Guide to Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Tomatoes ripened on the plant
Tomatoes ripened on the plant

Tomato is one of the most versatile vegetables which is loved all around the world for its flavor, texture, color, taste and juiciness. But tomato is also a food source with an ambiguity. Though botanically its a fruit, it is eaten as a vegetable. However knowing this fact really does not make any difference to you when you want to grow juicy, colorful and yummy tomatoes in a container in your garden. But going through this post on how to grow tomatoes in containers surely will. So without much ado here we go.

Quick Reference Table to Grow Tomatoes in Containers

 

Item Value
Growing Temperature 15 – 30 °C
Germination Temperature 20-30 °C Ideal
Germination Time 3-10 days
Soil pH 5.5 to 6.8
Sunlight Need 6-8 hours per day (Sun loving Plant)
Preferred Planting Method Transplanting
Container size 15-20 liter
Time to Harvest 60-100 days from germination depending on variety
Harvest Period  3-4 months
Pollination Self pollinating.
Typical Pests leaf eating caterpillar, aphids, fruit borers
Typical Diseases Blossom End Rot, Leaf curl, Septoria leaf Spot, Early Blight, Late Blight
Best season to grow in India November to February. Under shade house you can grow from October – April

Tomato Varieties you can Plant

Cherry Tomatoes Growing in Bunch
Cherry Tomatoes Growing in Bunch

Tomatoes come in many sizes and colors. The smaller tomatoes that are typically not more than an inch on the longest side are called as cherry tomatoes. These come in many colors ranging from red, pink, yellow to purple and are salad friendly vegetables. These are also container friendly varieties and give a huge amount of yield even in small containers.

Tomatoes also can be of bush and vine varieties. The bush varieties which grow to a height of 2-3 feet are called determinate variety and are usually shorter and more compact plants than the vine or indeterminate varieties which grow up to 6-8 feet.  As the indeterminate varieties grow much taller more staking is usually needed for these. The major difference however between the determinate and indeterminate varieties is the fruiting cycle. Determinate plants bear fruit in batches. An entire batch fruits and ripens at the same time. And a few days after the first batch has ripened a new batch of flowers start blossoming. In indeterminate variety fruiting, flowering, ripening continues till the season ends all at the same time. However due to size the determinate variety is more suitable for container gardening.

Starting Tomato Seeds and Transplanting in pots

Tomato Saplings in Paper Cups
Tomato Saplings in Paper Cups

To grow tomatoes in containers you need to start the seeds in a seed tray under controlled conditions as the seedlings take good amount of time to grow. If you do not have a seed tray you can use used paper cups. Fill up the seed tray loosely with seed tray mix (see potting mix post for details) and give a tap so that it settles down nicely in the tray. Spray wet the media so that it settles down further. Drop 3-4 tomato seeds in each cup of the tray. Cover the seeds with more seed tray mix so that the seeds are just covered with 2-3 mm of the mix. Water again very lightly with a water sprayer and keep the tray in a warm place. If the seeds are good and the temperature is right it should germinate within 3-4 days. When seeds have germinated, transfer the tray to a place where the seedlings can get at least 4-6 hours of sunlight.

You need to water the seedlings as needed. Make sure they are protected from direct rain and harsh sunlight. Its better to keep the seedlings under shade house if the daytime temperature is more than 30 degrees. In about twenty to thirty days time when 4-6 true leaves have emerged the sapling is ready to be transplanted.

Staking arrangement done for Tomato Plant as soon as it is transplanted
Staking arrangement done for Tomato Plant as soon as it is transplanted

The potting mix that you use for tomatoes must be rich in minerals especially calcium. So be sure to add some fish meal or bone meal to your potting mix when you grow tomatoes in containers. Additionally you can also add crushed egg shells to provide additional enrichment to the soil.

To transplant carefully take out the sapling from seed tray and bury the ball of the sapling it in the center of your pot. Water the pot properly and place it in a sunny area. After about 7-10 days when the saplings have adjusted to the new soil remove the weaker saplings. Retain only one plant and cut off rest of the saplings using a garden scissor. To grow tomatoes in containers successfully you need to limit the number of plants to 1 for 15-20 liter container. If you have much bigger containers you can plant more saplings. But keep at least 1.5 feet distance between each sapling.

Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Companion Planting - Tomato with Carrots
Companion Planting – Tomato with Carrots

Tomatoes grow very well when they get optimum climatic condition of cooler temperature, low humidity and full sunlight. In case your area is very hot even in winters it will be good to keep tomato plants under a shade house or under shade net. Tomato plants are not strong enough to bear fruits without support. When saplings are planted in a container of appropriate size they grow quite fast and hence staking arrangements need to be done upfront. When you grow tomatoes in containers you can simply stake using a bamboo stick and tie the tomato plant to it using a jute string. You can even stake the tomato plants using a cotton or jute string hanging from any support above the plant. The important thing is to stake your tomato plant well in time to help it grow well.

Fully grown tomato plants
Fully grown tomato plants

There are a lot of opinion on how to handle the suckers (Suckers are sprouts that develop between the main stalk and a leaf node. They are similar to suckers in eggplant. You can see the picture of a sucker in the post I made on eggplant.) in tomato plants. Some people are of the opinion that, if left on the plant suckers affects the yield and overall health of the plant. While another group of people are against removing the suckers. I follow a middle path approach. I remove the bigger suckers which hinder airflow and penetration of sunlight to all parts of the plant. And rest of the suckers are left untouched on the plant. And this seem to work out fine.

Water your tomato plants as needed. Dry soil can stress your tomato plants. But over watered tomato plant is undesirable. Water the plant at the base and never on leaves. Wet leaves can easily catch fungus. Rain can also cause fungal attack. Hence it is good to provide some protection to the plants during rains so that the leaves do not get wet. When you grow tomatoes in containers it become easy to move them around and protect them from rain. Use a good organic soil conditioner like panchagavya once every 12-15 days to supplement the soil with nutrients. Spraying panchagavya once every 12-15 days also helps in better fruiting and keep away a lot of pests.

Pollinating Tomatoes

Self Fertile Flowers of Tomato
Self Fertile Flowers of Tomato

Tomatoes are self pollinating. In lay man’s language every flower of tomato plant is self contained and has the potential to turn into a fruit all by itself. But they need a little help from wind, bees and wasps to get pollinated. So in case you find your tomato flowers are not turning into fruits in spite of the weather being right and plant being healthy you may have to help your plant in pollination. Giving a little shake to the plant helps pollen to fall off from the stamen onto the pistil and thus pollination takes place.

Another way you can hand pollinate tomatoes is by using some kind of vibrating apparatus that mimics the vibration caused by flutter of bees or wasps. A battery operated tooth brush is one such apparatus you can use. Just put on the brush in vibrator mode and move it around near the flowers. Be careful not to touch the flowers. the vibration created in the wind will be sufficient to pollinate the flowers.

Pest Management for Tomato Plants

Winter Moths Bore into Tomato
Winter Moths Bore into Tomato

Keep watching for bugs on your tomato plant on a daily basis. Mealybugs are very common on tomato plants and if not checked during initial stages they can infest the plant. Wipe away the bugs as soon as you spot them. You can use a cotton cloth dipped in some methylated spirit to wipe them off. Other major bug family that seem to like tomato plant is caterpillar. Some of them eat up the leaves while others like the winter moth get inside the fruit and eat it up. Cow urine diluted ten times with water can be sprayed to keep the caterpillars away. Panchagavya is also an excellent pest repellent to keep them away. But manually removing them early in the morning everyday works out best.

Harvesting Tomatoes

Bountiful Tomato Harvest
Bountiful Tomato Harvest

Tomatoes produce a lot of fruits under suitable weather and soil conditions even when you grow them in containers. On the flip side tomatoes are actually very slow growing vegetable compared to most other veggies. They take about sixty days on the plant before you can pick them. A few varieties even take around ninety days to become ripe and mature. So you need to have patience when it comes to harvesting them. Tomatoes in the unripened stage are green and after staying that way for 40-50 days they start to ripen. It is good to pick them up after they have completely ripened and turned red. As soon as they turn red pick them up immediately when they are still firm. You can also pick them up when they are partially ripe and leave them to ripen in your kitchen. When mature, tomatoes can easily be separated from the plant with hand.

Additional Tip

Blossom End Rot in Tomato
Blossom End Rot in Tomato

Tomato fruit is susceptible to BER (Blossom End Rot) especially when you grow tomato in containers. The bottom end or blossom end of the fruit is rotted while rest of the fruit looks fine. When this happens you can not consume them. And this happens due to lack of calcium in the soil. As there is limited amount of potting mix in your container, tomato plant may not be able to get the required calcium. To fix this you can water your plant with butter milk with a pinch of asafoetida for a few days. Other quick fix method that you can use to address this problem is to use a herbal calcium tablet. Take one tablet per plant, crush it properly and mix it with half a liter of water. Water your tomato plant with it. This will fix BER issue for a single tomato plant.

And here is the last tip before I sign off. Keep your tomato plants (and plants belonging to tomato family like eggplant) well spread out in the garden. Keeping them together will be conducive for pests (esp caterpillars) to spread to all plants. Keeping them away from each other reduces the probability of pest infestation.

How Not to and How to Water Plants in Pots

Popular clip art of a Happy Gardener
Popular clip art of a Happy Gardener

The happy gardener. You see him/her everywhere; on TV, on bill boards in magazines. And its mostly a very happy and content looking person watering plants with a hose or a watering can. And the water falling on the plants in an almost poetic manner with shower like effect. The image conveys the beauty and happiness involved in gardening (and sometimes it is also to sell some gardening equipment). Most gardeners I have met tend to water their plants in this popular way as it feels and looks really nice as per them. Unfortunately this is exactly how you should NOT water plants in pots or in garden. This post is a guide on How Not to and How to Water Plants in Pots. Though I’ll stick to container gardening, the same is applicable to all gardens.


Where you should Water your Plants

  1. Water plants at roots; Not on leaves
    Water plants at roots; Not on leaves.

    While it is okay to ‘bathe’ your plants once in a while to remove off the dust from leaves, it is not okay to water your plants on the leaves. Plants need water at their roots and not on the leaves. The roots pull moisture from the soil and through capillary action send it to the leaves. So you should help plants by watering at the roots. Moreover moisture on the leaves if left overnight can cause fungal attack. Hence avoid wetting leaves of the plant while watering.

  2. Generally the branch roots of a plant (the ones that suck moisture and nutrients for the leaves) spread out to all directions. Water needs to be given to this system and not at the base of the plant. Watering at the base of the main trunk of the plant will loosen the grip of the plant in the soil. Hence water away from the base of the plant. You can water along the rim of the container for most effective watering. Generally the canopy of the plant gives an idea of its root systems. So while watering plants outside, you can follow the spread of the canopy and water around it’s projection on the ground if you your plant is on the ground.

When to Water your Plants

  1. Water early in the morning or late in the afternoon (if not possible in the morning). Watering in the morning makes sure that the plant has enough moisture to be used throughout the day. If by any chance you are unable to water in the morning, water your plants late in the afternoon. It should not be too hot when you are watering in the afternoon. At the same time there should be enough time for leaves to dry off in case they get wet. Never water your plants when the sun is over your head. Heat leads to excess water evaporation.
  2. Water only when soil dries out. Don’t water for the sake of it. To check if
    Excess watering causes nutrient leaching
    Excess watering causes nutrient leaching

    you need to water your plants you can put a finger inside the soil. If you feel the moisture, then there is no need to water the plants. Excess watering will lead to nutrient loss and also water loss.

  3. Sometimes in summers you’ll notice drooping leaves during the day time. Don’t rush to water your plant in such a case. Do the moisture test with your finger. Water only if the moisture has dried out. Otherwise just leave the plant. The leaves will spring back to life when the sun goes down. Drooping leaves result due to faster evaporation from leaves than the amount of moisture the roots can pump to it.

How to Water your Plants

  1. Ganga flowing to earth through the matted hair of Lord Shiva
    Ganga flowing to earth through the matted hair of Lord Shiva

    Water your pots to make the soil moist and not dripping wet. Not only its a criminal waste of water, too much water in the pot can lead to root rot if the soil or your potting mix is not a well drained one. On regular observation you’ll be able to figure out the water requirement of each pot. Water accordingly. Over watering also leads to leaching or wastage of nutrients.

  2. Water with as less force as possible. It is best to just take a watering pipe with almost no force in the flow of the water and place it in your pot along the rim. Water jet disturbs the soil.
  3. Lastly on to some mythology. Though I am supposed to write about How to water plants in pots, you must be wondering why I am suddenly diverting to mythology. Well just read on to find out. In Indian mythology there is a story of the great river Ganga coming
    Use thick layer of mulch to arrest speed of water
    Use thick layer of mulch to arrest speed of water

    down from the heavens to the earth. But her force is so much that it would destroy the earth. So the great yogi Shiva uses his matted hair to arrest the force of the river Ganga coming down from the heavens. And that is exactly what you have to do by using a thick layer of mulch. Mulch helps in arresting the speed of the water falling on the base of your plants. Hence mulch your pots well. The other thing about mulch is that it catches the dew at night and when the dew condenses it flows down to the soil. Hence mulching also acts like a automatic watering system.


Water is an important natural resource and hence you should always aim to conserve it. Use as much surface water as possible and conserve ground water. Harvest rainwater, reuse domestic waste water (water in which vegetables have been washed). And most importantly water correctly and water efficiently. You not only conserve water, you also keep your soil and plants healthy and happy.

How to Protect your Plants in Summer – Simple and Effective Tips

I recently attended national seminar on climate change where I got to see a lot of data on the changes in temperature and the effects it is having on our environment. Not that I was not aware of it. We all are aware of the change in climate and its effects. But when something is presented in the form of well researched data it does say a lot and has much more impact. Our planet is indeed getting hotter at an alarming rate. Last year Titlagarh in my home state recorded 47.5 degree Celsius and the predictions are that this year even this record will be broken. Everyone is suffering from this extreme heat. Even the plants in your garden are suffering albeit silently. And then there is also the problem of water shortage in summers which makes the whole scenario even more complicated. But of course you can do a few things to take care of your garden in summer. And this post on How to Protect your Plants in Summer will guide you on that.

Water Management is the Key

Dry leaves are excellent for mulching.
Dry leaves are excellent for mulching.

Water requirement of plants goes up as the heat increases. But the water availability decreases in summer. So managing water is key to a successful garden during harsh summers. Here are some tips for water management to protect your plants in summer.

  1. Mulching – The importance of mulching can never be stressed upon enough. Mulch your pots heavily with organic material to reduce water evaporation from soil. Dry leaves, cleaned and dried sugarcane bagasse, grasp clippings, paddy  straw, wood chips, coconut husks and dried corn peels are some of the things that you can use as mulch. Make sure that the mulch is 2-3 inches thick, so that no part of the soil is directly exposed to sunlight.
  2. Water as much as necessary to moisten the soil in your pot. Keep your soil moist and not drenched. Don’t let water run off from pots. It not only wastes water, nutrients from the soil also get leached due to over watering.
  3. Water only to replenish. Do not water just because it is time to water. You can check the moisture in the soil by poking a finger into it. If you feel its moist, there is no need to water.
  4. If you see drooping leaves don’t water your plants immediately. Check the moisture in the soil and water if needed. Leaves dry out fast in summers. The rate at which the root system pumps water into the leaves can not keep up with the drying rate. But when the sun goes down the leaves come back to shape.
  5. Do not water during the day. It leads to faster evaporation. Water early in the morning and/or in the evening before it gets dark.
  6. Do not waste water in watering the leaves of your plants. In fact watering the leaves is not advisable in any season because it can lead to fungus on leaves.
  7. Water your plants evenly in the container. Watering from one side does not wet the soil from everywhere.
  8. Drip irrigation systems work very well to save water. If budget is not a constraint you can invest in a drip irrigation system for your garden. Saving water is a big step to protect your plants in summer.
  9. If budget is not a concern you can also consider investing in self watering containers. These containers store excess water at the bottom and water is pulled into the soil through capillary action.

Manage Shade to Protect your Plants in Summer

A shade house is great to have to protect your plants in summer in your garden.
A shade house is great to have to protect your plants in summer in your garden.

Tropical plants do well in hot and humid conditions, but in scorching heat even they can be heat stressed and eventually die. Excess watering does not help in such cases. Shade is what plants need in such cases. Here are some tips to manage shade to protect your plants in summer.

  1. Find the more shaded areas of your organic terrace garden and move your pots to such a place. This can help a lot of your plants survive the summer.
  2. Use shade cloth or shade net to protect your plants from direct sunlight. Greenhouse shade cloth is a net like cloth that lets partial sunlight pass through it. Shade nets are graded according to the amount of sunlight it blocks. You can chose somewhere between 50% to 80% shade cloth depending the temperature in your area. Since the temperature in this part of the world goes beyond 40 degree Celsius in summers we use 80% sun block shade net for our garden.
  3. You can choose build a shade house by putting up a structure of steel or bamboo. This involves some expenditure, but its a good long term solution to have. In case you do not plan to spend a lot of money putting up a shade house here is a simpler solution. Put 4 to 5 stakes in your pots along the rim. The stakes should be a little taller than (2-3 inches works fine) the plant in the container. Now you can place your pots in a row and cover the entire row with shade cloth. The shade cloth will rest on the stakes and protect your plants from heat. You can also cut the shade clothes and put it up individually for each plant.
  4. If you have few plants then you can dry your everyday clothes around it. Just make sure that the clothes are aligned in a north south direction, so that it provides shade to the plants. The shade of the clothes will be a relief for your plants.

Wind Management is Important too

Sugarcane bagasse can also be used a mulch. This is more wind tolerant than dry leaves.
Sugarcane bagasse can also be used a mulch. This is more wind tolerant than dry leaves.

Wind can dry out soil too fast. Heavy warm winds during summer time also can damage  your plants. This is what you can do as a precaution.

  1. Build a simple wind break with a shade cloth screen using either steel rod or bamboo. There is no need to do this on all sides of your terrace garden. Generally in summers there is a particular direction from which the wind blows. For your area identify that direction and put a wind screen on that side.
  2. Bigger and sturdier plants also can act as a wind break. Place the bigger plants on your terrace on the side where you expect to get maximum wind flow.
  3. You can also grow creepers and climber on flat trellises. Such plants also act as a wind break.

Choose your Plants well for Summers

Pointed gourd is a good vegetable that you can grow in summers.
Pointed gourd is a good vegetable that you can grow in summers.

There are some plants that don’t do too well in heat. No matter how well you take care of them, they eventually will succumb to the heat. So it a good idea to plant seasonal and heat tolerant plants in summer. Some examples are,

  1. Banana
  2. Ridge Gourd
  3. Okra
  4. Bitter gourd
  5. Variety of Cucumbers
  6. Pointed gourd
  7. Variety of Eggplant
  8. Chilies
  9. Water melon
  10. Amaranth

A few varieties of beans, peppers and tomatoes can also be grown in shade house in summers. But you have to be very careful with these varieties. They may not have as good yield.

The seminar on climate change that I attended had a very clear and strong message. As the planet is getting hotter and drier it becomes our responsibility to conserve water and resort to natural cooling methods. Hence installing coolers and fans is your garden is not something we are going to encourage you to do. And no amount of importance that you give to reuse and conservation of water can ever be enough. So we urge you to take a conscious steps towards a cooler and greener planet through organic terrace gardening this summer.