Growing tomato plants in pots is a great way to bring fresh produce to your table without having to prepare and care for a vegetable garden. You may also find it personally and financially rewarding when you see those round, juicy fruits, ready for picking. Expect to see dozens of tomatoes per plant so the savings from growing your own tomatoes instead of buying them at the market far exceeds the cost of buying starter plants.
Purchase starter tomatoes in early spring. Starter tomatoes are plants a nursery has grown from seed. The "plug" type tomato starters come six to a pack (with 2- to 3-inch-tall plants) and will cost around $3. Half-pint peat or plastic pots hold a single tomato about 6 to 8 inches tall and can cost $1.50 to $2.50 each. The larger plants have matured two to three weeks longer at the nursery, giving you a head start. The smaller plants are a more economical approach, particularly if you are planting a lot of tomatoes. Plants can be purchased at a rural nursery or at a home and garden center.
Choose large pots. Five to eight-gallon pots (about 14 to 18 inches across) give the plant room to spread its roots and allow for a stake or wire cage for bracing the plant once the tomatoes appear. Smaller pots may be used, but expect less yield and the need to find a greater support mechanism since the weight of the tomatoes, even staked, can topple over small pots. The pot needs to have drain holes. A deep saucer is optional and can be a benefit if the saucer includes wicks into the pot.
Place the pot in full sun. Fill the pot with half soil and half potting soil or all potting soil. About 25 percent organic matter, like leaf mold or compost, can be worked into the soil.
Make an opening in the soil for the plant using your fingers or a hand spade. Make the hole slightly larger than the container holding the tomato plant.
Remove the tomato plant from the pot. Squeezing the sides of the tomato container can help to loosen the plant for easier removal. Place the plant in the hole so the top of the soil level around the plant is slightly lower (about a half inch) than the soil level in the pot. Gently press the soil around the plant using your fingers.
Water around the plant about 1 inch from the stem. Water slowly using about one to two cups of water (depending on the size of the starter plant). The water will soak down into the pot to provide a moist medium for growth.
Insert the tomato cage or stake at the perimeter of the pot. A stake can be of any material (plastic, wood, metal) but needs to be strong enough to not bend from the weight of the tomatoes. As the plant grows, loosely tie the plant to the stake.
Use a commercial fertilizer and follow the manufacturer's instructions. A liquid variety of plant fertilizer is easy to apply when watering.
Water regularly as the plant grows, using one to two qt. of water. Potted tomatoes, with the sun hitting the exterior of the pot, will dry out sooner than ground-planted tomatoes so they may need to be watered daily unless it rains. Look for drooping leaves as a sign of insufficient moisture.