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How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots — Even Without a Garden

How to grow tomatoes in pots like a gardening pro

Tomatoes are the holy grail of gardens. Who can resist all those sweet, juicy orbs ripening in the sun every summer, filling the air with that unmistakable heady scent of tomato vine?

Hands down, it’s one of my favorite plants to grow every year and I grew it without abandon in my last garden, in the ground, when space was not an issue for these large, unwieldy plants.

But when I uprooted to a different part of the country and found myself in a rental home for the short term, with only a deck that was suitable for gardening, I thought my tomato dreams were dashed for the next couple of summers.

Not so!

That first year, I ended up growing a wide variety of tomato plants in containers, easily and successfully, in my hardiness zone 6b climate. I had enough of a harvest every week to eat fresh and cook with, and a final crop at the end of summer for several jars of homemade skin-on tomato sauce.

Homegrown tomatoes all summer long

Related: Grow the Best Tomatoes on the Block: 10 Tips for a Successful Harvest

I found that an unexpected benefit of container plants is being able to protect them more easily from critters (in my case, growing tomatoes on a second-story deck deterred all the deer in my neighborhood), not to mention having better resistance against pests and diseases that naturally live in the garden (since you start with fresh potting soil).

Growing tomatoes in pots really levels the playing field in the home garden game, as it allows even gardeners short on space (say, a balcony or side patio) to grow beautiful and productive plants regardless of real estate.

Grow productive tomato plants in pots

So what’s the first thing you need to know?

The key to being wildly successful with growing tomatoes in pots is proper planning.

First, make sure you choose a location with at least 8 to 10 hours of sun (6 hours is the bare minimum, but more is much better).

(If your yard is shadier than you’d like, here are a few options for tomatoes that can grow in shade.)

Then, follow my tested-and-true tips below to learn how you can maximize the minimal space you have and cultivate healthy, vigorous tomato plants in your small-space container garden!

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How to grow tomatoes in pots like a gardening pro

1. Choose the right type of tomato.

Determinate types (also called bush, compact, or patio plants) are usually the best tomato plants for containers, as they grow to a predetermined size — no more than 3 to 4 feet tall — and set flowers and fruits all at once, making them reliable and predictable in tight quarters.

Determinate tomato plant

However, you can still grow indeterminate tomatoes if you give them a large enough container and good support for their vines. (More on my favorite tomato supports below in Step 9.)

A good rule of thumb is to grow determinate tomatoes if you have a short growing season, got a late start in the season, or have a very limited footprint.

Recommended determinate tomato varieties: Glacier, Red Siberian, Italian Roma, Supremo Roma, Cherry Falls

If, on the other hand, you have a decent growing season and enough space for a large, tall plant, indeterminate tomatoes will give you abundant harvests all summer long and are totally doable in containers!

Recommended indeterminate tomato varieties: Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Black Krim, Cuore Di Bue, Chocolate Cherry

Grow indeterminate tomato plants in pots

2. Start with a strong and healthy transplant.

Ideally, the tomato plants you start with should have been repotted at least once, and hardened off properly so they’re ready to live outside in the sun.

(If you started your own plants from seed, follow my previous guides on how to repot your seedlings into larger containers, and how and why to transplant them a second time.)

Repotting assists your tomato plants in developing larger root masses, which in turn helps them survive the shock of transplanting, resist pests and diseases that prey on vulnerable young plants, and grow stronger overall.

If you’re bringing transplants home from a nursery or garden center, look for thick, sturdy stems and healthy green foliage free from insect damage, sunburn, and yellowing (which indicates watering issues or nutritional deficiencies).

Start with a strong and healthy tomato transplant

I also try to avoid “top heavy” plants on tall, skinny stems, as it could be a sign they haven’t received adequate sunlight or been repotted.

3. Don’t be shy with container size, and choose a fabric pot over a plastic pot.

When it comes to tomatoes, the bigger the pot, the better.

Determinate varieties should be planted in 10-gallon containers at a minimum, while indeterminate varieties need, at the very least, 20-gallon containers to thrive.

Any smaller than these sizes and your plants may not be as productive as they could be.

My favorite type of containers are fabric pots, like these ones from Root Pouch. They come in either non-degradable or biodegradable versions, but for container gardening, I prefer the non-degradable Boxer line so I can reuse them year after year.

Root Pouch fabric pot for growing tomatoes in containers

Fabric pots are beneficial for plants with extensive root systems because they naturally “air prune” the roots.

The effects of air pruning in breathable fabric pots are best seen when compared side by side with plants contained in non-porous plastic pots.

When the roots in plastic pots grow long enough to hit the sides of the pot, they continue to grow round and round in a constricted pattern (spiraling, kinking, and twisting around themselves), eventually becoming rootbound.

Roots in fabric pots, on the other hand, are exposed to air as they grow. This exposure “burns off” the tips of the roots, which stops them from growing long and spindly. Instead, they branch off and form new, shorter, fibrous feeder roots.

Because growth is well distributed throughout the soil volume (and not just on the edges of the pot), the dense network of branched roots is able to increase the plant’s uptake of water, utilize all available nutrients, and aid in its natural defenses.

Effects of air pruning on fabric pots versus plastic pots
Left: Rootbound plant from a plastic pot. Right: Air pruned roots from a fabric pot. Image by Root Pouch.

The permeability of fabric pots also helps to promote proper drainage of excess water and improve oxygenation to the roots (which maximizes the plant’s metabolic performance and, in turn, boosts crop yields).

In cooler climates, however, black plastic pots do serve a practical function. They hold heat in and keep roots warm in late spring to early summer, when tomato transplants are most susceptible to temperature swings.

On the flip side, black plastic pots may get too hot in the peak of summer, so they need to be shaded to prevent the rootball from overheating.

You can wrap or cover plastic pots with shade cloth, canvas, or towels to insulate against the heat (office binder clips work great for securing them), as well as try to keep them off heat-retaining surfaces like concrete.

Whichever kind of container you use, be sure to place a heavy-duty saucer (I use this one) underneath before you load it up, and have it placed exactly where you want it — it’ll be very heavy to move later on.

Not only will the saucer protect your deck or patio from standing moisture, it will allow your plant to absorb any excess water over the course of a hot day.

4. Use high-quality potting soil.

Plants in containers need a good combination of breathability, absorption, and moisture retention.

The topsoil from your garden (as well as any commercially bagged mix labeled as “raised bed soil” or “garden soil”) is generally too dense for potted plants, and it increases the risk of your tomato plant picking up a soil-borne disease that’s otherwise easily preventable.

I recommend using a high-quality premium potting soil or potting mix like this one, and try to avoid reusing potting soil from past seasons if your plants had pests or diseases. You can also make your own potting mix with only three ingredients.

Spread about 3 to 4 inches of potting soil on the bottom of your container, then continue with Step 5.

5. Feed your tomato plant well.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders and need ample nutrients to produce well and long into the season.

Before putting the tomato transplant in its final planting hole, add the following amendments to the soil and stir them around a bit:

Add a diverse mix of amendments to your tomato planting hole

Related: The Secret to Top-Notch Tomatoes Is in This Unlikely Fertilizer

Once the amendments are in, spread another 2 to 3 inches of potting soil on top.

6. Bury the stem of the tomato plant.

Gently pinch or snip off the lowest sets of leaves until you’re left with a bare stem on the bottom one-third to one-half of the stem.

Trim off the lowest sets of leaves and bury the stem of the tomato plant
Bury the stem of the tomato plant when transplanting

Center the tomato plant in the pot and fill the remainder of the pot with more potting soil until it’s filled to the brim (just below the last set of leaves). Gently shake the pot to settle the soil and add more as needed.

Plant tomatoes deeply in the soil for better root development

Top off the soil with 1/2 cup all-purpose fertilizer (I like this one) and lightly rake it in around the base of the stem.

Feed tomato plants with good organic fertilizer
Fertilize tomato plants starting at week six

7. Water thoroughly and consistently.

Water the root zone thoroughly until the soil is evenly moist. I usually water the plant in, wait about 10 minutes, water again, wait 10 minutes again, and repeat until water runs freely out the bottom of the pot.

It takes a surprisingly large amount of water (at least a gallon, from my experience) to fully saturate the soil the first time. Don’t assume that just because the water drains right away on the first watering that the soil is soaked through.

Proper watering is the key to success when it comes to growing tomatoes in pots. Too little or too much water can stunt your plant’s growth, contribute to blossom end rot, or encourage pests in times of hot weather or plant stress.

For those same reasons, water only the root zone with a watering can, garden hose, drip irrigation, or soaker hoses (not overhead on the leaves) so you can see exactly how much water your plant is getting each time.

After the initial watering, and depending on the weather, you probably won’t need to water again until three days later. Check the top 3 to 4 inches of soil with your finger; if it feels dry, give it a good drink.

As summer goes on, you’ll want to check the soil a couple times a week to ensure a consistent level of moisture.

Plants in containers tend to dry out more quickly than those in raised beds or in-ground garden beds, so it’s not unusual to water at least once every other day as temperatures climb higher. The smaller the pot, the more often you’ll need to water.

Remember that tomato plants like to be watered deeply, so be sure to saturate the soil until excess water drains out the bottom. Give another nice, long soak only when the top 3 to 4 inches of soil feel dry.

8. Protect young transplants from frost with “walls of water.”

Generally, it’s a good idea to wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 45°F before you plant tomatoes outside.

But in climates with short or finicky growing seasons, sometimes you just need to get them outside sooner (or you never know when temperatures may dip below freezing). Here in Central Oregon, it’s not unheard of to get frost well into July!

Related: Know When to Grow: A Planting Calendar for Your Garden

One way that I protect my transplants in late spring to early summer is with “walls of water” (also known as tomato teepees).

They keep plants nice and toasty and are super easy to use (no need to take frost covers on and off each day).

Cherry tomato plant

Walls of water enable you to plant your tomatoes up to six weeks before your last frost date, and keep them going up to six weeks after the first freeze, as they’re rated to withstand temperatures as low as 16°F.

(They haven’t failed me yet, though I’ve personally never used mine below 28°F.)

They also protect against wind, so they’re useful for delicate young plants that haven’t fully anchored themselves into the soil yet.

“Walls of water” is basically a large ring of heavy-duty plastic that’s sectioned off into long tubes. The tubes are filled with water, and the “walls” are placed over the plant with the weight of the tubes supporting them. You end up with what looks like a teepee around your plant.

(Quick tip: Place the walls of water over a bucket and fill the tubes partway with water until the walls can mostly stand on their own. Transfer the walls to your container over the plant, then continue filling them to the top with water.)

Fill each tube in the plastic tomato teepee with water
Walls of water collect heat during the day and radiate it back out at night

Walls of water act as mini greenhouses, collecting heat from the sun during the day and radiating it back out at night.

They do need to be refilled periodically as the water evaporates, but they’re surprisingly effective in colder climates and I highly recommend using them if you want to get an early start on the growing season.

I usually remove mine once my tomato plants are a few inches above the walls (or I’m certain all danger of frost has passed).

A simple way to remove the tomato teepee is to push all the walls in until water spills out the top and onto the soil.

Once the tubes are mostly empty, you can roll them down, lift them up over the plant, dry them out, and store them for next year. Then proceed with Step 9.

9. Add your support structure.

To reduce your chances of damaging the roots, add your tomato support at this stage before the plant grows too large.

Stake tomato plants early to avoid damaging roots

If you are growing determinate tomatoes, the metal conical cages that you find in most garden centers will suffice. But, I am generally not a fan of them for indeterminate tomatoes, as I find they’re too flimsy to support the long, sprawling vines.

My favorite tomato supports are these tomato ladders (essentially very tall, burly stakes) and square tomato cages (which can be folded down when not in use).

Both of these supports are strong, extendable, and durable (I’ve used the same ones for years and they still look good as new) and they’re also attractive, if you care about that kind of thing.

Vigorous tomato plants in pots

(Quick tip: If you use tomato ladders, you can stake your plants first and then add the “walls of water” over them, making things a little more streamlined.)

Walls of water can be used with stakes and ladders to support tomato plants

They’ve easily supported my container tomatoes that grew over 7 feet tall and are convenient to store away at the end of the season.

I’d say the cages are a little better at containing the vines than the ladders, as you can simply tuck your tomato branches back into the cage if they get too unruly.

Tomato plants thriving in 20-gallon containers

With tomato ladders, you have to stay on top of tying or clipping the vines to the stakes to keep them neat and tidy.

Whichever support you use, don’t wait until you actually need it before you install it. It’ll be that much harder to wrangle a mature tomato plant into a cage than to just have it in place early.

10. Mulch the soil.

Mulching is essential for any garden, but it’s especially important for container gardens as it helps retain moisture in the soil.

Use an organic mulch like straw (not hay, which contains seeds), shredded bark, or arborist wood chips to cover the soil by at least 2 inches, taking care not to bunch it up against the stem.

One substantial layer of mulch should last the whole summer, and can be composted with your spent tomato plants at the end of the season.

Mulch containers to help retain moisture in the soil

11. Fertilize your tomatoes consistently throughout the season.

Even with all that good stuff that you put in the planting hole, your tomato plants will need another shot of nutrients about six weeks into the season.

I like to use a balanced organic fertilizer, like this granular tomato fertilizer or this liquid fish and seaweed emulsion. Follow the package directions for proper application, and keep the fertilizer bag or bottle next to your plants so you’ll never forget to feed them.

Try to avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, as you’ll end up with lots of lush green leaves, but no flowers or fruits.

Grow your own tomatoes in a small-space garden

I have a deep love for growing any and all types of tomatoes in all kinds of conditions, so if you have any questions about growing tomatoes in pots, please ask away in the comments!

Yield: 1 container plant

How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots Like a Gardening Pro

Growing indeterminate tomato plants in pots

You don't need a lot of space to grow tomatoes. You just need this step-by-step guide that shows you exactly which varieties to grow and how to set your plants up for success.

Prep Time 10 minutes
Active Time 35 minutes
Total Time 45 minutes
Difficulty Easy

Materials

  • 1 tomato seedling or start
  • 10- to 20-gallon container
  • 25-inch heavy-duty saucer
  • 1.5- to 3-cubic feet of high-quality potting soil (depending on container size)
  • 1/2 cup of tomato/vegetable fertilizer
  • 1/4 cup of fish meal
  • 1/4 cup of bone meal
  • 2 aspirin tablets
  • Handful of crushed eggshells
  • 1/2 cup of all-purpose fertilizer
  • 1 Walls of Water tomato teepee (optional)
  • 1 tomato support structure
  • Organic mulch

Tools

  • Trowel
  • Garden snips or scissors
  • Cultivator

Instructions

  1. Choose the right type of tomato. Determinate plants or indeterminate plants? Let your space and length of growing season guide you.
  2. Start with a strong and healthy transplant. Your tomato transplant should've been repotted at least once already and properly hardened off.
  3. Don't be shy with container size, and choose a fabric pot over a plastic pot. You need a minimum 10-gallon container for determinate tomatoes and a 20-gallon container for indeterminate tomatoes. Place a saucer under the container before filling it, and make sure it's in the spot you want it — otherwise it'll be very heavy to move later.
  4. Use high-quality potting soil. Spread about 3 to 4 inches of potting soil across the bottom of the container.
  5. Feed your tomato plant well. Once you add your potting soil, stir the following amendments into the soil: tomato/vegetable fertilizer, fish meal, bone meal, aspirin, crushed eggshells. Then, spread another 2 to 3 inches of potting soil on top.
  6. Bury the stem of the tomato plant. Gently pinch or snip off the lowest sets of leaves until you’re left with a bare stem on the bottom one-third to one-half of the stem. Center the tomato plant in the pot and fill the remainder of the pot
    with more potting soil until it’s filled to the brim (just below the last set of leaves). Gently shake the pot to settle the soil and add more as needed. Top off the soil with 1/2 cup all-purpose fertilizer and lightly rake it in around the base of the stem.
  7. Water thoroughly and consistently. Water the root zone thoroughly until the soil is evenly moist. Water the plant in, wait about 10 minutes, water again, wait 10 minutes again, and repeat until water runs freely out the bottom of the pot. It will take upwards of 1 gallon of water to fully saturate the soil.
  8. Protect young transplants from frost with "walls of water." This is an optional step for cold climates. If nighttime temperatures are consistently below 45°F at the time of planting, fill a Wall of Water and place it over your seedling to protect against frost. Remove the Wall of Water when the tomato plant is a few inches above the walls (or all danger of frost has passed).
  9. Add your support structure. To reduce your chances of damaging the roots, add your tomato support at this stage before the plant grows too large.
  10. Mulch the soil. Use an organic mulch like straw (not hay, which contains seeds), shredded bark, or arborist wood chips to cover the soil by at least 2
    inches, taking care not to bunch it up against the stem.
  11. Fertilize your tomatoes consistently throughout the season. Start feeding your tomato plant about six weeks into the season. Use a balanced organic fertilizer and follow the package directions for proper application.

Did you make this project?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Instagram

Tomato Growing Sources

How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots — Even Without a Garden 2
Root Pouch Boxer Brown 10-Gallon Container | Root Pouch Boxer Brown 15-Gallon Container | Smart Pots 20-Gallon Fabric Pot | Generic Pots Black Premium 25-Inch Plastic Saucer | FoxFarm Ocean Forest Potting Soil | Dr. Earth Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer | Down to Earth Fish Meal | Jobe’s Organic Bone Meal | GeriCare Aspirin | Dr. Earth Premium Gold All-Purpose Fertilizer | Wall O Water Plant Protectors | Behrens Galvanized Steel Pail | Gardener’s Supply Company Stacking Tomato Ladders | Gardener’s Supply Company Square Heavy-Gauge Tomato Cages | Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Blend Fertilizer

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on May 23, 2019.

Growing Tomatoes From Start to Finish

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

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