Many people who don't have space for a "real" garden have found a way to grow all kinds of flowers, vegetables and herbs---they use containers. There are a few plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash, that may even grow better in containers than they would in garden soil. This is because soil in containers warms up faster than garden soil, and these plants really like warm soil.
Wash the 5-gallon bucket---in fact scrub it---if it has been used for spackle or anything else, to remove all traces of the previous contents. If you want something that looks a little fancier than a recycled white plastic bucket, you can buy 5-gallon containers at garden centers.
Drill 10 or 12 holes, at least ½ -inch diameter, in the bottom of the bucket. If you use a spade bit, don't worry if the holes you get are a bit ragged. They are only needed for drainage and nobody will ever see them except you. But these holes are essential, because tomatoes (and all other plants for that matter) must have well-drained soil around their roots or they will die.
Fluff the bag of potting soil a bit before you open it up by tossing the bag around from hand to hand. Then open it and pour it into your bucket. It should be fairly moist already, but if it is dry sprinkle it with water as you fill the bucket, stirring it around with a trowel so it is thoroughly moistened but not wet. Do not add fertilizer at this time, and do not use any garden soil.
Plant Selection and Care
Choose a tomato transplant variety that is suitable for containers. These are called bush, dwarf or determinate tomatoes. These do not normally need any support, but even so it will help if you place a 4-foot wooden stake in the center of the bucket, pushing it down so it goes all the way to the bottom for maximum support. Later, if your plants start to flop around, you can tie them loosely to the stake to help them grow better.
Plant one tomato per bucket. You can have two plants spaced out evenly but make sure they won't crowd each other too much when they are full-grown. Snip off all the lower leaves, dig a hole deep enough to accept the roots and the stem, and bury the plant so that only the top two pairs of leaves are showing above the surface. Pour two or three cups of water into the hole, then gently firm the soil around the roots and stem. Roots will grow from the whole length of the buried stem, making your plants stronger and even a bit drought-resistant.
Keep the soil moist but not wet. Never allow the soil to dry out, or your tomatoes will crack and develop blossom-end rot, a disease that makes the tomatoes inedible. After about a week, fertilize the plants with a good tomato fertilizer. Use the exact amount of fertilizer recommended on the bag--more is not better. Fertilize your plants every 10 to 14 days, no more.
About this Author
Peter Garnham has been a garden writer since 1989. Garnham is a Master Gardener and a Contributing Editor for "Horticulture" magazine. He speaks at conferences on vegetable, herb, and fruit growing, soil science, grafting, propagation, seeds, and composting. Garnham runs a 42-acre community farm on Long Island, NY.