Not much space to garden? Try tomatoes in containers!
Most people enjoy garden fresh tomatoes. The flavor of the home grown fruit of Solanum lycopersicum is far and above anything one can pick up at the local supermarket. For apartment dwellers or others who are spatially challenged as far as land for small scale tomato production is concerned, you are in luck. For there are many varieties of tomatoes, as well as many other vegetables, that can be grown in a very small space or even a container.
We in Northern Illinois are now entering the primetime of tomato planting season and so if you would like to grow tomatoes or peppers in containers there are a few things to consider. One is the size of the container. The larger the container, the happier the tomato plant will be. A three gallon container is probably the smallest type container to use, but with a five gallon or larger container you will probably do better. The container should allow for drainage so if whatever container you use does not have drainage holes, holes should be drilled into the bottom.
The soil should be a mix of good garden soil along with compost along with a little sand to improve drainage. This is especially true if you use a plastic container, such as a bucket or a storage container or tote. Feed the plants with any fertilizer labeled for tomatoes but keep in mind that the leaching rate will be faster in soil kept in a container. This will make it necessary to increase the feeding rate. It is also important to keep the soil moist but not too wet. Again, keep in mind that a container made of wood or other porous material will allow for water to evaporate faster than a plastic container would.
There are many tomato varieties out there that have been bred especially for use in a container. These varieties will of course do well in a container setting, but many heirloom or hybrid varieties will also do well and should be tried. Determinate varieties will grow better if you also have limited height in the spot that you are planting the tomatoes, such as on a balcony. If you are growing your tomatoes on a patio or a place with no such restrictions then you can use any type of plant as you can stake the plants, or use wire cages, as you would in a traditional garden or field.
I have tried a few tomatoes in containers and the following I have found to do great.
Several container specific varieties:
A cherry variety that does well in any container is Tiny Tim. It is a very compact plant but produces tons of flavorful cherry tomatoes. The seed for Tiny Tim are getting harder to find for some reason and it has been nonexistent in garden centers lately. It is an heirloom and many people have saved the seed for this tomato. The seed can still be found commercially at Victory Seed. It is an early producer that takes about 45 days.
A tomato hybrid that was bred for containers is the Patio tomato put out by Bonnie Plants. Bonnie Plants seems to have cornered the market in live garden plants at all of the big box stores so this variety is not hard to find. These plants are determinate and only grow to about 24 inches tall. It produces well and like many hybrids it is resistant to fusarium wilt (F), alternaria stem canker (A), and gray leaf spot (St). It matures in about 70 days.
Several determinate varieties to try:
Both Roma and San Marzano are determinate paste tomatoes. Both will produce well and can be found at many garden centers and most seed companies. As they are determinate, the plants are bush type plants and will stay relatively compact. This being said, you may still want to stake or cage them as they both will produce large amounts of fruit. The tomatoes produced by both of these varieties are excellent in sauces and I also like them in salad as well. They mature in about 70 days.
Celebrity is another determinate tomato that seems to do well in a container. It is a hybrid that produces larger tomatoes that are about 8 ounces and 4 inches across. It grows to about 3 feet and probably needs to be staked or caged. It is resistant to verticillium wilt (V), fusarium wilt races 1 and 2 (F), nematodes, and tobacco mosaic virus (T). Celebrity take about 65 days to mature but produces well until frost.
Better Boy holds the world record for the amount of tomatoes produced by one plant. This plant produces tons of tomatoes and does well in a container. The fruits of this plant can be over one pound each so it would be advisable to cage this plant in a sturdy container. The flavor of the Better Boy tomato is excellent even though it is not an heirloom. Better Boy is an indeterminate variety and is resistant to verticillium wilt (V), fusarium wilt (F), and nematodes (N). It matures in about 70 – 75 days.
An heirloom variety of tomato that I have found does well in a container setting is Green Zebra. This is an indeterminate plant that produces smaller green striped tomatoes. They have excellent flavor and matures in about 78 days. This plant can reach 9 feet in height so staking is probably required.
As with all tomatoes the varieties listed above need plenty of full sun. They need even watering to ensure that fruit will not rot and keep in mind what was said above about what material the container is mad from.
Fresh garden tomatoes are one of things to look forward to in the summer. Just because you do not have a lot of space or a backyard to grow tomatoes does not mean that you can’t still grow your own! Try a few in a container this year!
A few places to find container tomato plants and seeds:
(Click on pictures to see larger view)