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Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown in gardens, but even small or no-space gardeners can enjoy a harvest of homegrown tomatoes when they plant in containers. Tomatoes are a vegetable that thrives when grown in pots and you can help ensure success when you pick the best varieties for containers and pair them with my seven strategies for growing a bumper crop of delicious tomatoes in pots.
Growing tomatoes in containers: 7 strategies for success
When growing in containers, there are a few simple strategies you can use to boost success and keep plants healthy and productive.
1) Container selection
Match the pot size to the variety size. Some tomatoes, like ‘Micro Tom’ grow just a foot tall and can be planted in small, six-inch diameter containers. Others, like ‘Sungold’ can grow over seven-feet tall and need a large five to seven gallon container. When looking for the best tomatoes for containers, read the description of the variety noting its mature size and pick an appropriate-sized pot.
Once you’ve found the right sized pot, flip it over and check to see if it has drainage holes. Tomatoes need excellent drainage and if the pot has just a single drainage hole, you’ll need to add more. This is easy to do with a drill if the pot is made from plastic or wood, harder if it’s a ceramic pot. For that reason, I tend to grow my container tomatoes in plastic pots or fabric planters. Fabric pots are free-draining and don’t need drainage holes. Many companies also offer planters with attached trellises for easy set-up and an instant tomato garden.
2) Growing medium
Tomatoes appreciate a well-drained soil but also grow best when given plenty of organic matter. To keep container-grown tomatoes happy, I fill my pots with a 50-50 mixture of a high-quality potting mix like Pro-Mix Vegetable and Herb and compost. Or, can just use a compost-rich planting medium like FoxFarm Ocean Forest Potting Soil.
3) Plant the seedlings deeply
Tomato plants have the lovely ability to form roots all along their stems. Planting the seedlings deeply encourages strong, deep-rooted plants. I bury the plants half deep in the potting mix, removing any leaves that would be under the soil.
4) Smart support
Super compact varieties like ‘Red Robin’ or cascading tomatoes for hanging baskets like ‘Tumbler’ don’t require cages or stakes. Most other types do. For determinate or dwarf varieties that grow two to three feet tall, you can use tomato cages. For indeterminate, or vining tomatoes, which can grow six feet tall or more, you’ll need to provide strong support for the vigorous plants. You can use heavy-duty, lifetime tomato cages, trellises, or stakes. As the plant grows, continue to tie the main stem loosely to the support every week or so. You can use twine or garden ties.
5) Plenty of sun
Tomatoes are sun-loving plants and produce the best harvest when placed in a spot with at least eight hours of light. If you have less light, avoid large-fruited tomatoes which need full sun to mature their fruits. Instead, plant cherry tomatoes which will still crop, although more modestly, when given 4 to 5 hours of daylight.
Consistent watering is essential when growing tomato plants in pots. Container-grown tomatoes are more prone to blossom end rot, a physiological disorder that results in a dark, leathery-looking spot to form on the blossom end of the fruit. Blossom end rot isn’t caused by a disease but rather calcium deficiency typically from inconsistent watering. If you’re allowing your tomato plants to wilt between waterings, you’re more likely to see blossom end rot.
Watering frequency depends on the size of the plant, size of the pot, composition of the growing medium (compost helps hold water), weather, temperatures, and more. Some summer days I water my container tomatoes in the morning and afternoon. Sometimes it’s just once a day or every two days. The soil should be slightly moist, but not wet. Stick a finger down into the potting mix and if it’s dry an inch or two down, water.
Also be mindful that larger pots hold more soil volume and water. That means they need to be watered less often than small pots. Therefore, plant tomatoes in the largest pots you can. You can also buy or DIY self-watering planters which have reservoirs of water so that plants don’t dry out between waterings.
Tomato plants are generally considered to be heavy feeders and require regular fertilization to produce a heavy crop of fruits. Many potting mixes come with a modest amount of fertilizer which is used up within the first few weeks. To ensure my plants have a steady supply of nutrients, I incorporate a slow-release organic tomato fertilizer into the soil when I fill the container. I also apply a liquid organic fertilizer every two to three weeks during the growing season. For more information on fertilizers, check out this excellent article by Jessica Walliser.
The best tomatoes for containers
Flip through any seed catalog and you’ll quickly discover that there are a lot of varieties available to gardeners. And while any variety can be grown in a container if given the right-sized pot, support, and care, certain varieties really are the best tomatoes for containers.
The best tomatoes for containers: cherry tomatoes
- Terenzo F1 – I’ve been growing this compact red cherry tomato for almost a decade. The plants are low-growing only reaching a height of about 18-inches, but they also trail, making this a great choice for hanging baskets and planters. I also like to tuck the plants along the edges of my raised beds where they cascade over the sides, and provide us with months of sweet fruits. Terenzo is an All-America Selections winner, lauded for its easy cultivation and large crop of delicious tomatoes.
- Tumbler – Like Terenzo, Tumbler is a variety that is perfect for pots and baskets. Plant three seedlings in a 12-inch hanging basket and you’ll be enjoying a bumper crop of one to two-inch diameter fruits all summer long.
- Micro Tom – Perhaps the smallest of all tomato varieties, Micro Tom grows just six inches tall. It can be planted in a four to six-inch pot where it will produce several dozen fruits. The small red tomatoes are mildly sweet and average about a half inch across.
- Tidy Treats – This is one of the best cherry tomatoes for containers! The plants are super vigorous but grow to a manageable four-feet tall. It’s early to fruit, with the harvest beginning just eight weeks from transplanting. And the crop of sweet, red, one-inch diameter fruits are produced in abundance. Bet you can’t eat just one! Support the plant with a strong tomato cage.
- Sungold – My all-time favorite tomato, Sungold is an extremely popular variety for home gardens. It can also be grown in containers but because the plants are large, up to seven feet tall, the pots should be at least sixteen to eighteen inches across. The plants need to be supported with a strong trellis or tall stakes. Expect a generous harvest of incredibly sweet orange cherry tomatoes.
- Heartbreaker – Part of a series of super dwarf varieties, Heartbreaker is perfect for hanging baskets or containers. The plants grow just a foot tall but mine consistently produce 40-50 tomatoes over the course of the summer. The fruits are, as the name implies, heart-shaped and quite sweet. The fruits are more cocktail-sized than cherry with most around one and a half inches in diameter.
The best tomatoes for containers: saladette & paste tomatoes
- Glacier – Saladette tomatoes have small to medium-sized fruits which are typically early to mature. Glacier is a compact indeterminate Saladette variety that grows just three to four feet tall. The medium-small red fruits are borne in trusses and have a wonderful flavor.
- Sunrise Sauce – A 2020 introduction, Sunrise Sauce is a paste tomato that grows just 30 to 36 inches tall, making it an excellent choice for pots. Use a tomato cage to provide support. Called ‘the perfect patio tomato’ by Johnny’s Selected Seeds, this productive cultivar bears 4 to 6 ounce fruits that are round to oval and bright gold in color. The fruits are produced over a short period of time which is ideal for anyone wishing to make tomato sauce.
- Plum Regal – Another bush-type paste tomato, Plum Regal is popular for its disease resistance which also includes resistance to late blight. The plants grow three to four feet tall and produce 4 ounce, plum-shaped fruits that are deep red in color.
The best tomatoes for containers: large-fruited tomatoes
- Tasmanian Chocolate – Tasmanian Chocolate is one of the open-pollinated varieties produced by the Dwarf Tomato Project. The goal of the project was to introduce tomatoes that offered heirloom flavor on compact plants and this is a standout variety that is perfect for pots. The mature plants grow just three-feet tall yet produce a good harvest of 6 ounce, burgundy fruits with a sublime, rich flavor.
- Defiant PhR – If you’re looking for a disease-resistant slicing tomatoes that also tastes great, look no further than Defiant PhR. It boasts high resistance to late blight, Fusarium wilt, and Verticillium wilt. The determinate, container-friendly plants grow about four-feet tall and begin to produce their bounty of 6 to 8 ounce fruits just 65 days after transplanting.
- Galahad – An All-America Selections winning variety, Galahad offers many outstanding characteristics. The compact, four-foot tall plants are resistance to common tomato diseases like Fusarium wilt, late blight, gray leaf spot, and tomato spotted wilt virus. They also yield dozens of medium-large 7 to 12 ounce fruits that have a meaty texture and sweet flavor.
For more information on growing tomatoes, be sure to check out these articles below as well as the excellent book, Epic Tomatoes:
- Six steps to growing a healthy tomato garden
- Growing tomatoes from seed: a step-by-step guide
- How far apart to plant tomatoes
- 5 tips for growing tomatoes in raised beds
The above varieties are some of the best tomatoes for containers. Will you be trying any in your garden this year?