Tomato Growing Adventures
I always grow tomatoes, usually started from seed in my kitchen window. I prefer to grow indetermiate varieties over the more compact and predictable determinates. You don't need a huge container or anything special to grow tomatoes, just lots of sun and water. What follows is an account of some failures and successes I've had growing a few different varieties of tomato in containers on my balcony.
One of my favorite beefsteak varieties are the Brandywines. They don't produce many tomatoes and they are massive plants, easily growing to over 6 feet tall. The tomatoes you do get are thin skinned and crack easily and their taste varies. Sometimes you get an amazing tomato and sometimes they suck.
The first summer I tried growing brandywines in a container I planted a pair of plants in a single 15 inch round plastic container that held maybe 8 gallons of potting soil. I managed to get a pair of light-gauge tomato cages around the plants for support. At one point I was watering them twice a day and adding ferts to the water every week or so. Despite being crammed into that tiny pot and being provided with practically no support from the puny cages, the pair of plants gave me a half dozen tomatoes.
Even with your plants under stress you can get a couple of these but how will they taste?
The tangled mess in this image is a pair of tomato plants.
The following year I smartened up (just a little) and instead of two plants in one container I planted two containers with one plant in each. Same container size as before. And again, I used the same tomato cages but this time added lots of bamboo sticks lashed to the cage for extra support. I was watering these things like mad and once the plants grew up over the top of the cage they eventually collapsed under their own weight and stretched out over top of whatever they fell on. And again, despite the stress, I got a few large tomatoes from each. And just as in the previous season, some tasted amazing and some did not.
One of the problems I had with these giant tomato plants was keeping them under control. At the time, I wasn't pruning my tomato plants and hadn't come up with a proper way to support them. Since then I've learned the importance of pruning and staking and my tomatoes do much better. Pinching off most of the suckers as they appear makes a huge difference as does having a trellis to fan out the vines so they can spread out and make the most of the afternoon balcony sunlight.
Not So Tiny Cherries
Both cherry tomato containers are on the right, one next to the other. Notice how they reach out for the sun.
The only tomatoes I really enjoy eating right off the vine are cherry tomatoes and they need to be really sweet for me to enjoy them. One year I got ambitious and (over) planted three Sweet 100 cherry tomato plants in a single 26x10x10 inch plastic container. I also planted three Sungold cherry tomato plants in another similar container. I was really impressed with the size of the plants and the yield. Both of these are indeterminate varieties which means their vines continue to grow until the frost kills them. Don't be fooled by the size of the tomato. Just because the tomatoes are small doesn't mean the plants will remain small also. These things grew big.
Just like the massive brandywines I grew, these eventually overgrew their cages (again, the same cheap flimsy tomato cages I used with the Brandywines) and collapsed under their own weight. Each plant was carrying loads of tomatoes. Enough to make me sick of them. In fact the plants got so top heavy that I had a hard time keeping them upright despite occasional pruning. And every time they'd fall over I'd lose a dozen or so tomatoes. There were little green, yellow and red tomatoes all over my balcony for most of August and September. I couldn't believe how tight the roots were packed into the containers. As the summer temperatures peaked, I was watering the containers twice a day, with gallons of water.
To assist with keeping the plants supplied with enough water through the day I used some watering spikes. These are plastic hollow spikes with a few holes along their sides. On the top of the spike are threads so you can screw them onto a pop bottle. You cut the bottom off the bottle, screw on a spike and ram the spike into the soil. I cut holes into the side of the bottle instead of removing the tops to help keep leaves and things from falling into the bottles. When you fill the bottle with water, over time the water will drain out into the soil. In theory it's a great idea. In practice though, they just didn't work for me. Some would drain too fast and some wouldn't drain at all. And even with two in each of my overcrowded containers, it just wasn't enough water to keep the plants happy over an entire day.
I got lots of tomatoes that summer. Too many actually. The problem with packing all those plants in the containers was that each plant was starving for nutrients, even with regular applications of fertilizer. And over crowding the plants prevented them from getting enough sunlight. It also meant that whatever water I gave them in the morning was quickly used up by mid day so the plants were constantly going through wet-dry cycles. This led to thick skinned fruit which I can tolerate on a large tomato but not on a cherry tomato.
Watering spikes with pop bottles attached. I cut holes in the side of the bottles for filling instead of removing the bottoms, to keep stuff from falling in.
I had no trouble getting cherry tomatoes to grow, it was getting them to taste good that was a problem.
Success with a Self-Watering Container
My pair of black zebra tomato plants keeping company with some basil. They got much bigger than this.
We had no shortage of black zebra tomatoes but I was rather disappointed in the taste. Some tomatoes look better than they taste.
I got serious about growing tomatoes in a container when I purchased a large self watering container very similar to the ever popular EarthBox®. Mine holds about 12 gallons of soil and 1.5 gallons of water in its reservoir. Water is drawn up from the reservoir through a couple of braided wicks which are in contact with the soil in the top half of the container. As the plants rooted in the soil draw moisture, it is replenished with water from the reservoir. To water the container I just pour water into a fill tube that sticks out above the soil surface. A float at the bottom ot the tube pushes a rod up out of the fill tube so I can see how much water is in the reservoir. As long as there is water in the reservoir, there will be water available for the plants.
Being a long box I figured it would be great for growing a pair of plants. The first time I used it I grew Black Zebra tomatoes. They produce a good amount of striped golf ball sized tomatoes with red and dark green stripes. The plants grew quickly and once again I used tomato cages for support but only for the initial stage of growth. Once the plants overgrew their cages I used long bamboo poles and twine to keep the plants contained and didn't hesitate to trim a few branches when things started looking wild. I kept the plants fertilized throughout the season, starting with a nitrogen rich mixture to get lots of vegetation and then switching to something with more phosphate and potassium once the plants started to bloom. I also applied a calcium supplement from time to time but I don't think it was necessary.
The big difference this time was the self-watering container. As long as I kept the reservoir full I didn't have to worry about the plants drying out. They always had a constant supply of water. On the hottest days when the plants were at the peak of their maturity I was refilling the reservoir every morning. Occasionally I'd poke around in the soil and I found it never completely dried out. It was always moist. I think not overcrowding the container helped quit a bit also.
I got lots of tomatoes off those plants and the skins were not as thick as I've seen on other tomatoes grown in my traditional containers. They tasted ok (black zebra tomatoes are not known for their taste) although I don't think they ripened properly. They always seemed a little too green, but maybe that's just the way these tomatoes are. It certainly didn't stop my family from eating them. And as usual, we had more than enough.
The Italian Giants
So now that I knew it was possible to grow a good amount of descent tasting tomatoes I decided to revisit my earlier attempts at beefsteak tomatoes. As tempted as I was to grow Brandywines again I resisted and instead settled on a variety known simply as "Italian Giants" sold by a small local heirloom seed producer. But honestly, they were very similar in size and taste to brandywine.
I was pouring a gallon or two into the reservoir almost every day during July and August.
As usual, I started the seeds inside early enough to have good size plants to start with as soon as it got warm enough outside but not so early as to be left with tall, skinny and weak plants ready to go out before the temps were right. I planted two plants in the self watering container. And unlike all my previous tomato growing projects I did not use tomato cages for support. It was tempting. Particularly when the plants were only a foot or two tall. But I knew I would have to come up with something much stronger to support these giant beasts. In the container I placed a mixture of last years potting mix with a generous heaping of compost mixed in. I had two types of compost: one looked like it was derived from grass cuttings or leaves or something and another made from seaweed. I also tossed in a few extra scoops of perlite and vermiculite to lighten the mix up as the compost made it very dense and heavy.
I've got lots of bamboo poles around of varying lengths and normally I just lash them together with twine to give the tomato cages more support. But this time instead of twine I used plastic cable ties. This meant I didn't have to worry about them coming loose and it made creating a trellis quick and very neat. The long poles I stuck in the soil I placed right at the edge of the container and then drilled a pair of holes through the container on either side of the poles. I passed a cable tie through the holes to help anchor the pole to the side of the container. It wasn't perfect and there was still a bit of sway but if was enough to keep the pole from falling over. In retrospect, before filling the container with soil, I could have placed another pair of holes and a cable tie on each pole closer to the bottom of the container and this would have made the whole thing very secure. To these five foot upright poles I attached cross pieces of bamboo using cable ties giving me a nice cheap, strong and reusable trellis to weave the tomato vines through.
My Italian Giants. They were taller but gravity started affecting them just as they were starting to explode with flowers.
I'm usually pretty lazy when it comes to pruning and pinching but with these plants I decided to be aggressive. I did my best to limit the plants to one main branch each. Eventually I let one plant grow a couple more branches but on the other I foolishly pinched off the main branch so I had to let some of the lower shoots develop into longer vines. I ended up with one plant growing tall and narrow and the other being shorter and bushier. But by the end of the season, they were both giants anyways so it didn't matter.
I kept the soil as moist as possible, watering every day. I routinely added whatever fertilizer I could find lying around. I used all of the organic stuff I had from the previous season and then some. I wrapped the top of the container in black plastic to help it retain heat and moisture. I *think* all of this paid off. I don't really know because it was my first attempt at growing this variety so I had nothing to measure my success (or failure) by. But it didn't matter because in the end I was quite impressed with my results.
My plants each reached a height of seven feet and the funny thing was, on one of them, I had all kinds of tomatoes right at the top. I needed lots of extra support to keep those vines from breaking. From both plants I got just over three dozen tomatoes. Some were the size of softballs but most were around tennis ball size. And they were all very tasty. They had very few seeds and were thick and juicy. Exactly what I like in a beefsteak. The skins only cracked on a few of the largest tomatoes and I didn't have a problem with thick skins like I've had in the past. As the season wore on the leaves started to yellow and brown in a way that looked like a nutrient deficiency which didn't surprise me. And they somehow avoided the spider mite infestation that affected all the plants on the north end of the balcony that season.
To a large degree, growing condition will dictate tomato flavor but once you get beyond that, it comes down to genetics. I've grown lots of different tomatoes on the balcony and my favorites so far are Black Cherry, Opalka and Brandywine. Some tomatoes are better suited for fresh eating, others for canning or saucing. Everyone has different tomato tastes. Some people like them sweet but others desire a more acidic taste. Lots of larger heirloom tomatoes have a 'traditional' tomato taste that's hard to describe. Not all tomatoes taste great and it largely depends on the taster, how they eat the tomato and what they expect to get out of it.