Tomatoes, America's most popular homegrown vegetable, can be grown in containers right outside the kitchen. This saves the time and trouble of maintaining a large vegetable patch. West Virginia University extension specialist John W. Jett recommends container gardening for busy two-worker families or the elderly who can't readily till the soil anymore. If your household has added a patio or deck, you can apply optimum practices to get the most from your container tomatoes.
Raise compact tomato plants that will do best in containers containing less than 3 gallons. Sam Cotner of the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension recommends Patio, Pixie, Tiny Tim, Saladette, Toy Boy, Spring Giant, Tumbling Tom and Small Fry. The authors of "Container Gardening for Dummies" recommend Patio Princess, Celebrity, BushSteak, Tumbler, Windowbox Roma, Sugary and Super Bush.
Use containers of at least 5 gallons in volume for most tomato cultivars, state university extension services recommend. To save money, grow tomatoes in discarded 5-gallon drywall or pickle buckets. For even better results, use nursery pots, inexpensive even in the 20- and 25-gallon sizes, as containers. Nursery pots enable you to grow full-size hybrid tomato plants and larger heirlooms. Cluster pots together to minimize moisture loss and ease watering. Try to maintain 2-foot distance between stems of plants for optimal air circulation and health.
Fill the pot with a soilless growing mix containing a blend of sphagnum peat, perlite and vermiculite, recommends Larry G. Johnson of the West Virginia University extension service. Add 25 percent of regular compost or 20 percent worm compost to the soilless mix. Add water-retaining crystals, called hydrogels, which hold 200 times their weight in water. Or use self-watering containers that rely on a reservoir or outer pot to hold water.
Support full-sized tomato plants with attractive, reusable four-sided folding tomato cages. These professional cages look better than homemade wire cages on well-decorated patios and support full-size tomato plants more securely than smaller cylindrical plant supports, better suited to bell pepper plants.
Start your containers two weeks earlier than your normal frost date by covering the container with a salvaged skylight or a giant sheet of clear plastic to retain warmth.
Cover the grow mix in the container with plastic mulch or landscape fabric and transplant your tomatoes through an X cut through the mulch. This will prevent soilborne diseases from splashing up on the plant's lower leaves. Cover young plants with bird netting if marauding birds have in the past pecked the leaves off.
Add a similar slow-release fertilizer to the soilless mix. Or bury chopped Halloween pumpkin the preceding fall in the container and add compost worms as an organic alternative. Water weekly with a half-strength fertilizer or foliar feed with fish emulsion.