10 Essential Tips for Growing Tomato Plants in Pots

No garden plot? No problem! Here's how to successfully grow tomatoes in containers.

An in-ground garden plot isn't necessary for growing perfectly ripe homegrown tomatoes. It's easy to grow tomato plants in pots anywhere that receives lots of sunlight, perhaps on your deck, patio, or balcony. You can raise all your favorite kinds of tomatoes, from deep red slicers to tiny grape tomatoes, in containers. It just takes a little more work than garden-planted tomatoes because of the limited access to water and nutrients. Give your potted tomato plants some extra care, and they'll richly reward you with handfuls of sun-ripened fruit. These 10 tips will help you successfully grow your tomato plants in pots.

tomato plant growing in red container outdoors
Adam Albright

1. Plant a patio or bush tomato variety.

Small tomato plants, known as patio or bush varieties, grow and fruit best in containers. Don't be fooled by the size of a plant—a small tomato plant can still produce loads of fruit. Pot-friendly tomato varieties typically grow to a particular size, usually 1 to 3 feet tall, and then begin fruiting. There are many patio-type tomato varieties and dozens more coming onto the market every season. The best tomato varieties for pots include 'Patio Choice Yellow,' 'Tumbler', 'Bush Early Girl', 'Pixie', 'Tiny Tim', and 'Small Fry'.

2. Choose a BIG pot.

Tomatoes have a large, wide root system. The bigger the container, the more room your plant's roots will have to grow. The best pot for growing tomatoes will hold at least 5 gallons of soil and measure 20 inches wide or more. A 5-gallon bucket, though not particularly attractive, makes a fine tomato container after you drill drainage holes in the bottom.

3. Drainage is key.

Tomatoes will grow in plastic, clay, stone, and even metal pots, but a pot that lacks drainage holes is useless. Drainage holes allow excess water to escape. Only plant tomatoes in pots that have good drainage.

4. Use potting mix.

A pot of regular soil scooped from your garden will not drain fast enough for a tomato growing in a container. Tomato plants in pots will do much better in a purchased potting mix. Lightweight and easy to use, potting mixes are designed to have great drainage.

5. Provide nutrients.

A tomato plant's fast growth is fueled by nutrients. One of the easiest ways to provide nutrients to your tomato plants in pots is in the form of a slow-release fertilizer mixed into the potting mix at planting time. Look for a product designed specifically for vegetables. Potting mix drains quickly, taking nutrients with it. Four to six weeks after planting, fertilize plants again with a slow-release fertilizer mixed into the top two inches of soil or use an organic product, such as fish emulsion, greensand, or kelp meal.

6. Give tomato plants plenty of sunlight.

Tomatoes need at least 8 hours of sunlight to hit their leaves daily for the best growth and fruiting. Ample light is essential for producing flavorful fruit, too. Place your potted tomato plants on the south or west side of a building, which will get the most direct sunlight.

7. Water tomato plants in pots daily.

Tomatoes are thirsty plants, especially when they begin to gain size, so they'll do best when watered at least once a day. Morning is the best time to water. On exceptionally hot or windy days, water both in the morning and late afternoon. Your goal is to never let your potted tomato plants dry out enough to wilt. Water plants deeply, until you see excess moisture running out the drainage holes.

8. Keep leaves dry.

Several common tomato leaf diseases spread when water and soil splash onto the leaves. Minimize disease spread by watering tomato plants at their base; avoid getting the leaves wet as much as possible. If you're using a hose to water your tomato plants, adjust the pressure so that potting mix doesn't get splashed up onto your plant.

9. Give plants space.

Good air circulation helps prevent disease because moving air dries wet foliage quickly, which keeps some diseases from taking hold. Arrange potted plants so that air can freely pass around them. For example, place your tomatoes so their leaves aren't against walls or touching other plants as much as possible.

10. Provide support for potted tomato plants.

Tomato fruit becomes heavy as it ripens. Even clusters of small cherry and grape tomatoes can bend and break stems. Give your tomato plants a little support by sinking a trellis or stake into the pot at planting time. Weave tomato stems through the trellis or tie them to the stake as they grow.

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