If you crave the taste of luscious, homegrown tomatoes but don’t have the space to manage a full-sized garden, then container gardening might be just the thing for you. Tomatoes are the home gardener’s most beloved veggie (actually, a fruit) but other vegetables may be grown successfully in containers as well.
What you need
A sunny location. Tomatoes need six to eight hours of sun a day. The plants should be protected from wind. Scout around for the best spot, whether that’s a front porch, back deck or apartment patio ledge.
Pots. You’ll need flowerpots or other containers at least 14-inches in diameter that hold at least 5 gallons of soil. (Larger pots support more root mass and water that plants will need to get through summer days.) Just a few productive pots will do to keep a small family eating tomatoes all summer. Make sure the bottom of the container has drainage holes; otherwise, root rots are likely to occur.
Soil: Use an all-purpose potting mix containing compost and/or peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite. Don’t just scoop up soil from the garden. This is typically too dense to allow for adequate aeration and drainage.
Seeds or transplants: Midget, patio or dwarf varieties have compact vines and are good choices for container gardening. Look for labels that say “compact” or “for containers.” Full sized varieties grow tall and will require too much support for a small container but could be grown in a 15 gallon or half-barrel size container. The added leaf surface of larger plants provides more sugars for flavor development of the tomatoes. Choose disease resistant varieties.
Support structures: Conical wire trellises with two rings should be adequate for small plants. Larger tomato plants should have sturdy supports. Put supports in place when the tomatoes are planted; if you wait, you could injure them.
Critter-proofing: Consider draping the containers with plastic netting or constructing a wire cage around the pots if your property has woodchucks or other animals. They’ll hop up on a porch for a tasty snack.
Planting your tomatoes
In late May, you’ll need to buy transplants if you haven’t grown your own from seed. Look for short, stocky plants that are as wide as they are tall, with stems as thick as a pencil, and dark green foliage. Try to find transplants without blossoms or fruit, or pinch these off if they are present. (Blossoms or fruit on plants at this stage can delay growth and flowering later on.)
Transplant the plants into outdoor pots after all danger of frost is past and when the soil has warmed — in the Hudson Valley, typically around Memorial Day. If you are in a warm location, you can plant them now.
If you need to use leggy plants, remove leaves that would be covered by soil and bury the stems deeply, up to within three or four leaves from the top. The buried portion of stem will send out roots. Firm up the soil around the plant and water.
Time to maturity varies from 65 to 90 days from the time of transplant.
Maintaining your plants
Water: Container plants require more water than those planted in the ground. Unless there is a drenching rain, water every day until the water flows freely through the bottom of the pot. On the hottest days, you might need to water a second (or third) time should the soil feel dry an inch below the surface. Water the soil, not the plant. Wet leaves are susceptible to disease.
Fertilizer: Tomatoes require fertile soil. Some potting mixes contain fertilizer, or you can use a time-released fertilizer to mix with your potting soil before planting. Nutrients leach out of the container as you water, so you will have to provide fertilizer regularly over the season. You may use a balanced water-soluble or slow-release organic fertilizer, following label directions for dilution rates and timing. Too much fertilizer can promote leaves at the expense of flowers and promote pest problems.
Watch out for pests: Container-grown vegetables are susceptible to the same diseases found in any vegetable garden. Insects, such as aphids may be attracted to over-fertilized plants, and certain physiological conditions such as blossom end rot and diseases may be troublesome. Inspect your plants each time you water, and contact your local Cooperative Extension as needed for pest management advice.
Pick tomatoes when they’re ripe, before they become soft or overripe. Don’t refrigerate the tomatoes; the fruit loses flavor when cold. If frost threatens, underripe tomatoes that are shiny green will become red at room temperature but won’t be full flavored. Luckily, green tomato recipes abound.
For more information on growing tomatoes, contact your local Cooperative Extension.
Take a class
Register now for the last Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester Home Gardening Webinar of the season, a virtual garden tour, “Gardens off the Beaten Path, 10-11 a.m. June 9. Adrienne Mecca, master garden volunteer. Mecca will lead a virtual tour of natural places not frequently visited. Beautiful gardens and landscapes can be found in the most unexpected locales if you’re willing to seek out something new.
Sign up early: Pre-registration is required, $5 in advance via check or money order. For information on the lecture series, check out: westchester.cce.cornell.edu. Questions? Contact CCE at [email protected] or call 914-285-4640.
Kim Kleman is a Master Gardener volunteer with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County