Felder Rushing
growing tomatoes in containers
Compact vegetables and herbs grow easily in recycled containers.

Q: Last year the tomatoes I tried to grow in a pot on my patio got really tall but didn’t have many tomatoes. What did I do wrong? Can you tell me about some other vegetables or herbs that do really well in small pots?
 
ANSWER:

For many years now I have grown tomatoes and all sorts of other vegetables and herbs along with flowers in pots on a sunny deck, and have found some do a lot better than others.

I hope I can assume you have plenty of sunlight, because tomatoes, like most fruit-producing vegetables require at least seven or eight hours of direct sun for the energy they need.

But there are three main causes for tomatoes to not produce well on patios: excess heat radiated from the pavement or nearby walls; too much fertilizer which makes plants leggy and unfruitful; and overwatering in small pots. Group your pots together, away from walls, and mulch the soil surface to keep moisture from wicking away so fast in the sun. And use fertilizers at a little less than recommended strength.

While some folks have had success growing tomatoes hanging upside-down in bags of potting soil, I personally have trouble growing them well in anything smaller than a five-gallon bucket. However, small patio varieties, peppers and a few herbs, can do quite well in those small hanging bags.

I plant in old paint buckets with drainage holes drilled along the sides near the bottoms. Any good quality potting soil will work, but you will need to figure out how to water different brands without keeping them too wet. To feed my plants, I find it easiest to use slow-release fertilizer beads, plus an occasional shot of liquid plant food; I always use just a little less than the recommended amounts, to keep my plants “lean and mean.” Tomatoes, and to some extent peppers, also need extra calcium for solid fruits. Around each plant add a handful of agricultural lime, or grind three or four eggshells with a little water in a food blender and pour it around the base of your plants.

Best in Small Spaces

While many different kinds of vegetables can be grown in containers including bush type beans and peas, “baby” carrots, and even special melons, I always consider what actually produces a lot over a long period and is nutritious (higher “fuel” value). And I usually don’t grow stuff that I can buy easily and cheaply.

Patio and non-climbing “bush” type tomato plants are bred to produce well in small spaces, but don’t expect them to live all summer; plan on replanting by mid-summer for a good fall harvest on fresh plants. But really, tomatoes, like squash and corn, are pretty cheap to buy in the summer, especially at farmers’ markets. Heck, you can often get them from friends who over-planted their own gardens!

For example, I grow colorful sweet peppers and a few hotties in pots on my sunny deck, because they are very nutritious (more vitamins, including C, than oranges), and I use them in so many dishes; I freeze my extras in the summer to use in the winter when peppers cost around a dollar and a half apiece in stores!


Find Out the Healthiest Veggies to Grow in Your Garden 13 photos

There are many other vegetables developed for container growing, including compact cucumbers, small-fruited eggplants, and of course lots of stuff for cool weather like lettuces, Swiss chard, cabbage and kale which can take incredibly low temperatures in the winter). But again I stick with that which I cook a lot with and find more expensive to buy elsewhere.

On Beyond Veggies

I particularly love being able to cut my own basil, oregano, rosemary, chives, parsley and mint right from my own potted plant garden. I use them all, and prefer them fresh (and knowing they haven’t been treated with any pesticides).

But I also grow small flowering plants such as compact zinnias, angelonia, cascading ornamental sweet potatoes, pentas and violas for extra color in with my “designer” vegetables.

It shouldn’t take you long to come up with your own combination of flowers, vegetables, and herbs for growing in medium or large containers on even the smallest patio. 

Gardening expert and certified wit Felder Rushing answers your questions and lays down some green-wisdom. You can get more of your Felder fix at www.slowgardening.net.

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