Instead of buying tomatoes from the grocery store, harvest your own juicy fruit right from a home-grown tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) plant. You don't need a lot of space or a big backyard. In fact, tomatoes do well when grown in containers on a deck or patio. When properly cared for, the plant will have harvest-ready fruit within a couple of months of planting.
Maximize Sun Exposure
Tomato plants grow best and produce the most fruit when given the right amount of sunshine. Move the pot to an area of the patio or deck that gets a minimum of six hours of sunlight every day, preferably in the morning and early afternoon. Sun exposure on a patio can change during the season, so monitor the plants closely and move the pot if necessary whenever shaded zones shift.
Typically, tomato plants need watering once a week. However, potted tomatoes may need more frequent watering because container gardening can speed up how quickly the potting soil dries out. For example, soil in nonporous containers, such as plastic pots, doesn't dry out as quickly as soil in porous containers, such as clay pots. Additionally, if the deck or patio is windy, the air movement can speed up potting soil dehydration. Check the surface of the potting soil daily, and water the tomatoes as soon as the top inch of soil has dried out. When watering, use enough water that moisture dribbles out of the pot's bottom drainage holes.
Fertilize the tomato plant to fuel its growth and boost its ability to grow a big harvest of fruit. Begin fertilizing when the first fruit begins to appear on the plant, and then repeat every three weeks until harvesting is over. Use 1 1/2 tablespoons of 5-10-10 fertilizer per tomato plant. Sprinkle the fertilizer on the soil around the plant, but don't let it touch the plant. Water immediately to help carry the nutrients down to the tomato's roots.
Mulch to Conserve Moisture
Spread a couple of inches of bark chips, shredded straw or similar mulching material on the surface of the potting soil. Mulch helps conserve soil moisture. It will also block weeds from growing in the pot, and prevents potting soil from splashing up on the tomato plant's leaves, which could increase risks of various plant diseases.
Proper pruning increases the amount of fruit the tomato plant will grow, and also boosts overall plant health. To prune short, bushier tomato varieties that hover around 5 feet in height or less, look for suckers. These are small stems that shoot out where the plant's branches connect to its main trunk. Using your fingers, pinch off any suckers between the bottom of the tomato plant and its first flower cluster.
When growing taller tomato varieties that reach a height of 10 feet or more, remove any suckers from the base of the plant up to its second flower cluster. For the best results, suckers should get pinched off before they get larger than the diameter of a pencil.
Container-grown tomatoes occasionally suffer from a handful of insect pests. If you see beetles, caterpillars and similar large pests, hand removal can sufficiently control the issue. Go out in the early morning when insects are sluggish and pick off the pests; then either crush them or drop them into a bucket of soapy water.
For small, soft-bodied insects like aphids or whiteflies, a strong blast of water from the garden hose can sufficiently knock off and kill enough pests that they no longer pose a risk to the tomatoes. Alternatively, make your own homemade insect spray for soft-bodied insects. Combine a tablespoon of dish soap in a pint of water and spritz it directly on the pests. Repeat once a week until pest problems subside.
If brown or black spots appear on the tomato plant's foliage, the plant may have a fungal disease. Wipe down your pruning shears to sterilize them, and then immediately snip off any affected branches to prevent the spread of disease.
Proper sanitation and care effectively prevent most disease problems. This includes placing tomato plants in the sun, which keeps them dry; only watering tomatoes at their base, as getting the foliage wet with overhead irrigation increases the risks of disease; and keeping individual potted plants far away from each other to increase air circulation.
- University of Florida Extension: Tomatoes
- University of Illinois Extension: Choosing a Container for Planting
- National Gardening Association: Fertilizing Tomatoes
- Louisiana State University Extension: How to Properly Prune Your Tomatoes
- Colorado State Extension: Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden
- Old Farmer's Almanac: Tomatoes
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: Tomato Insect Pests
- National Gardening Association: Fending Off Tomato Pests
- Colorado State University Extension: Insect Control -- Soaps and Detergents
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: Tomato Diseases & Disorders
- Photo Credit FreezeFrameStudio/iStock/Getty Images
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