresh, homegrown tomatoes in no time.