Growing Tomatoes in Containers to Save Space

Growing tomatoes in pots is a great way to generate a crop in a small garden space. Here, the best way to plant tomatoes, the best soil for tomatoes, and how to maintain plants for success!

And take a moment to learn about tomato hornworms, so you can prevent crop damage from these beasties!

Originally published in April 2017; this post has been updated.

tomato plant in a red and white ceramic pot.


pretty garden with tomatoes and flowers - cover of book "edible front yard garden"The 5-Gallon Garden

New to gardening? Limited on space? The 5-Gallon Garden gives you the skills you need to grow food in the space you have. Get started with your garden today!

Growing Tomatoes in Pots

Container gardening is a fabulous way to make the most of the space you have. You can plant any kind of tomato in a container. But if you’re planting tomatoes in pots or growing in a limited space, one might be a better option than another.

To make that decision, you’ll need to understand is the difference between two types of tomato plants.

red ripe and yellow ripening tomatoes on a plant.

Indeterminate Tomatoes

Sometimes called vining tomatoes, indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow and produce fruit all season long. It’s common for them to grow to six feet tall, but some will reach as much as ten or twelve feet. Without support, they will lean and fall every which way.

Those little tomato cages you buy at the nursery are rarely strong enough to hold a tomato of this size upright. Indeterminate tomatoes bloom and set fruit throughout the summer. Yellow flowers, green fruit, and red fruit hang side by side on the plant until a killing frost puts an end to the season.

Indeterminate tomato varieties include Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Early Girl, and most cherry tomatoes. 

Determinate Tomatoes

These compact tomatoes, or bush tomatoes, top out at about three or four feet in height. Rather than producing fruit all season long, the harvest ripens within a shorter window of time.

A productive determinate tomato plant will provide a lot of ripe tomatoes in just a few weeks, so you’ll want to have a plan to use them up or preserve them.

These bushy tomatoes need less support.

And while it likely depends on the variety, in my experience, determinate tomatoes tend to be a better looking plant than their indeterminate cousins.

All of these traits make them a great choice for a container garden.

Determinate tomato varieties include Roma, Celebrity, Better Bush, and Patio Tomato.

red and green roma tomatoes on a vine.

Choosing the Right Container

As discussed here, planting tomatoes in containers means choosing the right type of pot. Tomato plants have a deep root system and will appreciate a nice, large pot. Aim for one that’s at least 20 to 24″ deep, but larger pots will work as well.

You can use utilitarian black plastic nursery pots (five-gallon size), pretty ceramic containers, or galvanized metal buckets. As long as the container is big enough, most anything can be upcycled for growing tomatoes in pots!

tomato plant in an upcycled blue barrel planter with lots of green tomatoes on it.

A simple five-gallon bucket is an inexpensive alternative to other containers, though admittedly, they’re not as pretty. A half oak barrel is another good choice for growing tomatoes in pots.

Be sure that any container you choose has good drainage. If you’re upcycling a bucket or other container, drill several 1/2-inch drainage holes in the bottom.

tomatoes and other veggies in a black grow bag.

I’ve had good luck growing tomatoes in grow bags like these. These grow bags are made of a porous, felt-like fabric that allows for air root pruning. Which is kind of a fancy way of saying that plants grown in these pots don’t get root bound like plants grown in hard-sided containers.

Go here for details on growing tomatoes in buckets upside down for an even more space saving vertical garden.


Choosing Soil

Choose a good quality potting soil to start with. I like Fox Farm products, because they assure me that they do not use biosolids in their product. (Biosolids are recycled from sewage.)

Since tomatoes like a lot of calcium, incorporate some ground limestone, gypsum, or crushed eggshells into the planter mix.

A lack of calcium can cause blossom end rot.

tomato plant in a ceramic planter.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Pots

Wait until you’re well beyond the last frost date of the year before planting tomatoes of any variety to avoid frost damage. Once all danger of frost is past, you can plant them outside safely.

Start by trimming off all but the top leaves of the tomato seedling.


Fill a large container with potting mix. Use a trowel to dig a hole large enough to fit the root ball of the tomato plant in the center of the pot. Remove the tomato plant from its nursery container and set it deep in the hole.

Push soil around the root ball and the stem, so that just the top leaves are visible above the soil and water it in. (Go here for a visual on planting the tomato like this.)

No matter what type of tomato plant you’ve chosen, you’ll want to provide support in the form of a wire tomato cage or stake. 


Tomato plants thrive in full sun unless the temperatures are scorching. Place your container-grown tomato plants in a place where they’ll have plenty of sun exposure throughout the growing season.

four growing tomatoes in pots

Maintaining the Plants 

Water: Maintain the soil so that it’s moist but not too wet. To help retain moisture, add a layer of grass clippings or mulch on top of the soil. Growing tomatoes in grow bags? They soil might dry out a bit faster than in a solid container, so just keep that in mind.

Fertilize: Every two weeks or so, water your plant with a tablespoon of fish emulsion mixed into a gallon of water. I also like to spray my tomatoes with a kelp spray. I mix a couple of tablespoons of kelp into a one-gallon sprayer and use it on my tomatoes (as well as other vegetables and fruit trees) every couple of weeks.

Harvest: As tomatoes turn red (or yellow), harvest by gently pulling and twisting the tomato from the plant. If the stems of the tomatoes are really thick, you can use hand pruners to cut them from the plant.

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About the author: Kris Bordessa is an award-winning National Geographic author and a certified Master Food Preserver. Read more about Kris and how she got started with this site here. If you want to send Kris a quick message, you can get in touch here.

4 comments… add one
  • Betty Wood Aug 28, 2020 @ 8:24

    What is A kelp solution and where do you get it

    • Kris Bordessa Oct 26, 2020 @ 12:36

      The green text is a link that will take you to that info.

  • Dale Giermann Sep 16, 2018 @ 16:03

    So when you say you spray the tomatoes with the kelp solution are you spraying directly on the foliage? Or just on the base?

    • Kris Bordessa Oct 17, 2018 @ 9:44

      On the foliage! I do it in the morning hours, though, so it has a chance to dry before nightfall.

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