What are the secrets to great patio tomatoes?
March 26, 2021 5:23 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes I have great success at growing tomatoes in containers, and sometimes it is a flop. How do you grow prolific amounts of tomatoes in containers? Are there specific varieties that you recommend? Do you mix egg shells in the soil? Do you fertilize in a specific way? Are fertilizer spikes the way to go rather than sprinkled fertilizer? Are the topsy turvy planters better than right side up planters? Any advice and tips and tricks that you have would be most appreciated.
posted by mortaddams to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of hot sunshine, and Miracle Gro with every watering! I find cherry tomatoes do better than larger sizes.
posted by The otter lady at 5:28 PM on March 26, 2021

When you say sometimes it's a flop--what do you mean? Does the foliage go limp and sad or are the tomatoes not abundant or form late? Where are you, and what kind of tomatoes?

Some stuff that impacts how satisfying it is to grow tomatoes:

-the cultivar. I like Brandywine, but I've never gotten more than one a year, so I do grow them, but also others
-calcium uptake/blossom end rot: if the soil is too acid the fruit fails. You can side dress with wood ash or lime.
-sometimes it's just too freaking hot for them to set fruit; they stop producing in order to survive
-intermittent water availability -- mulch them, with straw or leaves or whatever. If they are in containers, water them on a regular basis (whatever makes sense to you)
-pruning! you can harass them into production by severing the root system in addition to the 'pruning tomatoes' that Google will get you. If you stick a shovel about five inches from the stem into the dirt once or twice, late in the season (say late July) the plants will be startled into setting fruit

Tomatoes are awesome and there is tons to learn about them. I grow a bunch of different kinds. I had one year where every single one failed--late blight, it's called. Now I know a little.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:46 PM on March 26, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'm watching this thread eagerly, because we've planted tomatoes for years, experimenting every year to increase the yield, with inconsistent results. But so far, it seems that these things are true: weather has a huge amount to do with whether it's a good tomato year or not and there's nothing you can do about that, using too much fertilizer produces lots of foliage at the expense of fruit, and buying decent-looking plants at a big box store or the like instead of a fancy plant store filters out those plants that are too fragile to thrive in whatever your weather conditions are. My sense, too, is that self-watering planters help ameliorate the effects of crappy tomato weather to some extent.
posted by DrGail at 5:58 PM on March 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

We kind of half-assed a cherry tomato plant in an old container last year and had an insanely great bounty. Used plain old potting soil, watered every day, used something akin to MiracleGrow once a week, and that’s it. Set the container on the patio in mostly full sun and let it go. We enjoyed an overabundance of tomatoes throughout summer and deep into the fall.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:21 PM on March 26, 2021

Response by poster: When you say sometimes it's a flop--what do you mean? Does the foliage go limp and sad or are the tomatoes not abundant or form late?

I have had tomatoes that are not abundant, that form late, and that are malformed. Also, later in the season the foliage sometimes gets thin, spotty, and yellow before the tomatoes are ripe. They also sometimes split and scar. Last year I also had a ton of whiteflies. So ... I guess that I have had all of the problems??

Where are you, and what kind of tomatoes?

I am in hardiness zone 5 in the US. The tomatoes that I have tried range from cherries to grapes to yellow pears to romas to heirloom to early girls. That said, I would be most interested in having success with small or heirloom tomatoes.
posted by mortaddams at 7:21 PM on March 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

We're in 5b here in the Denver suburbs. The dry climate, short growing season, hail threats, and huge day to night temperature swings all make gardening challenging in specific ways, but tomatoes are why I garden, so I've adapted. First, zone 5 means you need to pick short season friendly varieties. Look closely at those days to maturity on seed packets or websites. Don't pick anything above 85. 70 days +/- 10 is good, although this year I'm trying a super early strain that claims 55 days. Second, for containers I like a determinant tomato. If you go with a sprawling indeterminate instead, you'll need to prune aggressively. One early season determinant that's done well for me in ground and in containers is Silvery Fir Tree, a Russian heirloom strain. It's an early fruiting slicer with plum sized, slightly acidic fruits that produces reliably for me.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:58 PM on March 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

To be honest the thin, yellowed foliage before the tomatoes are ripe is actually on purpose, the plant will on purpose lose a bunch of leaves to help the sun get to the fruit! This is something I only learnt this year. I have one plant with almost no leaves and some slowly ripening fruit in my yard right now.
I can't give you any very specific advice re plants as my prolific tomato plants are on the other side of the world from you but I would definitely recommend cherries or even currant tomatoes for pots, regular deep watering, and as much sunshine as you can give them.
posted by applesauce at 3:39 AM on March 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are my best tips after 20 years of growing tomatoes in pots in Zone 4A/B:

1) Tomatoes are nitrogen hogs-- fish emulsion, worm castings made into tea, aged chicken manure... none sound appealing but produce great tomatoes when applied in small amounts with water regularly.

2) Water in the morning, only at the base of the plant. (Yeah, you may be shaking your head at this one, but I even see it on garden television shows.)

3) Pinch out suckers and focus the growth of the plant-- you don't want a huge plant-- you want fruit set and production.

4) Put the pot on wheels if you can-- yeah, it's nice to be able to move the thing when conditions don't play nicely. (Storms, high winds, etc.)

5) Stake your tomato plant-- support really helps and put it in early, as staking a tomato later can kinda suck.

6) Soil quality-- you can't regrow tomatoes in the same pot / spot each year (see nitrogen) unless you really, really revive that soil. For a great start, Promix is super light with great drainage.

7) Be consistent with care-- daylight varies a LOT during the season, so water accordingly to only the correct amount needed. Yeah, stress the plant later if you want to, but over the first days, be proactive with your morning coffee.

8) Pick the right varieties-- some tomatoes are great in containers, others (Black Icicle, Matt's Wild Cherry) not so much. What annoys me most in the big box stores that sell tomatoes is spotting a tomato plant in a planter that most folks will think is all they need-- and the plant needs something three times that size.

9) Have some serious fun with your choices. Totally Tomatoes catalog has a lot of varieties that have hooked me, from Taste of a Flying Dragon to my personal favorite, Garden Peach.

Happy to answer anything else I can-- I planted 28 different varieties of tomatoes in my city lot last year, and I have 72 starting to grow their first sets of true leaves down under lights so I can provide plants to my co-workers. The range of growing days runs from 40-ish (Oregon Spring and one called, yes, 42 days) to Black Krim and Big Rainbow.
posted by Arch1 at 7:01 AM on March 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When you plant the starts, pinch off the bottom two leaves and plant it down a few inches above where the dirt of the start is. It will establish a more sturdy plant. Continue to prune off excess branching as the plant grows. And dont over water once you get to flowering, let the leaves wilt - the dryness will spark fruit production. Train the vines onto something sturdy to keep the fruit from sagging onto the ground.
posted by ananci at 8:29 AM on March 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Nth Arch1's and ananci's comments. The only other thing I would add is that, after I add the soil and hollow it out, ready to receive the plant, I've had really good luck with adding a double handful of compost and a substantial pinch of bonemeal to the hollow.

Also, pots dry out more quickly than gardens, so while you don't want to over-water, you also want to check it frequently, perhaps every other day during hot season.

I have a community garden plot, but in the past, I've had really good results with cherry tomatoes in pots, especially Sun Golds and currant tomatoes.
posted by dancing_angel at 10:14 PM on March 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have had tomatoes that are not abundant, that form late, and that are malformed. Also, later in the season the foliage sometimes gets thin, spotty, and yellow before the tomatoes are ripe. They also sometimes split and scar. Last year I also had a ton of whiteflies. So ... I guess that I have had all of the problems??

Some years it's weather. It's cold and rainy and fungus forms, or it's hot and dry and it doesn't set fruit.

Thin spotty yellow foliage is probably a blight if it covers the whole plant. That's what killed all my plants the one year. Air flow!

Splitting is when they are close to ripe and rain falls and they burst -- solution to that is pick just before ripe or definitely at ripe if it's about to rain.

Scarring is called catfacing and due to inconsistent moisture. Solution is mulch and regular watering.

A bruise-like thing that forms at the bottom is called blossom end rot. It's due to a lack of calcium which is due to soil that is acid with a low ph. It isn't hard to correct -- I side dress with wood ash but you can get lime or a bunch of other things to raise the ph a little bit. (The acid soil makes calcium uptake difficult.)

Some cultivars are tried and true for a reason: yellow Sun Gold and red Celebrity or Early Girl tomatoes. Sun Gold is a yellow cherry tomato and as far as I'm concerned, the very best tomato imaginable.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:17 PM on March 28, 2021

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