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Tomatoes in Containers

First, let me say it's ironic to live on 40 acres and have no where to plant a %&$^#% tomato. But....

My raised beds, built about 15 years ago, are 95% useless for tomatoes and have been for some time. I used to have a huge problem with wilt (when the leaves turn yellow from the bottom of the plant and work their way up). I improved that to a modest degree by lining the bed w/ newspapers and changing my watering practices to not let the leaves get wet. i still get wilt, just not as bad.

But...I still get very, VERY little yeild. two years ago I abandoned "organic" and started using some Miracle Grow in addition to mushroom compost and my own bin-made compost. Still...i'm growing garnishes, not crops. My mother digs holes in the middle of an old peach orchard and gets tomato plants that require a step ladder. obviously, my soil is completely played out, and full of wilt spores (or whatever)

I've had it. I want to do something radical this year. Enter containers.

Please hit me with whatever advice you have on growing a decent crop of tomatoes in pots. I want to grow Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Sungold, and Mr. Stripey. (or similar) Thanks!

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  1. I've never had a problem with tomatoes in containers. Plant like you would in the soil: bury about a 1/3 of the plant itself to insure a strong root system. Just be sure to water like mad. Stake 'em well, cause they'll get more wind (at least in my yard). Still get hornworms, yuk, but fewer of the 4-legged critters get to 'em. I don't even both with Miracle Grow, but YMMV. If your soil is so barren, consider a bagful--at least--of commerical potting mix, or a potting mix with fertilizer already mixed in.

    1. Start with good quality potting soil. Use a 13-13-13 fertilizer after the plant gets a good start (too soon and you tend to burn it up). Water well, but with good drainage to prevent wilt. Check for bugs often. Beer in a saucer nearby will attract slugs and help keep them away from your plant. Good air circulation will also help with wilt. In Houston we have to guard against fire ants, which will try to invade your nice soft dirt in the pot. Say a prayer and hope for the best :-)

      1. First, do you mean you don't get enough sun? My crop of cherry tomatoes is definitely better where they get all day sun. The crop and plants are smaller when I grew them in a place that maybe got 6 hours of sun.
        I agree with "good potting soil". I go to a farm and feed store or a plant nursery for the bags of potting soil.
        Is your container large enough? I got some very large plastic pots (fake terra cotta) on sale one year.
        When I transplant anything, I water with a solution of fish fertilizer. It comes bottled, you put a tablespoon or 2 in a gallon of water. I've been putting a scoop of worm compost in the bottom of the planting hole with some crushed egg shells.
        I had raised beds at our other house and didn't do enough to replenish the soil. I think that's the danger of raised beds. I'm using a raised bed/lasagna bed/square foot technique here. We've been adding a couple of inches of composted horse manure each spring. The year I planted spinach before the compost was added, the crop wasn't as big as a later planting after the compost was added. Perhaps there is something in animal manure you need that you aren't getting from the compost you are using.
        I've been reading about the importance of trace minerals so this year I will be adding other organic fertilzers as recommended by Eliot Coleman in his books.
        If you have some more planting space, I highly recommend lasagna style beds. Start renovating your old beds, maybe do a cover crop on half of them this year. I've been able to find free sources of composted manure on Craigslist although we pay a modest fee at my favorite place to have the owner used his tractor to put as much composted horse manure on our utility tractor as it can handle.

        8 Replies
        1. re: dfrostnh

          Thanks! Sun? I'm in SC, I estimate my plants get about 30 hours of sun/day ;-) Container large enough? I don't know, i've never done this before...how big do you suggest?

          As to the manure, one of the reasons I have no where to plant is that most of our property is cow pasture. I have plenty of "raw material", but am unsure about how to use it. I think if you just wait til the piles aren't fresh anymore, you can use it in the garden. I've never had that much luck, even when I was motivated to go around w/ a shovel. I think those beds are just hopeless for tomatoes. I do intend to use the beds this year of course, but for other "crops" , like arugula, basil, leeks, peppers, etc. I don't know if this will continue to strip nutrients like the tomatoes did, or not. I don't know how many years I need to let it rest.

          1. re: danna

            My pots are only about 18" square. You do need tomato cages, though, to hold them up well. Did you mean 3 hours of sun (I think 30 is a typo)? If that's the case, your problem is probably not enough sun. They need LOTS of sun.

            1. re: danna

              I'm in Southern Calif., so I "get" the 30 hours of sun! Yup, tomatoes love sun/heat. They also need deep root room, so the container needs to be deep, but with very good drainage, too. And, tomatoes do rob the soil, so it's good to rotate out of that raised bed (I rotate about every 2 years, but sounds like yours may need more rest than that)--your home-grown cow pies need mucho time to compost, otherwise you'll burn the tomatoes. More irony, but consider buying a bag or two of manure to mix into the raised bed, but give it some time to leach its salts before you plant (or water the heck out of it).

              1. re: danna

                We grow tomatoes, herbs and peppers in containers. We use whiskey barrels, and have been using them for years- cant even remember when we got them! Good luck!

                1. re: danna

                  For size of container, I would say at least a 5 gallon pail but the plastic flower pots I use are wider across the top so I can just barely fit a tomato cage into the soil (homemade from concrete reinforcing mesh). Good comment about the cage.

                  The composted manure we use is horse manure that has been mixed with bedding and kitchen scraps. It's in such good condition in the spring that I think the owner scoops and turns it during the winter with the tractor bucket. I have used cow manure from beef cows (guess it shouldn't be that different from dairy) that has been aged but it tends to get crusty on the outside and still not composted enough on the inside. This is scooped from piles left to be spread on the fields. I would suggested adding some manure to your compost piles. But I'm not very good at proper composting despite a nice 3-bin system my husband built.

                  Or, put the manure on your raised beds in the fall. Fork it in. You should be fine in the spring.

                  For this spring, I would suggest using the soil/fertilizer formula that is in the original Square Foot Gardening book. The Missouri Ext recommends 1 to 2 lbs of 10-10-10 per 100 sq ft. That's a 10x10 area. Do you think you've been adding that much fertilizer each year?

                  Tomato plants also need a lot of water esp with 30 hours of sun a day! When the plants are small, I give each a 1/2 gallon of water at least once a week that contains some diluted fish fertilizer.

                  At my old house, I know I wasn't putting enough fertilizer into the beds but I've learned more since then.

                  1. re: dfrostnh

                    Agree--tomatoes are heavy feeders, but in my area, they do best with a tomato-specific (or veggie-specific) feed. I have had luck, though, with fish emulsion--smells stinky, but works well!

                    1. re: pine time

                      I wasn't clear. Thanks for commenting. I would put a vegetable specific fertilizer in the container, mixed into the soil or buy a potting soil that contains fertilizer AND water with fish emulsion when I transplant and weekly feedings until the plant got big and started blossoming. Since I started worm composting, I put a large scoop of worm compost in the bottom of the planting hole, too.

                  2. re: danna

                    Danna - you want to 'steep' the raw material like tea and use it to water your plants. That's what we've found most successful when we had the opportunity.

                    SO grows copious amounts of tomatoes in a hollowed out boiler. The boiler is probably six foot long, four foot wide and less than three feet deep. It gets at least seven hours of sun in the AZ desert.

                2. OP, I could have written almost the exact same thing. We don't have 40 acres!, but, there's nowhere to grow a garden, despite having some land.
                  My container tomato efforts are a running joke with DH and me. They grow like Jack and the Beanstalk and yield nothing!
                  One year, I had a couple handfuls of fruit that were looking very promising, alas, they succumbed to blossom end root. Mostly thought, we get tons of yellow flowers and little to no fruit.
                  We use good potting soil and Tomato Tone. One year, I may have used lots of egg shells.
                  Last year, I got so desperate that I bought a couple of those Topsy Turvey hanging planters and that was the biggest waste of time and money.
                  I miss growing tomatoes!!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: monavano

                    We fell for one Topsy Turvy a few years ago, and harvested exactly 1 tomato. Waste of time and money.

                    What's Tomato Tone? Curious, 'cause you get blooms, but no fruit, so I was going to suggest a bloom set spray. Also helps to whack the tomato cage around noon-ish each day--it's not an urban myth, but does help to distribute some pollen or something. Whatever its reason, it does work. Wondering if whatever you're feeding the 'maters is encouraging too much stalk/leaf growth and not enough fruit production?

                    1. re: pine time

                      Tomato Tone is organic fertilizer for tomatoes. Thanks for the info about whacking the cage. Actually, by Sept., I'm more likely to "throttle" those darn plants!

                  2. I had a wilt problem last year on fertile soil that had no gardening for many years, just grass.
                    My plants were mostly beefstake varieties but there was a section of Brandywine.

                    A few weeks I got some advice from www.johnnyseeds.com , rotate the crop, and use varieties with fusarium resistance. The heritage varieties have no resistance unless they have been modernized by selective breeding, something I have not seen.

                    Here is a useful page on controlling wilt. Note, there is no chemical cure, just prevention: http://www.tomatodirt.com/fusarium-wi...

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: jayt90

                      Great info. While I do usually choose varieties that are labeled VFNT resistant, I also get dangerous & choose a couple that aren't labeled or resistant, but I grow them some distance from the others. May be false security, but given the deliciousness of home-grown tomatoes, worth it to me. And, Mr. Pine claims each of our tomatoes costs us $5., 'cause of all the babying I give them. There's a book, IIRC, called The $40 Tomato, which is fun reading.

                      1. re: jayt90

                        yeah, shame about the heirlooms. Growing hybridized tomatoes + Miracle Grow + Sevin dust (shoot me) is surely partly how my Mom grows these monster tomato plants....but a lot of it still has to be the old green thumb.

                        1. re: jayt90

                          Update on this year's container tomatoes.

                          I planted Beefsteak, Earliana, and Starfire, from seeds in 3 large containers, 3 gal. each, filled with fertilized potting soil. I started them inside in March and moved outdoors May 24.

                          I am now getting a good crop. I left 12 plants in each container.
                          They required water every day, as the drainage was good.
                          I am really pleased with the results. In addition I have potatoes and peppers in containers, very crowded too, and they will soon be ready.

                          I also planted tomatoes in my regular garden soil, and they wilted again this year, so that idea is finished.

                          OP, you can buy heirloom tomato plants grafted onto very strong roots in the garden centers. Something to look for next year.

                        2. By all means experiment with containers!!

                          I grow lovely tomatoes every year in containers on my deck.

                          Five-gallon containers are the very smallest to consider. And larger is better. In addition, you'll need to add stakes for indeterminate varieties, otherwise you'll have vines flopping all over the place. Some folks like to grow them that way; it's up to you.

                          1. The soil in my small urban yard just doesn't seem to play well with tomatoes, so I've spent a long time growing in containers and I've never been really pleased with the crop - it was fine, but no bumper yields (I was particularly disappointed with the Green Zebra and Brandywine performance in pots). We finally got a plot in a community garden, and were amazed at how many more tomatoes we got, so I've gone the other way and felt more *ptooey* about my container success. But I still want tomatoes in the yard so I don't have to make the trek to the garden plot all the time. This year, we're trying straw bale gardening in the yard, which seems to make an end run around soil difficulties. I've picked up a book on the method, and have some optimism. There was just an article in the NYT on the subject: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/gar....

                            We'll see...now if the dang snow would ever melt so we can get started.

                            1. You might want to get your soil tested for nutrients so you aren't flying blind with fertilizer.

                              1. the dc garden guru has a tomato in a garbage can method --> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofLgYH...

                                jos roozen @wmal radio.

                                1. Does anyone have any experience with an Earth Box?

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: grampart

                                    my sister has one in ocala, florida and she likes it. her tomato plants don't get nearly as large as with the garbage can method, but you can have a few items in the same box, which is handy. she liked it because it was easy.

                                    1. re: grampart

                                      Really easy to make your own sub irrigation planters. Just search of sub irrigation planters. I've been making them from with old 5 gal chlorine tablet buckets from my pool care and tote containers and using used plastic bottles and containers that would have gone in the recycle bin as the water reservoirs. Can put one together in under 30 min start to finish for just a few dollars if you have to buy anything.

                                    2. Danna--any updates, have you planted in your containers yet?

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: pine time

                                        I have not. We have had the coldest spring ever. It's hi of 45 and raining right now...NOT a South Carolina April day I assure you!!

                                        Anyhow, it's hard to focus on planting until it warms up some, the early birds I know have had to cover thier crops. But thanks for checking on me, I'll post when I'm planted.

                                      2. I've grown Sungold, Mr. Stripey and Cherokee Purple in homemade EarthBoxes. Stripey did ok, the other two seemed to produce better in the ground.

                                        This year I'm trying some of the new dwarf tomato project varieties in the boxes. So far tentatively ok, but I've only harvested a few and I haven't planted any in the ground to compare them with.

                                        I do remove the lower leaves to reduce ground-splash both in containers and the ground.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: DonShirer

                                          here's my update:

                                          SC had more rain in July than ever in recorded history (rain totals back to the 1800s ) Thus, it's really impossible to make any conclusions about whether container planting works, is better, worse, whatever. So much for my joke above about 30 hours of sun per day. It's been more like 30 hours per month.

                                          Anyhow, I planted Black Prince, Cherokee Purple, Mr. STripey and Pink Brandywine in concrete containers. I used a combo of Miracle Grow potting soil and organic compost. Then I dosed it with Tomato Tone and have continued to feed monthly.

                                          They grew like weeds and have outstripped the bamboo tripod cages I made for them. They do not have wilt as do the tomatoes I put in the raised beds. AT first they appeared to be doing better than the raised bed ones, but now they don't seem to want to produce fruit, just vines. The Black Krim and Cherokee purple are the worst. Mr. Stripey is doing best, but is also doing best in the raised beds .

                                          I think in a normal year, I would have had to water every single day once the vines got big. They dried out and looked wilty within 24 hours during the very few sunny days we had in June.

                                          I will give it another shot next year. Assuming we don't all drown.

                                          1. re: danna

                                            Rampant tomato vines with few blossoms commonly comes from excessive nitrogen. Tomatoes require nitrogen for fruit growth. However, it is best to wait until the first normal tomatoes are about the size of golf balls before applying any supplemental nitrogen.