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The Secrets to Growing Heirloom Tomatoes in Pots

The Secrets to Growing Heirloom Tomatoes in Pots

Basically, any heirloom tomato plant will grow in a pot with proper growing techniques, but some are definitely easier to manage than others.  Here is a guide for getting more tomatoes per plant while growing in containers, with tips on how to keep them going all season on your deck, patio or balcony.

Jump to: Easiest Varieties | Determinate vs Indeterminate | Container Size | How to Grow | Best Soil for Containers | Fertilizing Tomatoes in Pots | When to Water Tomatoes

Basket of mixed heirloom tomato varieties
Basket of mixed heirloom tomato varieties

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Most Reliable Tomatoes to Grow in Pots

The most reliable way of growing tomatoes in pots, if you are a novice grower, is to start with “Determinate” varieties.  Determinate varieties only grow to around 3-4 feet and therefore often don’t require staking and trellising with the pot (whereas “Indeterminate” varieties grow until frost and may get 7-8 feet).

Determinate tomato growing in container on the deck.
Determinate tomato growing in container on the deck.

The main difference between determinate and indeterminate varieties, in terms of fruiting, is the timing of fruit production.  Determinate varieties will produce all of their fruit over a 2-3 week period rather than continuing to produce throughout the growing season.  

This doesn’t mean you get fewer tomatoes from a determinate, you just get the crop in a shorter time frame.

Easiest Tomatoes to Grow in Pots

This is a breakdown of the determinate types of tomatoes that grow easily in pots. I’ve separated the heirloom from the hybrid determinates, but the key to successful growing in pots is really more about the size of pot, the soil and the light conditions.

Determinate tomatoes are considered easier primarily because they do not require trellising and have thicker stems.

Indeterminate tomatoes will require some sort of trellis or cage system as they continue to vine until frost, but that is the only thing that makes them more difficult to handle.

Determinate Varieties vs Indeterminate

”Heirloom” Determinate Tomatoes for Pots

  • Principe Borghese:  A fairly large determinate plant with small egg-shaped fruit that pack a high flavor punch (more acid than sugar).  Prolific & great for drying or to use in salads.
  • Manitoba:  This slicer was developed in Manitoba, Canada, to ripen during the short summers of the Manitoba prairie. Vigorous and early.
  • New Yorker:  Bush Beefsteak type, yielding 4-6 ounce meaty tomatoes with balanced flavor.  Plants set well in cooler growing conditions

“Hybrid” Determinates for Pots

Determinate tomato growing in a pot.
Determinate tomato (Bush Champion) growing in a pot.
  • Bush Champion:  Low maintenance compact plant that grows about 2 feet high, with larger (8-12 oz) tomatoes than most early determinates.  Stocky stems that don’t need trellising.  This is the one I usually  recommend to novice growers that just want to make sure they get tomatoes they can use on their BLTs.
  • Patio: this is a hybrid, but is a reliable producer with sturdy stems and medium sized tomatoes.
  • Totem: Smaller tomatoes and a fairly small plant, but a high yield. I would recommend this one for balconies and small spaces.

”Heirloom” Indeterminates for Pots

Four varieties of “black” heirloom tomatoes
Four varieties of “black” heirloom tomatoes
  • Japanese Black Trifele:  ‘The fruit color makes this a nice ornamental as well, and the plants are fairly compact as well — one strong stake should support the plant well.  Delicious complex, smoky flavor and beautiful bronze color.
  • Green Zebra: While considered an indeterminate tomato, they are much less rangy and grow more compactly, reaching about 5-6 feet high depending on your climate.  Very poplar for taste, with a tart, slightly lemon background balancing the sugar.  A favorite of many for its unique looks
  • Stupice: Perhaps the earliest heirloom, the plants are compact and the fruit is small, but it produces well all season.  Overall, know that early tomatoes tend to not be as flavorable as main season tomatoes.  For an early tomato, Stupice is one of the more flavorable ones
  • Paul Robeson: Beautiful, dark purple 3-4″ tomato with intensely sweet and smoky flavor and a juicy, smooth texture.  Needs staking, but well worth it.
  • Druzba: This robust Czechoslovakian tomato was particularly successful for me in 2022, outperforming all the other heirlooms.
  • Other good alternatives include:  Eva’s Purple Ball, Gardener’s Delight (a cherry), Matts Wild Cherry (a cherry)

“Hybrid” Indeterminates for Pots

  • Carmello:  Reliable and prolific, with intensely flavorable, 8 oz., juicy red fruits.  Disease resistant and a great overall main-season tomato which produces good flavor even during the colder part of the season.
  • Sungold: Sweet, prolific and very popular cherry tomato.  Most cherry tomatoes will do well in containers, as they grow tall but their fruit is small and they don’t tend to sprawl as much.
  • Grappoli d’Inverno: This was a new one for me in 2022. It was an extremely prolific grape tomato that kept producing long after the others had died.
Grappoli heirloom tomato hanging out to dry.
Grappoli heirloom tomato hanging out to dry.

Recommended Container Size for Growing Tomatoes in Pots:

Large pots ready for planting tomatoes.
Large pots ready for planting tomatoes

The bigger the container, the better.  Keep in mind that tomatoes grow large root systems, and they need room to develop for best production.  A large container will also prevent the soil from drying out too quickly during the heat of summer.

In general, a 5 gallon container is considered the minimum size.  If you use a smaller pot, you are likely to have problems with the potting mix drying out, which can lead to blossom end rot , a common disease with tomatoes growing in pots.

The larger indeterminate heirloom tomatoes will grow well in 12-18 gallon containers.   A container 12 to 18 inches deep for all tomatoes is generally a good rule of thumb.

If you are using a container of your own creation, make sure and punch holes in the container bottom to allow excess water to drain properly.

Location Considerations for Growing Plants in Pots

  • Sun:  Keep in mind that tomatoes need around 6-8 hours of sun a day.  Try to avoid a really hot afternoon sun if possible.
  • Wind:  Avoid areas that are susceptible to strong winds.  Hot dry winds are probably the most detrimental condition for young plants, causing their leaves to shrivel and die.  Strong winds can break the young plants at their growing tips, or topple over and break staked older plants.  If you are growing on a deck or balcony you may have to look into some form of protective barrier.
  • Staking:  If growing indeterminates, place your stakes or cages early and train the plants to grow vertically, allowing as much sunshine as possible to penetrate to the inside of the plants.  Secure the stakes or cages well…larger tomatoes can be very heavy.


Soil/Potting Mixes for Growing Plants in Containers:

Example in hand of how wet potting soil should be when starting seeds.
Example in hand of how wet potting soil should be when starting seeds.

Don’t use topsoil.  Tomatoes grown in containers need a loose, well-drained medium with lots of organic matter.  Use a good potting mix rather than topsoil or garden soil. Potting soil can be too heavy for containers, and soil harvested straight from the garden is most likely infested with fungi, weed seeds, and pests.

Use a high-quality mix containing peat moss and perlite.  If preparing your own soil-less medium, blend in a complete fertilizer, either a dry organic product, such as one containing alfalfa meal, bonemeal, kelp meal, or other natural nutrients.

Compost:  I am a great believer in the benefits of good compost.  It can add the micro-nutrients that potting soils might be missing and it can aid with drainage and moisture control.   I use a ratio of 3:1 soil-less mix to compost.

Fertilizing Container-Grown Tomatoes:

  • Organic fertilizers:  Make a compost tea or manure tea and fertilize monthly during the growing season.  Other good organic fertilizers are liquid fish emulsion and liquid seaweed, which can be applied weekly.
  • Commercial fertilizers:  When you buy your potting mix, you can get one containing slow-release fertilizers, which will help with the growth stages of the plant.  Tomatoes grown in containers will usually demand more fertilizer than the initial timed-release fertilizers to carry them through the entire growing season.  You may need to add liquid water-soluble fertilizer products to the irrigation water as the season progresses.   Follow product directions for concentrations and timing.
  • Time-release fertilizers:  A popular product for containers is Osmocote Plus at planting time. This is a 15-9-12, time release granular product which is supposed to feed up to 6 months.  A fellow gardener, experienced with container plants, recommends following up the Osmocote with Peters 20-20-20 water soluble every 10 days to two weeks.

Watering Considerations:

  • Water regularly. Containers dry out more quickly than regular garden beds, and tomatoes are more likely to develop issues such as blossom end rot if they get uneven watering.
  • Under-watering:  The best way to know if your plants need watering is to check the soil.  Stick your finger in the soil and if it is dry an inch down into the soil it is time to water.  Containers are above ground and dry out quickly.  When the plants are small, water use won’t be as high, but when they are large and setting fruit you will need to water daily.  Do not allow containers to dry completely or fine roots will die. Also, if allowed to dry excessively, the potting media will shrink away from the side of the container and will be harder to re-wet.
  • Over-watering: As long as you are using a potting mix that drains well you shouldn’t be afraid to water heavily.  Good drainage solves most over watering issues.  Make sure your containers has drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.  Back off the watering a little during fruit set to prevent splitting fruit. 
  • Type of container:  Plastic containers do not dry out as quickly as clay, especially unglazed clay pots. Even plastic containers may require daily watering however, as plants grow larger.
  • Self-watering systems:  There are a range of self-watering pot systems that can reduce watering maintenance.  Probably the best known, and longest trialed of these is the EarthBox 1010039 Organic EarthBox, Terracotta Although I have never used one, the reports from my customers at the farmers’ markets are all positive.  The EarthBox works by wicking moisture out of a reservoir in the bottom of the planter.
  • Well Water:  occasionally there can be problems from watering with well water.  Water from wells is often high in salts or carbonates which can cause problems. One way to prevent excessive salt buildup is to water thoroughly enough to ensure that 10 percent of what is added drains out the bottom. Salt build-up is damaging to plants causing burned leaf edges, stunted growth, and fewer blooms.  Along this line, if

     saucers are used to catch drained water, empty them to prevent salt buildup.

Guides for successfully growing tomatoes

Video Tutorial with Q and A

How to successfully grow tomatoes in pots for patio, deck or balcony - 6 key requirments
Watch this video on YouTube.
Watch the Step by Step Video for More Details

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Friday 10th of February 2023

I am thinking of cutting the bottom off a 5 gal bucket, and placing it on top of another 5 gal bucket, thus a 10 gal capacity. Though most tomato plants are fine with a 12 to 18" depths. Do you know of anyone who tried this? Planting in a whole bag of soil set on end? To achieve a 10 gal or 12 to 18 gal capacity. I have new seeds form Victory seeds for the deep south LA and FL.

dorothy stainbrook

Friday 10th of February 2023

I have not heard of that but it may work. I just know that planting in a 5-gallon bucket doesn’t give you as much of a harvest a a larger pot would, but I don’t know if width is a factor there or just depth. My first inclination would be that it needs to be wider to let the roots have more room to breathe and spread out, but I can’t say for sure. Let me know if it works.


Monday 30th of May 2022

This is a comment/question that came in today that I thought I’d post for the communities responses:

“I rent and will be replanting these into a pot. I was trying to find the soil you have in your video Miracle Gro Organic Choice Moisture Control but I can't. I either find Miracle Gro Organic Performance or Miracle Gro Moisture Control. Which would you recommend or is there another soil you recommend instead?

Regarding fertilizer, is there a brand you recommend? Also, do I mix the epsom salt with the fertilizer or do I do those each on separate days? Do I spray the leaves or just the soil with the fertilizer and epsom salt?

I really appreciate any help you can provide. Thanks for showing everyone had to plant their own food. I think it's really interesting!”


Saturday 12th of June 2021

Great video, And I love your dog ? I also enjoy gardening. I’m helping my son this year at his apartment with growing in containers. We built boxes at my cabinet shop today for his tomatoes. And I have always grown in the ground so this is new to us. So Thank you for sharing.

dorothy stainbrook

Sunday 13th of June 2021

Thank you! He’s the best dog I’ve ever had! It’s a little harder to grow in containers because you have to fertilize and water more, but it certainly can work.

Thursday 28th of May 2020

To be clear - there is no calcium in Epsom salts. Epson has Magnesium.

dorothy stainbrook

Friday 29th of May 2020

Thank you for bringing this to light. Some of my tomato posts are quite dated and I appreciate the comment allowing me to update them. It appears that Epsom salts for blossom end rot is indeed a myth (and also does not include calcium, but rather magnesium). Blossom end rot is all about water management.

With regards to the calcium issue, I like what had to say....

“ While blossom end rot is caused by a lack of calcium to the developing fruits, it doesn't mean there isn't enough calcium in the soil. It is most often related to an inconsistent amount of water in the soil or being taken up by the plant. Calcium is brought to the fruit in the water the plant takes up from the soil so allowing the soil to dry out too much between waterings can cause blossom end rot. Pot-grown tomatoes are especially susceptible.”

Sunday 19th of April 2020

Loved your video! Thanks for sharing. When Pepsi barked, my dogs heard it and started barking too! I just potted up all my tomatoes.

dorothy stainbrook

Sunday 19th of April 2020

Haha, yes Pepsi likes to be involved in the videos. He’s 14 years old now so I guess I can let him photobomb the videos once in a while!

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