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Added to my tomato list, but would love some advice..

Posted by amunk01 7a (My Page) on
Thu, Jan 16, 14 at 0:55

I've added a few determinates (to my list) to try in containers this year. I also found a couple misc. varieties I want to try in-ground. ("giants" & heirlooms). Any advice or comments are very welcome!
This is my first attempt at container toms, I realize there is a myriad of sizes people grow in, but to maximize yield is bigger always better or is adequate equally as effective? How big is an adequate pot exactly? I know there is a container gardener's forum, but I'd appreciate some Okie growers opinions since our summers get so ridiculously hot here. I've read some people use as small as 5-10gal. pots, but that seems terribly small plus wouldn't the roots get too hot here? Thoughts?

Bush Champion
Silvery Fir (growing for looks primarily)
New Big Dwarf
Heidi
Rosella Purple
Country Taste
Mortgage Lifter
Tiffen Mennonite
(I'm especially interested in feedback about this last one. My grandmother is a German Mennonite that grew up in Corn, OK. I have been her caregiver for 7yrs, she celebrated her 95th birthday in Nov! I simply adore her and would welcome any info regarding this heirloom even if its only that it tastes good :) )


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Added to my tomato list, but would love some advice..

Alexis,

I have grown tomatoes in all kinds of containers, from 3 gallons to 200 gallons, and the larger the container, the happier the plants will be and the better they will produce.

There are a handful of varieties that will tolerate 5-gallon containers, but pretty much any plant that will tolerate a 5-gallon container will be much, much happier in a 10-gallon or larger container, and will be blissfully content in a 20 or 25 gallon container.

When I grew tomato plants in smaller containers, I had to water them as often as 4 times a day in our brutally hot summer weather, so found it easier to put them on a drip irrigation system set on a timer. That way, if I wasn't at home, they were getting water when they needed it.

Using a well-draining soil-less mix is imperative. I merely adapted Al's 5-1-1 mix to suit my needs and used it for ages and ages. Every spring I'd pour it out onto a big tarp and mix all of it up together and add new compost and other ingredients to help revitalize it and allow me to use it for another year. Eventually, after a few years, I'd dump all of it into a raised bed in the big garden and start over with a new mix.

You have to pay very close attention to the water needs and nutrition needs of tomato plants in containers. The smaller the container, the more closely you need to monitor their moisture and fertilizer. Every single time it rains and every single time you water a tomato plant (or anything else) in a container, the water is washing nutrients out of the soil via the drainage holes at the bottom of the container. You have to feed the plants constantly to make up for the leaching.

You have to strive to keep the soil-less mix evenly moist at all times. The worst thing for the plants is for the soil to fluctuate from being very wet to very dry and then back to being very wet and then back to being very dry. That sort of uneven moisture contributes greatly to Blossom End Rot in tomatoes grown in containers. While BER is often portrayed, somewhat inaccurately, as merely being caused by a lack of calcium in the growing medium, the reality of it all is far more complicated. BER develops when uneven moisture levels in the soil affect the manner that calcium is used within the plant itself. So, if you let your growing medium fluctuate between being wet and dry, sort of like a kid playing on a teeter-totter, your tomato fruit will be very susceptible to BER and will be unusable.

I had the best success with tomatoes in containers when I sited them in a location where they only got 6 hours a day of full, direct sunlight. At that level, they produced great and didn't suffer unduly from our intense heat. It took me years of trial and error to figure out how much sun and heat is enough versus too much for container-grown tomatoes in our climate. If I had the containes in places where they were in full sun all day long, the plants didn't stay happy and didn't produce as well. I liked to put them in a place where they got full sun from about 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m. and then had shade or dappled shade the rest of the time. That really helped prevent the roots from cooking. If you don't have a place to put them in part shade, you still can shade and insulate the containers by surrounding the containers with mulch, bales of hay, etc.

In 2007 we had massively heavy rains at times that kept my garden so soggy from standing water that I couldn't put pepper plants and tomato plants in the ground. I think that in May and June combined we had almost 24" of rainfall, and we had massive flooding in our area (as well as in most of the state). That year, I put tomatoes in any container that would hold soil-less mix. A lot of them were smaller than I liked, but it was beter to use them than to put tomatoes in the ground where I knew their roots would rot.

There are a few varieties that will produce well in 5-gallon containers, but most won't. Some varieties will be okay with being in 10-gallon containers, but you'll get a substantially smaller harvest from them than from those same varieties grown in a container more to their liking. New Big Dwarf is one that produced well for me in 7-gallon and 10-gallon containers, but not nearly as well in 5-gallon ones.

Nowadays, except for dwarf tomato varieties bred for containers (Red Robin, Canary Yellow, Mini Orange, Terenzo, Lizzano, the entire Sweet 'N Neat series, Totem, etc.), I prefer to grow tomato plants in nothing smaller than molasses feed tubs. While molasses feed tubs vary somewhat in size from one brand to another, all of them probably hold at least 20-25 gallons. With indeterminate tomatoes, I put one in each molasses feed tub. If you haven't seen molasses feed tubs sitting out in cow pastures, they usually are black (though I have had some that were orange, blue, pink and tan) and are about the size of a whiskey half-barrel planter. Even in molasses feed tubs, I often have to water twice a day in July and August. Keep in mind that our high temperatures often are well over 100 degrees here in July and August and soil-less mix dries out fast in those conditions.

I've grown everything on your list except Country Taste and Silvery Fir Tree. Mortgage Lifter will produce tolerably in a large container, but will be less happy and much less productive in a small one. As tomatoes go, it is a pretty late producer in our climate most years, so it is setting fruit and ripening them in our hottest weather. That's why it does so much better in a big container. I usually grow it in the ground because the plants get so big that even in a molasses feed tub, I find they are far less happy than they are when grown in the ground.

Rosella Purple produced fine here in a very bad year (2011) and showed great heat-tolerance and disease-tolerance. The flavor, however, was nothing special. New Big Dwarf was my favorite container tomato for years, although it is erratic. Some years it produces loads of fruit here and others it barely produces any. It likes the cooler part of the year much more than the hotter part, so I think of it as a May-June tomato, because it does not produce much after June. That means you have the best success with it if you start seed early, plant it in a container early, and either cover it with heavy blankets on cold nights or carry it inside.

Tiffen Mennonite did not do well for me. I tried it for three consecutive years and got immensely poor production so stopped growing it. I was growing it during some really challenging weather years where it either rained all the time in spring, which meant excessively wet clay soil kept the roots too wet and the plant growth was stunted, or in drought years when it never rained. It just doesn't seem to like our heat. I think it might do well here in an abnormally mild and rainy summer, but not if there's so much spring rain that the roots cannot develop.

Heidi is only so-so in a container. It produces tons and tons of fruit per plant, so it needs lots of moisture. It is hard to give it all the moisture it needs in containers in our climate. You normally won't see an issue until it is carrying a huge load of fruit and they all start getting BER. I only grow Heidi in the ground because of the BER it gets in containers. When Heidi is happy and can spread its roots out in all directions and soak up lots of moisture from the ground, it will produce tons of fruit even when the high temperatures are in the 105-108 degree range. Once we are having high temps over 108, its production stalls until cooler temperatures return. In a container, it produces significantly less fruit.

One of the varieties that has produced tons of fruit in a container even in very hot years is Chocolate Stripes. I have no idea why. this particular variety is so incredibly happy in containers, but it is. In 2008 and 2009 when we were mostly drought-challenged and had far too much heat, and lots of disease issues as well, Chocolate Stripes sat there in its container and produced big yummy fruit all summer long. It produced so well, I finally had to wire the tomato cage to the fence behind it because the heavy fruit load was making the cage lean over sideways., and the whole container would blow over in strong wind since it was holding such am immensely huge plant. Chocolate Stripes is one of the few tomatoes I've grown that consistently produces better for me in a molasses feed tub than in the ground. That sort of defies logic, but it is what it is. I'd never attempt to grow it in our climate in a container that is smaller than a molasses feed tub because it is a rampant grower and a heavy producer, both of which require tons of water. Ildi, which is my favorite yellow-fruited bite-sized tomato, is one of the few tomato varieties that produced heavily in a 5-gallon bucket, but it produces at least twice as many fruit when in the ground as it produces when grown in a smallish sized container.

You'll never know how any given variety will produce in a container until you try it for yourself. Sadly, some of the plants I have tried that have produced very well in containers just didn't produce fruit with the flavor and texture we prefer. The whole ISI line from Totally Tomatoes (Husky Red, Husky Pink, Husky Gold, Husky Red Cherry, etc.) produced great in containers, but the fruit was thick-skinned and pretty much had the taste and texture of grocery-store tomatoes. Obviously, I grow my own tomatoes so I will get fruit that has better flavor and texture than grocery store tomatoes, so I rarely grow the Husky series any more. Occasionally I'll see Husky Red Cherry in 5 or 6" pots when the very first transplants arrive in the stores here in late January or early February and I'll buy it....generally because it is the only cherry type they have at that time. It grows great in containers and it is an okay tomato when you don't have anything better, but it isn't one I deliberately choose because it tastes so good.

Nowadays I mostly confine myself to growing tomatoes in containers merely to get the earliest possible harvest in spring from a handful of plants I transplant into containers in early February. Once my regular tomato plants in the ground are producing fruit, I usually yank out the container plants and put something more heat tolerant than tomatoes in those containers.

The best production, other than that of Chocolate Stripes, that I've ever gotten from tomato plants in containers is from 4 plants (pretty much any 4 varieties) planted in a 200-gallon galvanized metal stock tank. I often put those 4 plants in that container in February and cover up the plants with row cover on cold nights and days. Sometimes if bitterly cold weather threatens, I put heavy moving blankets over the tomato cages to keep those plants warm and alive. I usually plant whatever I find in the store in the 200-gallon container, so that generally means a combination of plants that includes Early Girl, Better Boy, Sweet 100 and Red Beefsteak (which seems to me to be more or less identical to Red Ponderosa). Sometimes if they don't have Sweet 100, I'd put a Better Bush, Big Boy or Husky Red in that container instead of Sweet 100. While the four plants look crowded in the 200 gallon container, they still produce well....most likely because each of them essentially has 50 gallons of soil in which to grow. When those plants are through for the year and I am removing them from the stock tank, they have incredibly massive root systems.

I could be happy with tomatoes growing in nothing but molasses feed tubs if I had to grow only in containers instead of growing plants in the ground. For a while I was perfectly happy with the way tomatoes produced in 5 and 10 gallon containers, but as I increasingly grew them in larger and larger containers, I became less happy with their production in 5 or 10 gallon containers. Keep in mind that my weather in my county has leaned more and more towards extreme heat and drought since 2005, and that has affected how I feel about growing tomatoes in smallish sized containers. If someone had told me when we first moved here that I would have to deal with temperatures in the 108-110-112 degree range (and in the worst of summers, as high as 115-116), I likely would have decided that I wouldn't even attempt a garden here. Your high temperatures may not ever get as high as mine do if you are in central OK and northward or eastward, but you likely will have to deal with higher relative humidity which tends to encourage fungal diseases. With tomatoes in containers, disease control and prevention is important, and the main way to achieve disease-free plants is to mulch the top couple of inches of the container and to make sure that when you water, you are putting water on the soil-less mix, but keeping it off the plant foliage.
Growing in containers is fun, but in some ways managing plants in containers is much harder than managing plants in the ground, particularly from June through August.

Dawn


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RE: Added to my tomato list, but would love some advice..

Wow, Dawn thank you for all the great info! I'm north of OKC (north Edmond) so I think we have slightly cooler avg. temps here, but not by much! I'll be thinking about a watering solution for when it gets super hot. I haven't started drip irrigation yet, but maybe its time. And I do have a great spot for the pots to get afternoon shade, I didn't realize 6 hrs was enough sunlight so that info helps a lot!
As far as size goes, most of my pots I've purchased throughout the year have been greater than 20 gallons, when I find any on super sale I snatch them up! My in-ground plants were massive last year (6-10ft) so I can't wrap my mind around planting anything in a 10 gallon bucket, even though I realize different varieties grow differently. We shall see how I do in year #2.
I only intend to have a couple containers, the rest listed will definitely be in my raised beds (if I can find some room somewhere!) But I promised my mother-in-law I would start a few varieties for her from seed so I want to be sure to have a couple that will produce reasonably well in containers for her. Dawn, thanks again, your experience is priceless as well as your willingness to share it!


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RE: Added to my tomato list, but would love some advice..

You're welcome. Six hours is enough because our sunlight here in this part of the country is so intense. It likely wouldn't be enough light in states much farther north than we are unless they were having epic drought and hot temperatures.

In 2011, my best yields from in-ground tomato plants were from plants at the west end of my front veggie garden where the shade of nearby trees starts shading them shortly after noon. In our climate, full direct sun from sunrise until noon or 1 p.m. is plenty. The plants there that had afternoon sun in the hottest year we've experienced since moving here produced tomatoes until I stopped watering in late July or early August. If I had continued watering them, they might have produced fruit all autumn. However, we hit 116 degrees one day, we had wildfires that day and every day thereafter (and on many days before that too) and I had other priorieties. What little time I was home in between wildfires I spend doing laundry, preparing food to take to the wildfires, and trying to keep my chickens cool enough that they wouldn't die. (We lost several chickens that summer, but lost none after I stepped up my efforts to keep them cooler.)

In a cooler, rainier year with lots of cloudy days, you might have to move container tomatoes out into an area with more sun. That's the beauty of containers---you can move them as needed. That is one of my favorite things about growing in containers....if a hail storm is forecast and I see the sky turning that icky gray-green color that often precedes a hail storm, I can run outside and try to drag all my containers (except the 200-gallon stock tank) up underneath the patio cover, into the garage, etc. and get them out of the path of a potential hail storm.

In our climate, with our rapidly-changing weather, it helps to have as much flexibility as possible with your garden plants. It also is why I usually have something in containers.

Dangit. Fire pagers are sounding and I have to run....


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RE: Added to my tomato list, but would love some advice..

When we moved to Oklahoma I had a good number of Northern type heirloom tomatoes. Some were probably like Tiffen Mennonite. Anyway, I basically had to drop them. I still try to grow a few, from time to time. But, as Dawn mentioned, they don't do well unless it is unusually mild and wet. They really don't like our heat.

George
Tahlequah, OK


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