Growing Tomatoes in Containers

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DSC_0829With some basic gardening know-how you can enjoy fresh, home-grown tomatoes from a backyard garden! Tomatoes aren’t difficult to grow and you don’t even need a patch of ground to plant in. They will grow very happily in a container on a sunny balcony or deck, as long as you follow a few important steps.

Begin by selecting a tomato type and variety that is compatible with your growing conditions. Larger tomato types, such as beefsteak or oxheart, usually require more heat to ripen so if you live in a cooler climate, you’ll probably have more success with smaller types, such as cherry or slicing tomatoes.

Tomato plants are either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants are more compact and bush-like and tend to have a shorter fruiting season. Indeterminate plants are vining plants, some of which can grow well over 6 feet tall, and they bear fruit over a longer period. Determinate tomatoes are generally a better choice for growing in containers because of their compact form. If you do decide to grow an indeterminate variety in a container, you’ll need to install a support structure capable of handling the taller plant without tipping over.

Once nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50°F, it’s time to start planting. Follow these steps for fresh and tasty container-grown tomatoes!

Materials List

  1. Tomato plant
  2. Large container (at least 5 gallons)
  3. Potting soil
  4. Mulch (such as wood chips, straw, or compost)
  5. Trellis or cage
  6. Trowel
  7. Gloves
  8. Organic fertilizer


  1. Load the Soil: Fill the container almost to the top with potting soil.
  2. Prep the Seedling: Remove the tomato plant from the nursery container and gently loosen the root ball if it is tightly wound.
  3. Trim Branches: Snip off the lower branches, leaving just top couple of branches attached which allows the plant to establish a better root system.
  4. Plant Deeply: Make a hole in the potting soil and plant the tomato seedling deeply, leaving just the top branches exposed above the soil line. Be sure to pack the soil in tightly around the plant so there are no air pockets left around the roots and lower stem.
  5. Add Water: Water well, adding more soil to the top if needed. Learn more about irrigation and when and how much to water.
  6. Spread Mulch: Apply a layer of mulch over the exposed soil, taking care that the mulch not pile up against the stem, which can cause the stem to rot.
  7. Provide Support: Install a trellis, tomato cage, or some other kind of structure around the plant to support the heavy load of branches and fruit as the plant grows.
  8. Set Watering Schedule: Water regularly and deeply. Tomatoes require at least an inch of water per week, but in containers the soil dries out quicker. To test for dryness, stick your finger into the soil. If it’s dry to the touch 2 or 3 inches down, then it’s time to water. Learn how to be a water-wise gardener.
  9. Not Too Much: Don’t over-water, however—that can cause the fruit to lose flavor. The symptoms of over-watering can appear much like the symptoms of under-watering–yellowing and dropping leaves, wilt, and fruit drop—which is why a regular watering schedule is best.
  10. Feed Regularly: About two weeks after planting, begin regularly applying an organic fertilizer. For example, you can apply a monthly side-dressing of compost (scrape the mulch aside to apply the compost, then recover the soil with mulch) or a timed-release fertilizer that will feed the plant throughout the growing season. Exactly how often and how much to fertilize depends on the type of fertilizer you use, so follow the directions given on the package. Learn the fertilizer basics.

The number of “days to maturity” listed on the label the plant came with will tell you how long you’ll need to wait from the date of planting to your first ripe fruit.   It won’t be long until you are enjoying the sweetest kind of tomato – the kind grown and freshly picked yourself!

For more information on planting a small space vegetable garden, check out Plant a Small Space Vegetable Garden.

Continue growing in containers and explore Growing Citrus in Containers.