Container Gardening 101: How to Care for Tomato Plants in Pots

growing tomatoes in pots

Most gardeners know that tomatoes are best when you grow them at home because there’s nothing like eating a just-plucked tomato that’s still warm from the sun. But, what if you live in an apartment or condo and don’t have the space to grow tomatoes in the ground, or you have a shady yard that makes it impossible to give them the six to eight hours of sun they crave?

Don’t worry, you can still grow delicious tomatoes in containers on your patio or porch.  Tomatoes can grow well in these situations, but it helps to know a few simple tricks about how to care for tomato plants in pots so you can set them up for success and yourself up for a long summer of fresh tomatoes.

caring for tomato plants in pots

Choosing Tomato Varieties for Containers

Because tomatoes plants grow so large, I don’t recommend trying to grow just any tomato variety in a pot. Even determinate tomatoes can grow up to five feet tall.

If you’re choosing to grow tomatoes in pots, it’s best to pick a variety that is specifically bred for growing in containers. These can be a little more difficult to find, so you may have to hunt around your local farmers market or nursery to locate a suitable variety. Don’t be afraid to ask s for tomato varieties to grow in pots.

If you start your own seeds, Renee’s Garden usually carries some patio tomatoes like Tasmanian Chocolate, Super Bush, and Litt’l Bites Cherry. (I’m not affliliated with them, I just like their company and appreciate how they carry seeds for small spaces.)

choosing varieties for pot tomatoes

Littl’ Bites Tomato, courtesy of Renee’s Garden

Pot Size for Tomatoes

The first thing to know about how to care for tomatoes in pots is how to choose the right pot size for the variety of tomato plants you want to grow.  When you’re thinking about size, remember that tomatoes need their space, so bigger is better! You should also only plant one seedling per pot to allow the plant adequate room to grow.

Use a container that’s at least 14″ in diameter and up to 20″ or more. Lots of people grow tomatoes in five gallon buckets. Smaller pots dry out more quickly and also hold less nutrients, which you’ll learn more about below.

Make sure your tomato pots have drain holes. If you’re planning to grow tomatoes in a container without holes, you need to drill at least one large or a handful of small drain holes. Tomatoes do not like sitting in water.

You can also grow tomatoes in fabric pots, which are porous, so don’t require drain holes.

tasmanian chocolate patio tomatoes

Tasmanian Chocolate tomato, photo courtesy of Renee’s Garden

Watering Tomatoes in Pots

Tomatoes, like all plants that are grown in pots, usually need daily watering throughout the growing season.  Watering frequently and well is one of the most important factors in how to care for tomato plants in pots. The best time to water is in the early morning so that the plant can have the moisture that it needs to get it through the heat of the day.

If it’s extremely hot or windy, you might need to water twice daily.  If you do decide that you need a second watering, water as late as possible in the day to avoid evaporation from the sun.

While tomatoes are thirsty, they also require good drainage.  Choose the soil carefully to make sure that it’s rich, light and well-drained.  

How you water is also crucial.  I know that it’s sometimes not a lot of fun, but you need to carry the hose around from container to container and water deeply until the water is coming out of the bottom of the container.

Avoid the temptation to stand in one spot and spray overhead.  First, you’ll  lose much of your water to evaporation, and, secondly, a lot of the rest will fall on the plant’s leaves, not the roots, which is the part of the plant that actually needs the water. 

how to care for tomatoes in pots

Problems with Tomato Plants in Pots

Have you tried growing tomatoes in pots before and were disappointed when the plants failed to thrive? Here are some quick and easy tips for growing healthy, productive tomatoes.

The major problems with tomato plants in pots are:

1. Insufficient pot size.  Tomatoes love their space, so make sure you choose a large pot.  While some miniature and bush varieties can thrive in an 18 inch container, it’s best for most varieties to choose one that is at least 24 inches, or five gallons.

2. Under or overwatering.  Make sure you plant your tomatoes in a well-drained pot, and water at least daily during the hot season unless there’s a significant rainfall that day. Keep the soil in the pots consistently moist, but not soaking wet for long periods of time. It’s okay if the soil begin to dry out a bit, but do not allow the soil to become bone dry or your plant will become stressed. 

3, Not enough sun. Tomatoes need six to eight hours of sun per day. The advantage of growing tomatoes in pots is that you can locate the containers in the sunniest possible place on your property. If the plants don’t receive this amount of sun they may produce less tomatoes.

4. Under fertilizing or incorrect fertilizing. Growing vegetables in containers can be challenging because the soil in pots doesn’t hold nutrients like the soil in an in ground garden. This is partly due to how much you’re watering. As the water flows through the container it flushes out the nutrients over time.

About every two weeks you need to apply an organic garden fertilizer to all of your vegetable containers to keep them supplied with the various nutrients they need to grow, flower and produce fruit. Do not use a strictly nitrogen based fertilizer, like MiracleGro or you may end up with vigorous plants that produce few or no fruit.

Fox Farm, Dr. Earth, and Neptune’s Harvest are all reputable companies with high quality products.

5. Blossom end rot. Too little calcium in the soil can lead to blossom end rot, which is when the bottom of the tomato fruit has a soft spot that begins to rot. This lack of calcium is often aggravated by inconsistent watering. Make sure you’re not letting your containers completely dry out in between waterings. Applying a balanced organic fertilizer should also help prevent Blossom end rot. I’ve noticed it happening to my tomatoes during very dry summers when I wasn’t on top of watering.

how to support tomatoes in pots

How to Support Tomato Plants in Pots

First, learn how large the tomato plant you’ve picked is likely to get.  If you’ve planted container or patio tomatoes, they shouldn’t need an excessive amount of support. Although I don’t recommend your regular run of the mill round metal tomato cages for most tomatoes, they should work perfectly for small varieties in pots. They’re easy to find in local nurseries, hardware stores, or even on the curb!

There are also more decorative cages like obelisks, cute red cages, and triangular trellises. Many are available in various heights, so make sure the style you’re choosing matches the full grown height of your tomato variety.

I prefer to install my supports at the same time I plant my tomatoes. This ensures that they don’t grow too big before I get around to it.

As your plants grow you can use tomato clips or garden twine to secure the stems to the cage or trellis.

How to Grow Cherry Tomatoes in Pots

They’re as cute as they are delicious, and cherry tomatoes can grow well in pots.

Cherry tomatoes have the same needs as other tomato plants.  Just because the fruit is tiny doesn’t mean that the vine isn’t heavy, so they still need support.  Trellis or stake as you would other tomatoes. They also need their space, so make sure that your pot size is large enough to support the variety.

All of the tips and tricks we discussed above apply to cherry tomatoes – they need full sun, plenty of nutrition, daily watering through the growing season, and excellent drainage.

You’ll also want to know when to pick cherry tomatoes so that you get the most pleasure from your efforts. 

Now that you know how to care for tomato plants in pots, I hope that you have a summer filled with with bowls full of colorful tomatoes!





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