Growing Tomatoes In Containers For Beginners

Nothing says summer like homegrown tomatoes! Did you know you can grow tomatoes in pots? Learn how to grow a big harvest in a small space.

Nothing says summer like tasty homegrown tomatoes! Luckily, for gardeners who are short on space, learning how to grow tomatoes in containers is easy. Let's take a look at some expert tips and advice about growing tomatoes in containers for beginners.

Tomato Growing Tips For Beginners

Tomatoes are great candidates for container gardening. However, you need to pick the right type. Let’s start with the basics. There are two types of tomatoes that you can grow: indeterminate and determinate.

Indeterminate tomatoes are the most common type of tomato plant. They are vining and continue to grow and produce fruit all season until the first frost. Indeterminate varieties can grow 3 to 5 feet (0.9-1.5 m) tall or more and require stakes, cages, or trellises to grow upright. They also require pruning.

Determinate tomatoes are the best choice for containers. They are compact and bushy and stop growing sooner than vining tomatoes. They produce a set amount of fruit that ripens in a four to six week timeframe, which is ideal for canning. Determinate varieties only grow 2 to 3 feet (0.6-0.9 m) tall and don’t require staking or pruning.

Here are some of the best determinate tomatoes for containers:

  • Patio tomatoes - Perfect for patios. 
  • Bush Early Girl - Good for slicing.
  • Tiny Tim and Little Bing - Dwarf cherry tomatoes that are good for snacking.

tomato plants growing in containers on sunny windowsill

(Image credit: Geshas / Shutterstock)

There are plenty of other types available, just look for plants or seeds labeled “patio,” “compact,” “dwarf,” or “bush” to make sure you choose a determinate type that does well in containers.

Choosing Containers For Tomatoes

There are many kinds of containers you can use to grow tomatoes at home. A popular choice is a 5 gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom. Wooden barrel or metal tub planters are another good alternative because they are wider and tomato roots need lots of space to spread out. You can also try planting tomatoes in straw bales. Once the season is done, just throw the used straw into your compost pile. The easiest option, however, is to grow tomatoes in pots.

Choose pots that are at least 12 to 14 inches (30-25 cm.) across – the bigger, the better. Each tomato plant needs at least 12 inches (30 cm.) to grow and produce fruit. Any smaller and pots will dry out quickly. You’ll have to water plants more frequently, causing nutrients and minerals to wash out of the soil. This will leave your tomatoes lacking the food they need to grow.

Choosing small containers to grow tomatoes can also lead to inconsistent moisture levels. Poor moisture control can cause blossom end rot, fruit cracking, and reduce yields. For more information about problems growing tomatoes, check out our video about 10 Common Tomato Diseases.

How To Plant Tomatoes In A Pot

Now you’ve picked your tomato variety and container, it’s time to grow! There are two ways you can plant tomatoes.

The first method is growing tomatoes from seed. Start seeds indoors 5 to 6 weeks before the final frost date. Check your growing zone to find out when that is. Once seedlings are a few inches tall, separate the strongest starts to plant in containers for the rest of the summer.

If you’re looking for a quicker, easier way to grow tomatoes, the second method is to purchase plants from the store. Choose tomatoes that are compact and green with leaves that are free of spots or discoloration.

Person holds tray of successful tomato seedlings

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Whether you started your own seedlings or purchased transplants, planting tomatoes in containers and caring for them is the same. All you need to plant your tomatoes is a good-sized container with drainage holes, potting soil, fertilizer made for tomatoes or vegetables, and your plants.

Fill a container with potting mix, leaving 2 inches (5 cm.) of space between the top of the pot and the soil line. The best potting soil for tomatoes in pots is one designed specifically for containers. Using a good potting medium will ensure your tomatoes retain proper moisture levels.

Remove your tomato plant from its container. Gently untangle the root ball to give roots a head start and keep them from becoming bound in the pot. A good tip for planting anything, whether it’s produce or flowers, is to water plants well before transplanting. This eases their transition and starts them off right in their new home.

Create a hole for your tomato and make sure all the roots are in the soil. Back fill with potting mix, adding more as needed. Pat down the soil to remove any large air pockets, but don’t compact it too hard.

Fertilizing Tomato Plants In Containers

Fertilizing tomatoes is very important for growing healthy, productive plants in pots. Because you have to water containers more often than garden beds, nutrients get flushed out of the soil faster.

Apply a timed release fertilizer when you plant your tomatoes to give them a boost. After two weeks, start using a phosphorus-heavy water soluble fertilizer weekly. Mix the fertilizer into the top few inches of soil and water it in well.

How To Water Tomato Plants in Containers

Place tomatoes in full sun and water daily, or more often as needed. Plants need lots of water to produce juicy tomatoes. Poke your finger in the top two inches of soil to check if plants are dry and need a drink. A good trick to keep potted tomatoes from drying out is to use mulch or straw to hold in moisture.

Whether you have a big backyard or just a balcony, you can grow delicious tomatoes all summer long!

Laura Walters
Content Editor

Laura Walters is a Content Editor who joined Gardening Know How in 2021. With a BFA in Electronic Media from the University of Cincinnati, a certificate in Writing for Television from UCLA, and a background in documentary filmmaking and local news, Laura loves to provide gardeners with all the know they need to succeed in an easy and entertaining format. She never thought when she was growing vegetables in her college dorm room, that one day she would get paid to read and write about her favorite hobby.