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24 essential things to know for growing container tomatoes

By Staff Writer
Share to Pinterest24 essential things to know for growing container tomatoes
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Growing tomatoes in containers is a wonderful option for anyone with limited gardening space. Whether you have a small yard or just a balcony or patio, you don't have to miss out on a bountiful harvest.

But you need to know what you're getting into before you begin.; if you don't have a general understanding of growing tomatoes, things can go awry. Here are some of the most common mistakes, and how you can avoid them.

01

Starting off on the wrong foot

Whether you're growing from seeds or purchasing seedlings, before you start, you need to know what works best. Take a few minutes to research the ideal tomatoes for your lifestyle. Begin with deciding whether you want determinate or indeterminate plants, which are the two main classifications. Determinate tomatoes are bushier and grow well on decks, whereas indeterminate tomatoes are vine-like and grow upwards.

Next, you want to figure out if heirloom or hybrid plants suit your needs. Heirlooms provide future seeds. Hybrids are better resistant to pests and diseases, which container plants are especially prone to due to their stand-alone environment. Know what suits your space best before committing yourself.

Share to PinterestTomato seeds in seed packet for planting in the garden
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02

Transplant troubles

Seedlings shouldn't remain in their starter trays for long. It's best to transplant them as soon as they're strong enough to survive the move. Have a battle plan ready and waiting to go once they show signs of outgrowing their first home.

Bigger is always better when it comes to transplant containers. Some people choose to grow their plants in reusable shopping bags. This is the minimal size you'll want per plant. Anything less has the potential to bind the roots, which causes premature fruiting and a lackluster crop.

Share to PinterestTomato seedling transplanting process
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03

Not avoiding the crowds

Never overcrowd your tomatoes. Unless you have a massive container, distribute one plant per pot. The seedlings may seem small at first, but they'll grow rapidly. Remember that even determinate tomatoes will end up being several feet tall. Overcrowding will stunt growth and cause unruly survival competition.

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04

Denying decent drainage

It's absolutely critical for tomatoes to have adequate drainage. With the amount of water they take in throughout their season, trapped or stagnant water can accumulate quickly, causing root rot and decay. One way to avoid problems and control water distribution is to use a grow box or self-watering container.

Share to Pinterest ripe and green cherry tomatoes in a pot
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05

Planting too early

Planting container tomatoes too early in the season can cause problems. Tomatoes are sensitive to cold temperatures, and exposing them to frosty conditions can damage or even kill the plants. It's best to wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50°F (10°C) before transplanting your seedlings outdoors.

Patience is key. Starting too early can result in weak, stressed plants, which may lead to poor yields or a disappointing harvest. So, just give those little seedlings some extra time before moving them outdoors.

Share to PinterestMacro of tomato plant leaves with frost

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06

Getting soft on hardening off

Related to planting time, hardening off is an essential period for your tomatoes — it should last a week or more. It's an important process to get your seedlings used to the outdoors. Whether you grew them from seeds indoors or purchased them from a greenhouse, it's vital to gradually acclimate them to their new home. Otherwise, the shock could stunt or even kill them.

Share to PinterestYoung tomato plants in a flower pot
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07

The stakes aren't high enough

Don't let your plants get out of control before staking them. Regardless of whether you tie them, use cages, or go with a trellis, it's crucial to set your tomatoes on the right path sooner rather than later. If they aren't properly supported, they can break or end up on the ground, making them more susceptible to disease.

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08

Being in the dark about light

Tomatoes require full sun. Always monitor a potential outdoor area first to see if there are at least 6-8 hours of direct light per day. Take some time to study sun patterns for the best growing environment.

Also, light and water don't necessarily mix well together. Make sure to avoid saturating the plant's leaves when watering, as they can scorch in direct sun. Overall though, it's best to keep light and water separated. Unless it can't be avoided, only water your plants early in the day or in the evening to avoid speedy evaporation.

Share to PinterestRed ripe tomatoes on the vine in full sunlight
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09

The wrong temperature

Share to PinterestTomato seedlings in a greenhouse and a thermometer showing the temperature of the growing environment

In the same vein as sunlight, the wrong temperature can seriously impact the growth of tomatoes in containers. Tomatoes thrive in warm conditions, ideally 70-85°F (21-29°C) during the day and 55-65°F (13-18°C) at night.

If the temperature goes too high or too low, it can lead to issues like stunted growth, blossom drop, or even fruit cracking. It's essential to monitor and regulate the temperature to ensure those juicy, delicious tomatoes reach their full potential.

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10

Watering woes

Watering your tomatoes is something you have to fine-tune, taking into account heat, humidity, wind, and precipitation. Make sure your plants always have moist soil. If it's too soggy, this may cause blackened or split fruit. If it's too dry, the plant will wilt. A nice saturation should perk it back up if it hasn't been neglected for too long.

Generally, tomato plants are hungry. The more they grow, the more they need: don't be surprised if you have to water them more than once a day on occasion. But cut back on watering once the fruiting cycle is in full force; this will create a better maturation process.

Share to PinterestA person watering their tomato plant with a garden hose
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11

Neglecting nutrients

Nutrients are key to maintaining full and healthy plants. Not only should you start your seeds or seedlings in a rich environment, but you need to fertilize them throughout the flowering and fruiting cycles. But make sure you find a fertilizer that's right for your plants. Study what's out there, since some can actually be harmful or encourage more leafy growth versus fruit.

Share to Pinteresthorn shavings in a shovel in front of a tomato plant
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12

Not showing enough love

Share to PinterestYoung woman examining tomato plant in vegetable garden

Once your plants are up and running, don't neglect them. Continuous monitoring and care are integral for an ample amount of fruit. Biodiversity helps keep tomatoes in a healthy ecosystem. However, since your plants being in containers and not in a vast garden, they have the potential to single themselves out.

Watch for any pests or diseases, and treat the plant accordingly by removing all affected areas.

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13

Pruning your tomato plants

Share to PinterestPruning tomato plants, removing stems

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Proper pruning of your container tomatoes helps improve airflow, sunlight penetration, and overall plant health. However, overzealous or incorrect pruning can leave your plants vulnerable to diseases or pests.

It's essential to use clean, sharp tools and remove only the non-productive suckers below the first fruit cluster. Avoid cutting main stems or fruit-bearing branches. Remember, a little TLC goes a long way in ensuring your container tomatoes grow strong, healthy, and productive.

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14

Mulch: the hidden protector

The benefits of mulching in container gardening cannot be overemphasized. Organic materials such as straw, compost, or shredded bark can serve as a protective layer atop your soil, ensuring moisture retention, which is particularly important for containers that tend to dry out faster than in-ground beds. Mulch also aids in temperature regulation, keeping the soil cool on hot days and warm during cooler periods.

Furthermore, mulching your container tomatoes assists in suppressing weed growth, making your job a little easier. One more benefit often overlooked is that mulching prevents soil from splashing onto the plant, which can lead to soil-borne diseases. So, for healthy, happy tomatoes, don't forget to mulch!

Share to PinterestWoman gardener mulching potter thuja tree with pine tree bark mulch.
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15

Regular monitoring: the constant gardener

Container gardening might seem less daunting than traditional gardening, but it requires just as much attention. Since container plants are isolated, they may be easier targets for pests like aphids, hornworms, or whiteflies.

Regular monitoring—checking the plant, including the undersides of leaves, stems, and the soil—can help catch the earliest signs of an infestation. Similarly, signs of disease such as leaf spots, wilting, or unusual discoloration should be immediately addressed. Remember, vigilance is key to preventing small issues from escalating into significant problems.

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16

Pollination: helping nature along

While tomato plants are self-pollinating, they sometimes need assistance, especially in an indoor or balcony setting where wind and insects are limited. Playing the part of the pollinator is surprisingly easy: a light shake of the plant or using a small paintbrush to transfer pollen from one flower to another can do the trick.

This simple step can drastically improve your fruit set and, ultimately, your harvest.

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17

Winter care: cold weather tactics

Tomato plants love the heat and are notably sensitive to frost. As winter rolls around, your container tomatoes will require special care. Consider bringing the pots indoors to a sunny window sill or using frost protection techniques like row covers or heat lamps. Insulating the pot by wrapping it in burlap can also help protect the roots from freezing.

The good news is it’s easier to protect container tomatoes from the cold as you can move them around as needed.

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18

Boosting fruit production: topping for productivity

To maximize fruit production, consider pinching off the tops of the main stems once your tomato plants have set fruit. This practice encourages the plant to redirect its energy from creating new foliage to focusing on fruit production.

Along with topping, you might want to remove any yellowing leaves or non-fruiting branches. However, don't get too scissor-happy—you want to leave enough foliage to protect the fruits from sunscald.

Share to PinterestClose up of woman hand pinch off excessive shoot sucker that grow on tomato plant stem in greenhouse, so tomato plant gets more nutrition from soil to grow tomatoes.
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19

Harvesting: perfect timing for perfect flavor

Harvesting is arguably the most rewarding part of growing tomatoes. But knowing when to harvest can be the difference between a good tomato and a great one. Generally, tomatoes are ready when they've turned their mature color—be it red, yellow, or even green. They should be firm but give slightly when gently squeezed.

To harvest, twist them gently off the vine to avoid damaging the plant or the fruit.

Share to PinterestWoman picking tomatoes from a tree.
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20

Post-harvest care: laying the groundwork for next year

Once you've reaped the fruits of your labor, consider composting the plants (assuming they're disease-free) to enrich your soil for the next season. If you've grown an heirloom variety, you may want to save seeds for next year. In this case, rinse them, dry them, and store them in a cool, dark place until the next planting season.

Post-harvest is also a good time to clean and store your containers, preparing them for the following year.

Share to PinterestCheery tomato seeds on hand wearing gardening glove, close up.
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21

Stopping disease: an ounce of prevention

Many diseases can plague tomatoes, including early blight, late blight, and various wilts. Prevention methods include regular monitoring, proper watering techniques, and even crop rotation (yes, even with containers!). For persistent problems like verticillium and fusarium wilts, consider planting resistant varieties.

Prevention is always easier than treatment, so taking proactive measures can save you from a lot of headaches down the line.

Share to PinterestSeptoria leaf spot on tomato. damaged by disease and pests of tomato leaves
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22

Reuse containers: sustainability in action

Reusing containers from one season to the next is a cost-effective and environmentally friendly practice. Just remember, any pests or disease-causing organisms can linger, so it's essential to clean them thoroughly. Over time, plastic containers may become brittle and crack, requiring replacement, but clay or ceramic pots can last season after season with proper care.

Share to PinterestFlorist preparing flower pot for plant
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23

Companion planting: friends with benefits

Companion planting can significantly benefit your container tomatoes. Marigolds, for instance, can deter harmful nematodes, while basil might repel flies and mosquitoes. Lettuce, spinach, or radishes can provide a living mulch, shading the soil and helping to keep it cool.

However, keep the size of your containers in mind to avoid overcrowding, as this could lead to competition for resources.

Share to PinterestUnripe cluster of green plum roma tomatoes growing in a permaculture style garden bed, with companion planting of marigold and calendula flowers, to attract pollinators and detract garden pests.
Joyce Grace / Getty Images

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24

Involving kids: growing plants and responsibility

Finally, growing tomatoes in containers can be an excellent project to involve children in gardening. It teaches them about plant life cycles, instills a sense of responsibility, and can also spark interest in healthy eating. There's something incredibly satisfying about eating a tomato you've grown yourself, no matter how old you are!

Share to PinterestHappy family working in organic greenhouse. Senior man woman and child growing bio plants in farm garden.
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