If any vegetable is worth growing at home, it is the tomato. Most store-bought varieties are selected for traits like durability, productivity, disease-resistance, uniformity, and roundness, but not necessarily taste. Even the most expensive grocery store ‘mater can’t compare in flavor to a truly well-ripened homegrown tomato.
Tomatoes are therefore an ideal ‘gateway’ vegetable for folks interested in vegetable gardening, and growing in containers is a great way to start. Digging in the ground can seem intimidating and pots require little planning: whether on your lawn, deck, or driveway, you’ll only need a spot with at least half a day of direct sunlight.
Want to learn more about growing tomatoes in Tallahassee? Join me at Native Nurseries for the Totally Tomatoes workshop at 10 a.m. Saturday.
If you’ve tried growing container tomatoes before and failed, it was probably due to your choice of container. At least a seven-gallon size container is required for each tomato plant, although for dwarf or bush varieties you could successfully use a five-gallon pot. It’s tempting to skimp on the size, but beware. If you plant in a smaller container, you will be watering several times a day once July rolls around, and you will still likely have serious consequences.
Tomatoes need a lot of water to sustain all of their growth in the heat of the Florida sun. They can dry out rapidly, and while they may bounce back, the fruit will split or suffer from blossom-end rot, making it inedible. Drying out also stresses the entire health of the plant, weakening its immune system, and making it more susceptible to pests and disease. Many of the “problems” people experience with growing tomatoes are actually secondary symptoms of insufficient watering. For this reason, I prefer using plastic containers rather than terra cotta, because they retain more moisture, and they’re lighter and easier to move. I’ve also had really great success with large, reusable grow-bags.
The container you choose must have adequate drainage. I have too often seen big box stores selling planters that have tiny, inadequate drain holes – or even none at all! This is a setup for certain failure. Plants in soil with poor drainage will result in bacterial growth that quickly rots your plants.
For soil, I like to use a mixture of about one-fourth mushroom compost and three-fourths potting soil. I also add a cup of Espoma’s Tomato-tone fertilizer, a handful of worm castings, and a tablespoon of Epsom salts.
It is especially important to plant your young transplant deeply in your pot. Pinch off the lower leaves along the stem, and plant the tomato as deeply in the soil as the size of your transplant allows; making sure to keep at least three inches of the growing tip above the soil.
Wild tomatoes native to South America are rambling, perennial vines with small, usually yellow, fruit. The vines grow on the ground, and are able to put out roots all along their stems to sustain the large vines with adequate water and nutrients. When we trellis or stake tomato plants, they are unable to root from their stem, which makes it difficult for them to source all of the water and nutrients they need to support their vigorous growth. This is why planting tomatoes deeply is key.
You will need a strong and sturdy tomato cage, or a stake of at least one-inch diameter and six feet tall to support most tomato plants. I use thick, six-foot cypress or bamboo stakes and then use twine to loosely wrangle the stem. Most tomatoes grow at least six feet tall with multiple stems, so you’ll have to keep up with the twine as it continues to grow.
Choosing the right variety of tomato is also important. I always recommend cherry-sized or small slicing tomatoes for pots. They are just generally more productive and easier to grow than the big beefsteak types, which can be finicky. They’re also more tolerant of shade.
A few of my favorite varieties for pots are Sungold cherry, Juliet, Jaune Flamme, Dark Galaxy, and Nyagous. These varieties are all early ripening, productive, and most importantly, delicious!