Easy Step-by-Step Guide to Tomato Container Gardening

By: Kelly Reilly

If you have a small space for a garden, growing tomatoes in containers is an easy, effective way to enjoy the fresh flavor of juicy, homegrown tomatoes. Learn how to grow tomatoes in pots, including what kind of soil to use and what varieties work best.

What's better than a garden-fresh homegrown tomato: the satisfaction of growing it yourself. How's that for knowing where your food comes from? Follow these simple steps for better-than-store-bought tomatoes grown in a pot, and dig into an abundance of ripe, juicy tomatoes this summer.

1. Wait Until It's Warm Enough

Tomatoes cannot withstand frost. Nighttime temperatures should reach at least 55°F before you plant tomatoes outside. If you purchased plants early or started them from seed indoors, set them in a sunny windowsill or under a grow light until it's safe to move them outdoors. While you may experience some success with tomatoes grown indoors, you'll get far fewer, much smaller tomatoes than if you grew them outside.

2. Select the Right Pot

Choose a large container to ensure roots have room to spread. A plastic or metal container will hold moisture better than terra cotta, but any sturdy pot will work. If the container does not come with drainage holes, drill several into the bottom.

3. Select Soil Carefully

Tomato plants need well-drained soil to avoid becoming waterlogged. You’ll need to use premium potting soil versus garden soil, which tends to be too heavy and hold too much moisture for tomatoes. Look for a natural, organic potting mix to provide the plant’s roots with aeration and important nutrients. This will help you avoid an additional step of having to fertilize your soil. Supplementing with calcium will help prevent blossom end rot, a common tomato ailment where the ends of the fruits turn black.

4. Plant Your Seedlings

Plant Your Seedlings

Start with seedlings versus planting from seed, which probably won't allow enough time for the plants to mature by the end of the growing season. Select a dwarf variety and/or one that grows in a bushlike habit, leaving the taller types for in-ground only. Too-tall tomato plants will become rootbound and eventually topple over. Top choices for containers include any type of cherry tomato, Baxter's Bush Cherry Organic (an early bloomer that requires no staking or training), Better Bush (close to the typical grocery-store tomato), Tasmanian Chocolate (a great way to get heirloom taste from a container) and Tumbling Tom Yellow (trailing vines with yellow fruits).

5. Place Container in a Sunny Location

Tomato plants need approximately eight hours of full, direct sunlight per day to thrive. Covered or shaded decks or patios will not likely yield good results. Instead, consider placing the container on your front porch or even interspersed in your landscaping. Avoid windy spots as much as possible.

6. Water & Feed as Necessary

In general, container plants require more watering than their in-ground counterparts. Make sure the soil stays consistently moist, which may mean daily watering during warm weather. Before you water, check to see if the top inch of soil is dry. If it’s not dry, don’t water or you’ll risk overwatering the plant. Water in the early morning hours and focus on the base of the plant versus the leaves, which are susceptible to fungi and bacteria when wet for too long (using a high-quality potting mix for container gardens can also help you avoid these issues). 

After a month or so, you may need to help your plants along with an organic plant food that’s designed for fruits and vegetables, applying it per the product label's instructions. 

7. Stake as Needed

Stake as Needed

Larger plants may benefit from a metal tomato cage. Smaller varieties may need to be tied with string and held in place by wooden stakes, while some may not need any help at all. Be sure to look for any recommendations on the plant's tag and put proper staking in place before the plant becomes unwieldy—it's much easier to be proactive than reactive when it comes to staking.

8. Harvest When Ready

Your tomatoes are ready to enjoy when they have reached their mature color (check the plant’s tag) and pull away easily from the stem. Wash them thoroughly and store at room temperature—not the refrigerator, which can interfere with flavor and texture—until ready to eat.

9. Enjoy!

Baked Parmesan Tomatoes

Pictured Recipe: Baked Parmesan Tomatoes

Celebrate your success with one of these recipes that maximizes the mouthwatering flavor of fresh tomatoes:

If you have a bumper crop and need some ideas for using up all of those tomatoes, extend their lifespan with one of these options:

Watch: How to Make Baked Parmesan Tomatoes from the Garden