Container Tomato Question

dulaheyMay 1, 2013

Hey guys, I realize there's a tomato forum and a container forum, but I know many of you have experience in this and can relate to Oklahoma heat.

Yesterday, I purchased some bulk materials to make Al's 5-1-1 mix. I first planned on just potting up some plants/flowers for our back porch, then I remembered that I have a few more tomato plants available. So I figured I'd try to pot those up as well!

I've never grown a tomato in a container. I have 2 Cherry, 2 Roma, and 2 Jet Star plants left. I'm thinking about potting up the Cherries and Roma's. I'm assuming the Jet Star's will get far too large to keep in a container. (correct me if I'm wrong)

Anyway, what size pot do I need for these? And, any tips on what to ammend the 5-1-1 mix with for tomatoes? I currently just have the pine bark, perlite, and moss. Should I just add lime as suggested and that's it? Should I use fertilizer? (I really need to test the pH of my water already)

Also, what kind of watering practices will I need to use? Will I need to be watering twice a day in July/August?


This post was edited by Dulahey on Wed, May 1, 13 at 8:47

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I have been seriously thinking of making my own container mix. Gald to see you are in central OK. May I ask where you got your bulk materials? (I have a LOT of containers)..any help is appreciated

    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 10:01AM
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I got my materials from Marcum's Nursery.

The perlite came in a 4 cubic foot bag.
Peat moss they had a 1, 2.2 and 3.8 cubic foot sized bags.
And then 3 cubic foot bags of pine bark.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 10:43AM
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Wonderful! I even know where it is! Thank you ever so much!

    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 11:04AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

You can grow some determinate types in 5 gallon containers but even the determinates would grow better in a 10 gallon container than in a 5-gallon one. I also have grown some cherry types in 5-gallon containers. The plants stay smaller than if grown either in the ground or in a larger container, but they produce a decent amount of fruit. Ildi is one that produced especially well in smaller containers, though not as well as it does when it is planted in the ground.

In a cooler, wetter year with plentiful rainfall, I sometimes will put some determinates in square 7-gallon containers that allow their roots to spread out a decent amount. Mostly, nowadays, I just put the hanging basket type dwarf tomatoes like Lizzano, Terenzo, Tumbling Tom Red, Tumbling Tom Yellow, etc. in 7 to 10 gallon containers, and put all the indeterminates or full-sized cherry tomato plants in molasses feed tubs. The feed tubs vary a little in size, but most are in the 20-25 gallon range, I think. (Maybe 30 gallon....I am not good at estimating size or distance, lol.)

The smaller the container, the harder it is to keep it watered. The simplest way is to use a drip irrigation line. The first drip irrigation I ever used was for hanging baskets of flowers on the front porch and tomatoes in 5 to 10 gallon containers. You even can put the drip irrigation line on a timer so the plants can be watered while you are away.

The amount of moisture a tomato in a container will need will vary depending on the temperature, how windy it is, how large the plant is and how much fruit it is carrying. You cannot put the plants on a timer and forget about them. You have to watch them and alter the timer to suit their needs as the plants grow and develop.

During the worst summer heat, I have had to water as much as 3 times a day with containers smaller than the feed tubs. Sometimes the tubs can go a couple of days without being watered in the dead of summer, but sometimes they need to be watered 2 or 3 times a day when the temperatures are over 100 degrees and often over 110.

If you grow organically, it is especially challenging to grow in pots because the soil-less mixes lack the micro-organisms needed to help the plants draw nutrition from the organic fertilizers. You will have to feed a lot more often. I use Tomato Tone fertilizer and also some biostimulants with tomatoes in pots.

One great thing about containers is that you can put them out in full sun in spring, or even set them on concrete paving for additional heat or set them in front of a south-facing wall to help them stay warm when the nights are still cool. Then, later in the season you can move them off the pavement onto grass and away from the south or west-facing walls so they won't get so hot. Many years, I moved my container tomatoes to an area where they got direct sun only from sunrise to noon or maybe 1-2 pm,or where they got sun from 9 or 10 am until about 4 pm. That kept the plants happier longer as the summer heat got hotter, hotter and still hotter.

This year I haven't planted any tomatoes in containers yet, though I may put a few in containers after the recurring cold fronts go away and stay away. I've been more focused on completing and planting two new areas that give me more garden ground into which to plant.

I use containers the most in either very wet years when excess rainfall can cause the roots to waterlog, particularly in heavier, slower-draining soils, or in very hot, dry years when it can be challenging to keep plants in the ground well-watered. This year I sort of started out intending not to have any veggie plants in containers and to just put them all in the ground, but once the ground is full, I might be planting something in containers.

Choose your positioning carefully because the sunlight hitting the sides of the containers can really heat up the soil and roots. I often would surround the big containers with smaller containers of flowers, letting the smaller containers sort of insulate the larger containers from the direct sun. The more hours of sunlight a day the containers receive, the more important it is to try to keep the containers cooler. I also used trailing annuals planted in the big pots with the tomatoes, so they could trail over the edges of the containers and shade the sides of them from direct sun.


    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 11:32AM
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Awesome, thanks Dawn.

Can you expand on the bio-stimulants you mentioned? I know nothing about that...

    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 12:38PM
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Also, can anyone comment on Smart Pots in our heat? Do they dry out too fast? I would have them sitting on concrete; our back porch actually. It also is on the east side of the house, so they would be shaded in the later afternoon heat.

They're very alluring because of low price.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 7:44PM
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I'd love to try the Smart Pots, but they are cost prohibitive for me. I use a mix of 20 gal. plastic tubs purchased both at Wally World and Lowes, and Sunleaves gro bags up to 20 gal. size. They are less expensive than Smart Pots and can be used for a couple years if one doesn't play Edward Scissorhands with the weed whacker. I like them because the exterior is white, not black.

I throw about a cup of Espoma Tomato Tone or Jobe' s Organhiic Vegetable and Tomato food in a 20 gal. pot. I tried Jobe' s last year and really liked it. It has more trace elements and micro nutrients than TT which has some.

Al also recommends using a 3-1-2 formula calculated especially for container plants. Foliage Pro is one example of that formula, at 9-3-6. I've read more labels over the last couple years and it is hard to find that exact NPK. I have used some that is close, such as John's Lady Bug, an organic liquid feed. Foliage Pro is being carried now by OKC Organics, if you are interested in it. If you don't mind using a non-organic chemical fert, Miracle Gro' s regular water soluble feed is a 24-8-16 feed (3-1-2 drilled down), and contains a few trace minerals.


    Bookmark   May 2, 2013 at 6:37AM
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Ahh, thanks! I will check out the 20gal tubs from Lowes. I was thinking about the smart pots because they were the cheapest thing I could find so far that still have an okay aesthetic quality. I'm just not sure if I would like the look of grow bags or not.

And I was already planning on a trip to OKC Organics for some Foliage Pro.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2013 at 8:54AM
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Went over to Organics OKC at lunch to pick up some Dyna-Gro stuff and saw they carried smart pots. I noticed they were a fair bit cheaper than the website and while I was chatting up the clerk there he mentioned that they're made right here in Oklahoma City! I had no idea. So I think at the very least I'll get a couple of them to try out.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2013 at 2:27PM
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Cool beans! I forgot they carried Smart Pots. Too bad we can't get them wholesale. I'm trying to plant a few in the ground this year. Right now I will be lucky to plant at all. The kids have needed so much that I end up spending my budgeted $ on them. Of course, they come first.

It is so cold outside right now, a garden seems like a distant dream.


    Bookmark   May 2, 2013 at 5:49PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


Biostimulates come in a wide variety of forumulations, ranging from vitamins, minerals and trace elements to beneficial microbes, including mycorrizhae fungi.

A biostimulant is anything you use to stimulate biolglical activity in the soil. It can be something as simple as molasses or as complex as the various commercially-available products that contain many kinds of beneficial micro-organisms normally found in healthy soil.

To understand why you would even need a biostimulant, you'd need to know that healthy soil is teaming with life forms at the rate of billions of them per teaspoon of soil. Organic gardening guru, Howard Garrett, said in one of his books that I read that healthy soil can have 50 billion microbes per tablespoon of soil. In order to have soil that is full of healthy life forms, you need to have soil that is roughly 25% air, 25% water, 45% minerals and the remaining 5% is humus/organic matter and is inhabited by a wide variety of beneficial microbes and life forms. This kind of soil is rich, it drains well, it holds moisture well and is full of nutrients that plants need.

Unfortunately, a lot of the modern-day farming and gardening practices can harm the beneficial microbes normally found in soil. Healthy soil can have lots of soil-dwelling microorganisms including good types of bacteria and fungi, actinomycetes, beneficial nematoes, algae and protozoans. All these are, of course, invisible to the naked eye due to their small size. While these life forms perform various jobs, their main task is mineralization, meaning that they break down the organic matter in the soil, first into humus, then later into humic acid and then ultimately into the elements that plants absorb for nutrition.

Soil that is low in organic matter is low in beneficial micro-organisms, and one way to fix that soil is to constantly replenish its levels of organic matter. By using biostimulants you can speed up the rate at which the soil-dwelling micro-organisms do their job, which can mean you get old, worn-out and depleted soil back into better shape more quickly.

When you mix up a sterile, soil-less mix for containers, it is likely to have low levels of micro-organisms or very few of them, depending on the material you use when making your soil-less mix. Natural ways to get those micro-organisms into the soil-less mix would include the use of compost or composted manure. This is where the biostimulants come into play. If you put together a totally organic soil-less mix, you need to have plentiful micro-organisms in the soil in order to break down the organic matter into the elements for use by the plants. This is hard to achieve, especially in brand new mixes, because the process where the micro-organisms break the organic matter down into humus and then into humic acid and then into the elements takes time. Adding a biostimulant helps speed up the process. You also need to feed regularly with an organic fertilizer to keep the plants happy, and likely to help keep the microorganisms happy. Most forms of water-soluble organic fertilizers also act as biostimulants.

After reading the above, you might wonder why someone would want algae, bacteria or fungi in their soil or in their soil-less mixes. Well, the algae actually produce organic matter by taking carbon dioxide from the air and combining it with energy from the sun to form new cells. The algae works with the bacteria and fungi found in soil to increase the volume of organic matter in your soil. Some forms of algae also can fix nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil.

Most gardeners think of nematodes as garden pests, and that is true when you're talking about some kinds of nematodes like root knot nematodes. However, many beneficial types of nematodes live in the soil and help control soil-dwelling pests like root knot nematodes, grubs, fleas and termites. Bacteria in the soil can be helpful in many ways---some bacteria helps legumes fix nitrogen from the air in the soil and others help in the decomposition of organic matter, setting off a chain of events that improves your soil.

Actinomycetes are incredibly important in your soil. They help decompose organic matter and, in the process of doing so, make many elements available to your plant roots.

One of the most popular forms of biostimulants contain myccorhizae fungi. These fungi combine with plant roots (they actually grow on the plant roots) and help them grow longer and healthier.

So, when you are working on developing healthy soil or in turning tired, poor old dirt into healthy soil teeming with life, biostimulant products are an important part of the process. When you put together a sterile soil-less container mix, it is not going to have all these beneficial micro-organisms if you use peat moss, but will have them if you substitute compost for some or all of the peat moss found in many recipes for making a soil-less mix.

I'll find a link a page that contains some biostimulant products to give you an idea of the kinds of products I'm talking about. And, by the way, you do not have to spend a lot for biostimulants. Plain old dry molasses can be bought in 50-lb bags at some feed stores or organic gardening supply stores, and even white sugar stimulates a lot of biological activity in the soil. If you make your own compost, you'll have plenty of the benefcial micro-organisms in your compost. Some of the products that I use as biostimulants also are considered organic fertilizers, but I use them more as biostimulants than as fertilizers. This includes liquid fish emulsion, liquid seaweed, compost tea, and alfalfa tea. While they do give your plants some nutrients, the more important thing they do is stimulate biological activity in the soil.

One of the easiest way to put some of the beneficial microbes in your soil is via the use of some brands of organic fertilizers that add beneficial microbes to their fertilizer blends. Espoma is the brand I use.


Here is a link that might be useful: Biostimulants--a few examples can be found here

    Bookmark   May 3, 2013 at 8:55AM
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Nice! Thanks again as always, Dawn.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2013 at 9:14AM
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Just a quick update...

I made up Al's 5-1-1 mix on Saturday (125 gallons of it!) and potted up the 20 gallon tubs. I also assembled the cages.

Sunday morning, I planted the tomatoes.

Well when I got home from work yesterday, I went out to check on everything and WOW! The amount of growth on these guys after only 36 hours was impressive! They appeared to have gotten 2-3 inches taller and their leaves were definitely more full.

I thought this might just be my mind playing tricks on me, but my wife came out and had the same reaction I did.

They look so much better than the plants I planted in my raised beds the Sunday before. (those went through last weeks cold though)

But anyway, if this is any sign as to the quality that Al's 5-1-1 mix creates, I'm looking forward to some very impressive plants on the back porch.

Here's a quick pic I took Monday morning to show some co-workers my containers. Kind of hard to see, the plants and cages blend into the grass background.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 10:16AM
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They look very nice! What are you using for trellising?


    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 5:23PM
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Follow the link for the product I used. The only downside is that the openings are only 2"x4". So to be able to get your hand in, you have to cut segments out here and there to make some 4" x 4" openings. This isn't a big deal, but the edges are VERY sharp when you cut them. So you have to file the ends down or bend them away from the opening. But it's galvanized so rust should be minimal.

Here is a link that might be useful: 60-in x 50-ft 14-Gauge Silver Steel Field and Horse Fencing

    Bookmark   May 8, 2013 at 8:51AM
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Thanks, Dulahey!

    Bookmark   May 8, 2013 at 12:10PM
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