Planning your garden is one of America’s favorite pasttimes for January and February, when the beautiful and tempting garden catalogs start flooding our mailboxes. Since tomatoes are the number one home gardening crop, breeders have developed varieties for every need.
When growing tomatoes in containers, as a general rule it is best to stick with determinate varieties. Most determinate varieties do not grow as tall as indeterminate varieties. However, determinate vines tend to stop producing after they have produced all of their crop over a short amount of time. To continue harvesting tomatoes all summer, either plant several times in succession or choose varieties that mature early, mid-season, and late season.
Although most tomatoes grow on huge, sprawling vines that are a challenge to grow in containers, there are many tomato plants that stay small naturally. It is best to stake or cage tomatoes to keep them from lying on the ground, which make them susceptible to diseases and other problems. You can build a simple teepee out of bamboo or slender branches with supporting crossties every 9 inches to make them more solid, or purchase tomato cages. Tomato plants that naturally get large are possible to grow in containers if you have an extremely large container. But if you have limited space, there are many tomato varieties for containers.
You will have the best selection of tomato varieties if you grow tomatoes from seed. Purchase seeds and starter plants from your local nursery, who will know which varieties thrive in your area. If buying online or from a catalog, choose a reputable company to avoid being disappointed by poor germination or inaccurate catalog descriptions. The Garden Watchdog at DavesGarden.com is an excellent place to learn about the reputation of a grower.
In order to have your plants ready to plant outside in containers or in the ground, you will need to start them inside on a south-facing window sill or under grow lights. To compute the proper time, use your average date of last frost and count backwards 6 to 8 weeks. On seed packets, the days for maturity are always stated as the number of days from transplant. In other words, the baby plants have already grown for several weeks before they are transplanted into a container or outside. It takes most tomato seeds one or two weeks to germinate. The ideal size to plant out most tomatoes is 4 inches high by 4 inches wide.
Almost all tomatoes need full sun, which is defined as at least six, but preferably eight hours per day. To avoid cracking or other diseases, keep your plants healthy and evenly moist. Allow the top inch of soil to dry out before watering, and then thoroughly saturate the soil. Too much water or sporadic watering can cause tomatoes to crack. This affects the appearance, but usually not the flavor or usability, of the tomato.
Tomatoes grown in containers will need to be fed at least every two weeks with a well-balanced fertilizer such as fish emulsion or kelp for potassium and phosphorus, plus compost or compost tea for soil microbes and other nutrients, plus Azomite™ or greensand for minerals and trace minerals. Mixing organic soil purchased in bags with one quarter by volume compost and Azomite or greensand according to label directions will not only help your tomatoes plants to thrive, but your tomatoes will taste better and will store longer.
Choose the largest container possible, since tomatoes have extensive root systems. When planting tomatoes, remove all but the top two set of leaves and bury the roots and bare stem as deeply as possible, since they will develop roots all along the bare stem.
Unless you have a way to protect tomatoes from inevitable cold snaps, do not be tempted to plant them out to early. Although it is variable, tomatoes tend to drop their blossoms when it reaches below 55.° If you are growing tomatoes inside, you will need to use a small brush to pollinate each flower, mimicking a bee.
Small Tomatoes for Containers
Beaverlodge Slicer is an early-bearing, compact determinate tomato for hanging baskets or containers. It does well in cooler areas that tend to be foggy. The red, 2 inch fruits are round are flavorful. (2)
Stakeless is a short, 18 to 24 inch, determinate vine which does not start producing for 75 to 85 days. It is good for hot summer areas since its dense foliage protects it from sunscalding and cracking. (1)
Immune is a very small, 2 foot plant that matures in 65 days. It is recommended for containers and provides some blight resistance. (1)
New Yorker is one of the earlier (66 days) producing tomatoes on a determinate and compact vine. This open pollinated, bush beefsteak-type yields 4 to 6 ounce red, sweet/acid flavored tomatoes for canning, sandwiches and salads. It sets well in cool weather and short seasons, and will probably stop producing in the heat. (1,2)
Medium Tomatoes for Containers
Bush Beefsteak is an early-season determinate that grows to a compact 3 feet and begins producing in about 62 days. Recommended for shorter growing seasons, it is a high-yielding variety with 8 ounce beefsteak–type tomatoes borne in clusters. (2)
Break O’ Day grows to 4 to 5 feet tall and produces round 2 ½ inch fruit fairly early in the season and continues to produce. (1)
Moon Glow is a productive heirloom tomato which grows to 3 to 4 feet tall. This late-season indeterminate variety is recommended for cooler areas and matures in 75-85 days, and will keep producing until frost. (1,3)
Burbank is an indeterminate variety, but it only gets about 4 feet tall, so it will continue to be
productive. The small tomatoes have the traditional tart flavor. (1)
Paste Tomatoes for Containers
San Marzano bush is a very popular heirloom tomato variety which has been bred especially for making great tasting for sauce, puree, canning or salsa. Most varieties of San Marzano get large, but there is a bush variety that is a determinate and gets about 4-5 feet tall. It produces all its fruit over a two-week period, making it ideal for a short canning season. It starts producing meaty, 3 ½ in inch fruit in about 80 days, and resists cracking. (1)
Burkina Faso is that West African paste tomato variety which is very productive beginning in 75 days. It grows to 3 ½ feet tall and produces 2 ½ inch long fruit. (1)
Amish Paste is an heirloom from the United States which produces well in drought or in wet conditions. It gets 5-7 feet tall and does best when staked. It is one of the most popular and versatile paste tomatoes, which is also good for salsa, sauces, drying, and eating fresh. It bears 12 ounce red-orange, heart-shaped fruits in about 85 days. (1,3,4)
Roma is one of the most popular tomatoes for paste and sauces. It is a semi-determinate vine which will keep producing red 3 inch plum or pear shaped fruits until frost on 2-3 foot vines. To freeze, put ripe tomatoes in freezer. Run under warm water and remove skin when you are ready to use them. Roma is verticillium and fusarium wilt resistant hybrid, and will start bearing in 75 days.
Cherry Tomatoes for Container Gardens
Cherry tomatoes, like every tomato classification, includes a variety of flavors, shapes, colors, and plant sizes. Even though it may seem like these small tomatoes would grow on a small vine, in most cases this is not true. Cherry tomatoes vines to tend to get quite large, but there are smaller varieties more suitable for a container. Some cherry tomatoes produce their fruit in clusters and all the fruits in a given cluster ripen at the same time, making harvest easy. Others tend to produce fruit that ripen in various places on the vine. To make a beautiful colorful salad, you can grow lots of colors of cherry tomatoes.
Alaska (Aljaska) is a Russian heirloom cherry tomato produced on medium-sized, bushy plants. This flavorful, round salad tomato is good for growing in cooler climates. (2)
Red Pear is a determinate variety producing 1 to 2 inch long pear shaped tomatoes in about 75 days. It gets 3 to 4 feet tall and will continue to produce until frost. (1)
Koralik is a Russian heirloom cherry tomato that only grows to 3 feet tall and does relatively well in the heat. It is very productive, starting in about 60 days. Koralik produces 1 inch, sweet, red-orange fruits on 6 to 8 inch clusters that ripen at the same time. (1,2)
Pelican produces sweet red cherry tomatoes on a vine which gets 3 feet tall. It is somewhat drought tolerant and will do well with some heat. (1)
Golden Nugget is a small, 2 foot plant, and produces sweet, 1 inch yellow-orange cherry tomatoes. Plant matures quickly, in 55 to 70 days, and has a mild flavor. (1)
Harvest tomatoes when the flesh give slightly when pressed with your finger. The shoulders of some types will never get the same color as the rest of the tomato, which makes it a challenge to know when to harvest. Before the first frost, harvest all tomatoes which have developed a little color and wrap individually in newspaper to store in a cool area. They will continue to ripen, and will taste much better than tomatoes from the store. Make fried green tomatoes out of the completely green ones. With a little planning, you you can have fresh tomatoes for every use from midsummer until well after frost.