Growing Cherry Tomatoes in Containers

Growing cherry tomatoes in containers is a bit of a challenge.  It is easier to grow them in the ground. If you have that as an option I say go that way.  The ground offers a more stable environment than containers.   Temperatures fluctuate in containers, whereas the ground tends to be more even throughout the day and growing season.  Roots can also grow deeper in the ground than in containers.  So what’s a container gardener to do?  Plan, setup, and go for it with these tips and tricks!

cherry tomatoes ripening in a container

Cherry tomatoes ripening in a container

Seven steps for growing cherry tomatoes in containers:

  1. Selecting seeds or plants for your container garden
  2. Finding the right container for your tomato plants
  3. Filling the container with the best soil for your tomato plants
  4. Finding the ideal place for your container tomato plants
  5. Transplanting your young plants into the container to ensure the best possible start
  6. Watering and basic care for your plants
  7. Harvesting and season extension, when you just want to keep your plants a little longer

1) Select your plants or seeds carefully.   Cherry tomatoes are much smaller than their full sized counterparts, but the plants themselves are just as big.  Some varieties of cherry tomatoes can grow ten foot long vines.  But if you are pressed for space I recommend one of the smaller varieties.  These do well indoors, on small patios, and apartment balconies.  The compact plants don’t sprawl or grow so large they’ll take over your entire balcony.  Rather they grow in medium sized pots and stay put.  Compact cherry tomato varieties include: Patio Hybrid, Small Fry, Tiny Tim, and Cherry Gold.   If you are purchasing tomato plants some of these options will not be available at nurseries or big box garden departments.  The best thing you can do is to read the labels and try to find plants that are listed as growing less than three feet.  Determinate varieties tend to be smaller since the plant will not continue to grow and grow; they get only so big and then stop growing.

2) Finding the right container for cherry tomato plants is key.  The size your mature plant will eventually grow to will

Containers for cherry tomatoes

determine the size of your container.  A large plant will need at least six gallons of soil.  Your container should also be large enough to accommodate a stake or cage.  Small dwarf plants will need about one and a half gallons of soil.  Since the plant will not grow more than three feet tall, or more than a foot and a half wide, a nine or ten inch pot will usually do the trick.  Containers come in all kinds of different materials, and you can grow cherry tomatoes in almost all of them.  Stay away from treated wooden containers unless there is a plastic pot inside.  Clay containers absorb moisture so you will have to water your plant more often.  Whatever the container is made of, make sure there are large drain holes at the bottom.  If the container is deep, I like to add a layer of small rocks at the bottom just to ensure good drainage.

3) Growing cherry tomatoes in containers demands that you use great soil! Garden soil alone is not enough.  You can either add compost and pearlite to ordinary soil, or use a potting mix approved for edible produce. (If you are using compost, set some aside for later.)  Some potting mixes contain fertilizers that are great for growing flowers, but not safe for growing food.  It may seem silly to mulch the soil in your container, especially if you are growing cherry tomatoes on the twentieth floor of a high rise apartment building where weeds will not likely be an issue.  However, since container plants dry out quickly, a little mulch will help keep the soil damp. And hey, weeds can grow anywhere.

4) Finding the ideal place for your plants.  Tomato leaves and vines are toxic!  If you have small or special-needs children, teach them not to touch the plant.  You know your children best, so it’s up to you if you want to put the containers out of reach.   Find a sunny spot where your containers will be happy for the next several months.  Cherry tomato plants need at least six hours of full sun.  Placing the containers on the south side of your home is a great option.  Also keep in mind that large trees and other buildings may block the sun for most of the day.  Keep your containers secure — someplace where they will not get knocked over or bumped into regularly.  Larger containers filled with damp soil on the ground are less in danger than smaller containers on tables.

5) Whether you started your plants from seed or purchased starter plants, you are going to have to transplant them into their containers, and then harden them off to prepare them for outdoor life.  The hardening off process takes a week or two. Set your young plants outside for an hour during a mild part of the day and then bring them back inside.  Each day, leave them out for longer and longer until they have been out for twenty-four hours.  If you find your plants are wilting, or if the leaves are turning yellow, bring them in, let them recover, and begin the process again.  If you notice that the stems are getting thicker and stronger, and the leaves are growing larger, then you are on the right track.  (If you are using purchased plants, the nursery may have done this for you. Just ask them if the plants are already hardened off.)

red and yellow cherry tomatoes

Harvested cherry tomatoes

6) Growing cherry tomatoes in containers will force you to water more frequently than if you had planted in the ground.  The soil should remain damp but not waterlogged.  Depending on how hot it is, your plants will need to be watered every day to every third day.  If in doubt, stick your finger in the soil.  If it feels dry, give it enough water so that some of the water drains out the bottom.  Try and keep the leaves as dry as possible while watering — it helps prevent diseases. If your fruits are cracking then they are not getting watered evenly.   If the plants are overgrowing their container, you can try to repot them into larger containers, although this risks damaging the roots.  Or you can prune the stems and branches.  This will make the plant less viney and more bushy.

When the plants begin to set fruit, it’s time to fertilize.  Remember the compost you set aside?  Add some to your watering can, fill with water, and shake it around.  Let the compost sit in the water for a few hours and water the plants with your very own compost tea.  You can also use a vegetable fertilizer (liquid or dry powder) to give your plants a little boost.

If the leaves on your plant are getting eaten away by bugs, then fill your watering can with water and a little dish soap.  This is one of the rare occasions you will intentionally get the leaves wet.  Wash off the plant with the soapy water, then water the leaves and stems again with plain water.  Repeat for the next few days and most bugs will eventually die off.

 7) Harvest time is finally here.  Cherry tomatoes tend to produce fruit in clusters.  You can either pull them off one by one or cut the vine or branch they are growing on.  I recommend you taste one before harvesting a bunch to make sure they are ripe. If you are growing a determinate variety, the plant will produce most of the fruit at one time and then begin to die back, while indeterminate varieties will continue to fruit until a frost.

Cherry tomato plants will not survive a frost, so if you are not yet ready to say good-bye to your cherry friends, toss an old sheet or blanket on top of the plant when a frost is coming.  You can also turn an overhead sprinkler on them.  The water will keep them a few degrees warmer – which is just enough when the night time low is over 29 degrees.  Eventually though, all good, sweet cherry tomatoes must come to an end.

So there you have it – growing cherry tomatoes in containers in seven steps.  Hope you have a great bountiful season!

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