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!

Varieties & Types of Cherry Tomatoes

Welcome to the wide world of cherry tomatoes!  There are so many different types and varieties of cherry tomatoes out there, it’s enough to make your palate do backflips. These little fruits are available in just about every color, flavor and shape.  Grocery stores typically only offer one or two types, but once you decide to grow them yourself at home, you’ll soon be amazed (if not a little overwhelmed) by all the options available.

Take a deep breath, and let’s take a closer look at what’s out there…

Cherry tomatoes

Cherry Tomato Harvest

Varieties of Cherry Tomatoes for Containers

Cherry tomatoes can grow either in a container or in the ground.  You have to be careful.  Just because the fruits are small doesn’t mean that the plant is.  Strange but true: the largest tomato plant on record was a cherry tomato plant.  So if you’re opting for a container tomato plant, think about growing either a determinate variety or a dwarf variety.  Some of these smaller plants will produce well even in smaller containers.

The Tiny Tim variety, for example, is a great option for a small patio or apartment balcony.  You can plant the Tiny Tim in a pot as small as 9”.  It only grows about a foot and a half tall, plus it does not need to be staked or trellised.   The Tiny Tim is also a determinate variety, meaning it will only grow so big, produce all the fruits it’s going to produce at or around the same time, then die back.

Yellow Pygmy is an indeterminate variety that will continue to produce cherry tomatoes all summer long.  Again, it is well suited to balconies and small patios.  The Yellow Pygmy fruits tend to be more acidic, and not as sweet as other cherry tomatoes.  So you can use them like you would larger tomatoes.  The plant tends to be more bushy than vining tomato plants.  This helps keep the plant more compact – a real space saver.  Since it only grows a foot tall it won’t need support from a trellis or stake.

If space is not an issue for you, you can go ahead and select a large container (one that holds three cubic feet of potting soil) and grow a vining variety.  Just be sure to give them support !!!

Matt's Wild Cherry

Sometimes the smallest fruit comes on the largest plants.

A Rainbow of Cherry Tomatoes

Think all cherry tomatoes are bright red?  Think again!  There are cherry tomatoes in just about every color.  Red, yellow, orange, green (even when ripe), white and black.

Matt’s Wild Cherry is a favorite variety among tomato growers. The fruits are a rich red color and only an inch in diameter.   These small, berry-sized fruits are as sweet as sweet can be.  They produce well and are best harvested by clipping the entire cluster off all at once.  Beware: the plant tends to get bigger and bigger as the months pass.  You can eat these little berries as savory deserts, in summer salads, or just by the handful.

Ask any gardener what kind of cherry tomato is in their garden, and they are likely to answer, “Sungold.”  These grow well in a wide range of different climates.  You can harvest the fruits a week early for a tart flavor, or leave them on the vine a little longer if you want a sweeter flavor.  The golden-orange fruits are about one ounce each, and are produced prolifically throughout the summer and fall.

If you go back to those same cherry tomato gardeners and ask them what other kinds of tomatoes they are growing this year, you are just as likely to hear Black Cherry as you are Sungold.  These black fruits – well, they are really more of a deep red – are bite-sized and flavorful.  They have the same full-bodied flavor as a tomato five times their size.  The plants themselves tend to be more forgiving and less prone to disease than other varieties, making them very beginner friendly.  But a word of caution: the vines on this bushy plant can grow eight feet tall – so a small cage will be powerless to hold the plant up.

Dr. Carolyn yellow cherry tomatoes are slightly larger than other cherry tomatoes.  These medium sized cherry tomatoes produce bucketfulls of fruit throughout the growing season.  The pale yellow color can make it difficult to know when exactly they are ripe, so I suggest eating one or two in the garden to test ripeness.  The fruits are somewhat prone to cracking – so even watering is key.

Green Grape tomatoes are a fun way to surprise unsuspecting people. They look for all the world like an ordinary tomato that was harvested way too early, but…surprise!…they are ripe and juicy.  These tomatoes have a spicy and zesty flavor.  The Green Grape tends to be among the first cherry tomato plants in the garden to set fruit.  A note on harvesting: look on the ground, as Green Grape tomatoes tend to fall off the vine when ripe.

Snow White is a friendly ghost variety.  These pale yellow fruits have a great sweet flavor, despite their ghoulish appearance when ripe.  The Snow White plant typically grows about six feet tall and tends to produce more small, one-inch tomatoes then even fanatical tomato lovers can eat in a season.  Don’t be afraid to sneak up on your family and friends and shock them with gift bags full of these little white cherry tomatoes.  WOOOooooo produces until Halloween in zone 7b -10.

Yellow cherry tomatoes

A cluster of yellow cherry tomatoes

Cherry Tomato Shapes

Currant tomatoes are the smallest tomatoes you can grow.  At full maturity, they are no larger than a pea.  They also tend to be the sweetest tomatoes you can grow.  In fact they are so sweet, I usually don’t even put them in salads.  Rather, I’ll just eat them raw as part of my lycopene-packed complete breakfast.  It can be hard to imagine that these itty-bitty fruits need serious cages or staking but they do.  Currant tomato plants resemble their wild ancestors in that they will sprawl out everywhere.  So, provide your plants with a strong and tall support.

Grape tomatoes fall somewhere in between cherry and plum sized tomatoes.  They tend to grow in large clusters like grapes.  Most grape tomatoes are hybrids that have become popular during the last twenty years.  Since they are relatively new, seeds and starter plants can be difficult to find.

Pear shaped tomatoes are fun to grow and eat.  The fruits grow about an inch and a half long and have that classic pear shape.  These tomatoes are a favorite among children for their fun shapes and bright colors.

The Hawaiian Currant is a garden curiosity.  The fruits range from pea-sized to marble-sized.  Unlike most other tomatoes, these little fruits are crunchy.  They are one of the easiest currant tomatoes to grow since they are relatively easy to stake.  The fruit also stays on the vine after it’s ripe, unlike so-called shattering current varieties, whose fruits drop to the ground when ripe.

Jolly Elf is a rarity among rare grape tomatoes.  It’s a determinate variety.  It will grow fairly well in a container and doesn’t require staking.  The plants tend to be big producers of oblong sweet red fruits.  Jolly Elf tomatoes are not prone to splitting and cracking, making them a great option in unpredictable climates.

Yellow Pear is the most common type of pear tomato.  These fruits are a fun way to shake up salads and garnish dinner plates.  Opinions vary when you ask gardeners if this is one of their favorites.  Most people agree that the flavor is pretty bland and the texture is not great. But one man’s bland is another man’s mild.   Others love them and grow them just for their children as a novelty.  The plants themselves can become a jungle unto themselves, loaded with little yellow pears.

So there you have it, I’ve covered about one percent of the different types and varieties of cherry tomatoes available to home gardeners…