Every urban gardener’s dream is to grow deliciously plump tomatoes. Two years ago, I embarked on my tomato quest. As I realized later on, it’s not as easy as it looked on that You Tube tutorial. My first few attempts were a miserable failure. Over the next several months, I honed my gardening skills until finally, I was able to harvest the first batch of tomatoes from my potted plants.
Most tomato plants are finicky about a lot of things, from soil to weather conditions. It takes a little bit of practice to grow tomatoes successfully in pots. But once you start to harvest, you definitely get that huge feeling of accomplishment.
I have listed below some of my learnings in growing tomatoes in pots / containers:
Choose the right variety.
Before buying the seeds, try to know and research more about the particular tomato variety. Tomato varieties are generally classified into two: determinate and indeterminate varieties. The first one has a limited life span (usually 4- 5 months) and is good only for one harvest season. The indeterminate variety can continuously grow and produce tomatoes for several growing seasons. Indeterminate varieties are usually bigger and are generally not ideal for container gardening. Determinate varieties are the ones that can grow better in containers, but they produce a limited harvest.
Likewise, choose a tomato variety that is not prone to disease, leaf curl and/or adapts well to local conditions. Buying seeds from local growers or brands is better because the seeds have been tested to grow successfully under local conditions.
Expose the plants to a lot of sunlight.
Tomatoes need around 6 – 8 hours of direct sunlight exposure. Morning sun is preferable because the afternoon sun rays may scorch the leaves and cause them to curl and harden, especially during summer. Too much heat also prevents the flowers from developing properly. When the sun is too hot, it’s best to provide the plants with some shade to protect them from the heat. A piece of loose net or any cloth of light material may be used to cover the plants in summer during the hottest times of the day.
Use the right-sized container.
The bigger, the better. Tomatoes love to spread their roots. More roots allow them to absorb more nourishment from the soil. A minimum of 5-gallon sized container is ideal for most tomato plants. Bigger pots may be needed for some tall varieties of tomatoes.
Fertilize with a lot of organic matter.
Tomato plants are a heavy feeder, which means that they tend to deplete the nutrients in the soil faster than most plants. A weekly dose of compost or organic fertilizer will help ensure continuous harvest and resistance to pests. Used coffee grounds are an ideal fertilizer for tomato plants. (For more tips on homemade fertilizers, check out my post “DIY Organic Fertilizers From Kitchen Scraps“). Sometimes, I also add a few tablespoons of epsom salts which are dissolved in water and either sprayed on the leaves or mixed into the soil. Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) helps the tomato plants better absorb soil nutrients and prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes.
Timing is important.
Typically, tomatoes can grow all year round in the Philippines. But during the height of summer, these plants suffer from the extreme heat and the flowers tend to just fall off. From my experience in the Philippines, it’s best to start the seeds towards the end of the rainy days around October to November. The plants should be ready to produce from January until around early March, when the weather is more conducive for the plants to grow and produce nice tomatoes.
Watch out for pests and fungal infection.
Tomatoes are prone to the usual pests, like aphids, leaf miners, locusts and caterpillars. Some hybrid tomato varieties are able to resist the pests better. There are organic solutions to control these pests. (Check out my blog post “Useful Home-made Remedies to Get Rid of Pests in the Garden“).
Check also for signs of fungal infection. When there is fungal infection, the affected leaves turn yellow and brown for no apparent reason at all. The white fungal substance commonly manifests itself near the roots. Cut off the infected leaves and throw them away. If the entire plant is affected, uproot and discard the plant. Disinfect the soil with a solution of hydrogen peroxide mixed in water (or any other anti-fungal solutions) before using it again for planting after a few weeks.
Do not overwater.
Tomato plants generally don’t want to be soaked, or else, the roots may rot. Water the plants in the morning and only when the soil feels dry. Rule of thumb is to water them twice a week, and more during the summer months. Make sure to water the plants at the roots and not the leaves. Wet leaves may lead to fungal infection.
The rainy season may also bring some problems to the plants. Too much water may cause the leaves to curl or the roots to rot. Make sure to use containers that allow the excess water to drain properly. Add more holes at the bottom if necessary.
Plant them deeply.
Tomato plants rely heavily on their roots to absorb the nourishments from the soil. When transplanting the seedlings, cut the lower leaf portions leaving only 3 leaf nodes at the top. Bury the plant roots deeply into the soil exposing only the top leaves. Make sure the leaves don’t touch the ground. If the container is wide but shallow, plant them sideways such that a greater portion of the main stem is buried in the ground. The plant will grow new roots at this buried portion of the stem.
Pinch off the suckers.
This is true if you grow the indeterminate tomato variety. To allow the plant to focus more of its energy on producing tomatoes, trim off some branches leaving only 4 -5 branches on the main stem. Pinch off the suckers, or the new branches appearing at the leaf nodes. Suckers do not benefit the plants and often prevent the tomatoes from growing bigger.
Use stakes to support the plants.
Stakes are needed as the tomato plants grow taller. They help the plants support the weight of the tomatoes and prevent the stems from breaking. Without these stakes, the tomato plant will produce less because it will adapt itself to its own capability to support its fruits.
As a final note, organically grown fruits and vegetables are normally smaller than the commercially grown produce. Don’t be discouraged if the tomatoes are not as big as the ones available in public markets. It’s also unrealistic to expect to produce enough tomatoes for home consumption. And while it’s still cheaper to simply buy tomatoes from the grocery, it’ s really that immeasurable sense of fulfillment that you get out of each harvest that makes everything worth it.
Happy gardening everyone!