You don't need to have a large garden space to produce a crop of tasty tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum). A number of dwarf or smaller-growing varieties grow well in containers, fitting into limited space gardens or onto patios or balconies. Most of these smaller tomatoes are determinate plants, which means they stop growing when fruit set begins, remaining bushy. They usually don't need stakes or cages for support. Some have a cascading growth habit suitable for hanging baskets.
Start with clean containers with multiple drainage holes. Wash used pots in hot, soapy water, rinsing well. Soak pots in a mixture of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water for at least five minutes. Rinse containers in clear water and let dry. Plastic pots are best in hot summer areas or if gardeners want to use larger containers since they don't dry out as quickly as clay pots and are lightweight.
If you have very little room, miniature and very dwarf varieties work best. Perhaps the smallest tomato variety is "Micro Tom," which reaches only 5 to 8 inches tall. Its red cherry-type fruits mature in around 85 days, with about 12 tomatoes per plant. Determinate "Micro Tom" tomatoes grow well in hanging baskets or small containers such as a 4-inch pot. "Red Robin" delivers 1 1/4-inch red fruits with good flavor in 55 days from planting out. Determinate plants reach 12 inches tall and are suitable for baskets and pots about 6 inches wide.
Dwarf varieties range from 10 to 18 inches tall. The small size allows you to grow several plants even in small gardening spaces. "Tiny Tim" grows 10 to 18 inches tall with a spread of 14 inches. The determinate plants bear 1/2- to 3/4-inch red cherry tomatoes in 60 days and need at least an 8-inch sized pot.
A red grape tomato with a sweet taste, "Elfin" is an heirloom, determinate variety that reaches 9 to 18 inches tall and matures in 55 days. Bushy plants bear large clusters of fruits. Heirloom varieties are those passed down from generation to generation, with many heirloom introductions dating back to the 1800s and mid-1900s.
Best for hanging baskets, determinate "Tumbler" bears 1 1/4-inch fruit in 50 days, growing 12 to 16 inches tall and 18 inches wide. It's possible to harvest six pounds of fruit from a "Tumbler."
Small-growing varieties save on space but usually produce small fruits. If you'd like larger fruits but still want a small footprint, medium-sized varieties are best. Most reach about 2 feet tall. Consider "Patio F" with tennis-ball-sized red fruits on 24-inch-tall plants. It takes 70 days for the determinate plants to ripen fruit, and production can be heavy enough you may wish to stake branches for support.
Hybrid, determinate "Patio Princess" bears 2 1/2-inch red fruits on plants 18 inches wide and 24 inches tall, with mature fruit in 65 days. For medium-sized plants, use at least a 12-inch pot.
One of the advantages of home-grown tomatoes is the ability to produce tomatoes you won't find in grocery stores, with unusual appearance and complex tastes. Many heirloom tomatoes are reputed to have exceptional taste, but most are indeterminate plants that take 12- to 18-gallon containers to grow well. Heirloom varieties need to be staked.
Some of the best heirlooms for containers are shorter-growing varieties such as "Stupice," a Czechoslovakian variety with 4-ounce, red fruits in 60 days from planting out. Indeterminate plants are 40 to 48 inches tall and 18 inches wide. From Russia, "Black Krim" produces rich-tasting, 8-ounce, maroon to red fruits in 80 days on 36- to 42-inch, indeterminate plants.
Container Tomato Care
Container tomatoes need a minimum of six hours of sun. Use a quality potting soil that contains perlite rather than garden soil. Because plants in pots dry out more quickly than plants in the garden, pay careful attention to watering needs. When the top 1 inch of soil in the pot is dry, water the plant until water comes through the drainage holes. In hot weather, container tomatoes may need daily watering. Tomatoes are frost-sensitive, so cover them or take them indoors if temperatures of 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below are predicted.
Fertilizing Container Tomatoes
More frequent, light feedings of a water-soluble or organic fertilizer works best for container tomatoes. Apply a product such as fish emulsion, mixing 6 tablespoons with each 1 gallon of water. Water the tomatoes once a week with the emulsion mixture.