A: This is another of those, "Yes, but..." questions. Tomatoes can be grown in containers, even hanging containers. People plant tomatoes in clay, wood, metal and plastic containers. Containers range from pots to buckets, tires, whiskey barrels, plastic fabric bags, crates, tubs and even the occasional retired wheelbarrow. However, if you consider what would be ideal conditions to grow tomatoes, you would provide deep loamy well-drained soil in 6 -- 8 hours of full sun. So, the size and depth of your container matters if you actually expect to get some tomatoes from your container plant.
Selecting a cultivar of tomato, which was developed to be grown in a container, can help with the container size issue. These types of tomatoes will sometimes have 'Dwarf' or 'Patio' in the name. Also keep in mind that all tomato varieties fall into one of two types: determinate and indeterminate.
The determinate types are genetically programmed to grow to a certain height. When that height is reached, the plant produces flowers at the growing tips. These flowers at the tips and those along the stem tend to produce fruit at the same time; great if you are canning and want all your fruit at approximately the same time. The indeterminate type of tomato produces fruit and continues to grow throughout the growing season; great if you want some fruit throughout the summer and maybe into fall. The down side of the indeterminate type of plant is they can get huge! This could be a problem if you are using a hanging container or maybe, any type of container.
When selecting a cultivar of tomato you should keep in mind that there are other factors to consider other than just size of the plant. Tomatoes vary in size, shape, color and taste. Some cultivars produce fruit relatively early in the season and some later. Also pay attention to disease resistance. Many currently available types of tomatoes are resistant to Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt, and root knot nematodes. The initials V, F and N note resistances to these diseases after the cultivar name.
Sadie Davis, Extension Educator of the Greene County Purdue University Extension office can help you with current cultivar recommendations whether you decide to use a container or not. Her office number is 812-659-2122.
Back to container size. Let's think about a hanging pot. For tomato root systems, remember, bigger is better and soil is heavy. Minimum container diameter at the top should be 8 inches for dwarf cultivars and 12 inches for larger cultivars. To avoid having a 50-pound hanging pot (!), a much lighter potting mix or 'soilless' growing medium is recommended. Soil alone is not the best for use in a container anyway, as it tends to become compacted. Potting mixes and soilless mixes can be made on your own, but for the small-scale tomato grower it is probably cheaper to purchase it ready made.
Another issue the hanging pot grower will need to consider is the tomato's need for consistent moisture. Tomatoes need moist, but not wet soil. If the top inch of soil feels dry, it's time to water. Consistent soil moisture is easier to accomplish in the ground as compared to a hanging pot or container, with its limited volume and its exposure to wind and the 6 -- 8 hours of full sun that a tomato needs. Container tomatoes might need twice a day watering in hot windy weather. You will need to pay close attention or have some sort of self-watering system to avoid problems caused by inconsistent soil moisture.
If all this does not put you off growing tomatoes in a hanging pot, more power to you! Good Luck! Tomatoes are a great backyard crop and nothing tastes better than a tomato fresh from your garden.
For more information on growing tomatoes and container & raised bed gardening, see www.hort.purdue.edu/ext.
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This month's question is answered by David B. Hughes, Vice President, Greene County Master Gardeners. This is one in a series of question-and-answer columns from the Greene County Master Gardeners. Send your garden related questions directly to the Master Gardeners for consideration to be answered each month. Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or send by mail to 'Ask a Greene Gardener", c/o Greene County Extension, 4513 W St Rd 54, Bloomfield IN 47424.