Growing Tomatoes in Boxes
As gardeners, we gain great pleasure from harvesting our crops and enjoying the literal fruits of our labor. There’s just something so delightful about picking fresh veggies during a stroll through the garden. If you're anything like us, you've probably sampled sun-ripened tomatoes right off the vine and straight into your mouth—savoring each juicy burst as you devour them right in the middle of your garden.
For this reason, it’s hard to believe that tomatoes were once considered poisonous. The tomato, or Solanum lycopersicum, is a member of the nightshade family—which is why Europeans first considered it dangerous to eat. The tomato was first introduced in Central America, and the Italians were the first old-world culture to embrace the tomato as a part of their diet; and now it has become such an integral part of so many food cultures. It’s no surprise tomatoes are one of the most popular crops for home gardeners to grow.
If you love tomatoes, you can easily grow your own in EarthBox® boxes for gardening. After all, the EarthBox® container gardening system was invented by a commercial tomato farmer! Use our tips and helpful info below to learn more about growing tomatoes in garden box planters, so you can enjoy your own fresh-from-the-garden tomato euphoria.
Benefits of Using Gardening Containers for Tomatoes
Growing your own tomatoes is easy! Here are the benefits of growing tomatoes in boxes:
- Tomatoes require A LOT of water—up to 10 gallons per day at their peak. So, it's best to use gardening boxes with a large water reservoir.
Pro Tip: To avoid having to fill the reservoir several times each day, you might consider adding an automatic watering system to your gardening container. You'll avoid lugging heavy watering cans or garden hoses around. For example, the EarthBox® Automatic Watering System (AWS) removes worries about watering your tomatoes.
- Tomatoes require warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine to grow healthy—they are happiest in full sun with daytime temperatures between 70-85 degrees, and evenings that don’t dip below mid-60s. If you put your planter box gardens on casters, you can easily move your garden around to provide your plants with optimal sunlight, or shade if it gets too hot. A frost cover on your growing boxes, like the EarthBox® Frost Cover, can also help growers in cooler climates get an early start; or extend your growing time if temperatures get too cool later in the season. If you’re unsure of your frost-free dates, check your USDA Zone before planting.
- Tomatoes need support—Another key to growing tomatoes in boxes is giving tomato plants proper support. The EarthBox® Staking System offers the support your plants need! Tomato vines can be easily secured to the trellis netting with clips, twine, garden Velcro®, coated ties, or strips of fabric.
- Follow our tried and true guidance—We’ve grown A LOT of tomatoes over the years. Trust us and follow our instruction manual, planting chart, and growing guide so that you can grow A LOT of tomatoes, too!
(Place 2 tomato seedlings in the EarthBox® Original gardening system in each corner along one long side, opposite of the water fill tube.)
Types of Tomatoes
Tomatoes come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and tastes. These traits play a major role in how the fruit is used, but all tomato varieties share a couple common traits:
- Their small yellow flowers are botanically perfect, meaning they have both male and female parts—thus capable of self-pollinating. Outdoors, the natural movement from wind aids in moving the plant enough to help disperse pollen from the stamens to the stigma.
- They all grow as vines, but some can partially support themselves to make cascading bushes.
Bush vs. Vining Varieties
All seed catalogs, and most plant tags at the garden center, readily identify each variety’s category. Tomatoes are categorized by how they grow:
- Determinate Tomatoes — Bush varieties
Determinate tomato varieties, also known as bush or patio types, tend to grow more compact in shape, rarely needing the support of a trellis or cage due to their sturdiness. Determinate tomato varieties produce all of their fruit at once in a short time frame.
- Indeterminate Tomatoes — Vining varieties
Indeterminate tomato varieties can be invasive in any garden, as they continue to grow and produce fruit as long as the growing conditions are appropriate. Indeterminate varieties most definitely need added support such as the EarthBox® 7’ Staking System.
Heirloom vs. Hybrid
Heirlooms are usually defined as tomato varieties that come from true self-pollination and have been doing so for at least fifty years. Home gardeners and families have been saving the seeds of their favorite varieties for generations and it’s this collection that is treasured by heirloom growers. Plant breeders also cherish these older varieties for the variety of genetic diversification that they represent.
While all tomatoes are capable of self-pollinating, plant breeders work their magic to prevent that from happening so they can use the pollen from one variety to fertilize another variety—producing a hybrid with possibly better characteristics. Those hybrids will be self-pollinating but the resultant progeny will not be the same as the hybrid parent.
Some early hybrids were bred to produce even-sized fruit that had a tough skin to withstand shipping. They found little favor with home gardeners, which lead to the increased interest in heirlooms. With the resurgence in home vegetable gardening, plant breeders have returned to developing superior tasting hybrid varieties; and ones that are resistant to many of the diseases that can normally make growing them at home a bit difficult.
Best Tomatoes to Grow in Garden Box Planters
Choosing the right type of tomato for your taste and needs is crucial to getting started. With the potential to develop massive root systems and vines that take over, tomatoes don’t always make the best neighbors to other plants in the garden. For this reason, we do not recommend growing any other plants in the same planter box garden with your tomatoes.
You’ll need 2 tomato plants to get started. You can choose both plants in the same variety, or mix it up and plant two different tomato varieties. Just be certain if you place two different varieties in the same gardening container, that they are both categorized the same as either determinate or indeterminate. If you place a bush and a vining type in the same system, the vining one almost always will take over.
Classified as being four inches or larger in diameter, these tomatoes are perfect for burgers and sandwiches, or making Caprese salads.
- Cherokee Purple
- Big Beef
Medium-sized fruit with a slightly thicker skin makes these the most versatile tomatoes. They can be sliced for sandwiches, cut into quarters for salads, baked into pies, roasted, stuffed, cooked down for jams and sauces, or diced for soups and stews.
- Steak Sandwich
These varieties have a far less water content, making them ideal for paste and sauce.
- San Marzano
- Amish Paste
Cherry varieties produce fruit that is less than one inch in diameter. These small ‘maters are generally sweet, and are excellent for use in salads, grilled on kebabs, or for snacking.
- Supersweet 100
- Sun Gold
These small, oblong tomatoes are similar to cherry varieties, but have a meatier structure.
- Golden Sweet
Which ones to choose will depend on your geographic location and your personal preference. If you are the adventurous type, there are always several new hybrid varieties introduced each year. Grow some of your old favorites and try a new one or two and maybe you will find a new favorite!
Tomato Pests and Diseases
There are very few insects that bother tomatoes, but you should still be proactive by keeping watch for Tomato Hornworms—which can do incredible damage to the entire tomato plant with their voracious appetites. Tomato Hornworms should be removed as soon as you spot them. If you see one with rice-like eggs/cocoons on it, simply relocate it without destroying it. Those eggs are from tiny beneficial parasitic wasps, which use the caterpillar as a host for food, eventually killing it. Ladybugs, Orb Weaver spiders, and Praying Mantids are other beneficial insects commonly found on tomato plants that will help destroy aphids, flea beetles, and stink bugs.
Fungal diseases, such as blight or wilt, are common in tomatoes. Fungal diseases will cause infected plants to wilt and turn yellow. Fungicides can slow the spread of the disease, but once the plant is infected, there is no way to completely cure it or halt its progression. Preventive spraying with fungicides is the best defense against acquiring fungal disease. Plants that are infected should be removed and destroyed; do not compost them.
Choosing tomato varieties that are disease resistant is easy. All seed catalogs and most plant tags will display an alphabet of letters after the variety name to indicate what resistance that variety carries:
- V — Verticillium Wilt (pictured left)
- F — Fusarium Wilt
- FF — Fusarium, races 1 and 2
- FFF — Fusarium, races 1, 2, and 3
- N — Nematodes
- A — Alternaria
- T — Tobacco Mosaic Virus
- St — Stemphylium (Gray Leaf Spot)
- TSWV — Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus
Tomatoes can also develop Blossom End Rot (BER), which is NOT a disease, but a treatable and curable plant disorder. There are preventive steps you can take to reduce the occurrence of BER on tomatoes. Learn more about BER from our article, All About Blossom End Rot.
Cat-facing is another common tomato disorder, and is more likely to occur in heirloom varieties. This disorder can't be treated or fixed, but it will not harm the plant, and the fruit is perfectly safe to consume.
How To Know When To Pick Tomatoes
When your tomatoes are ready to harvest will depend on which variety you choose to grow, and weather conditions throughout your growing season. On average, you should expect to harvest anytime between 65 to 100 days after planting, depending on what kind of tomato you’re growing. Visual cues, such as blushing, will let you know your fruit is beginning to ripen. The fruit will grow and change from light green, to pale yellow or pink, eventually turning to a vibrant red, yellow, orange, or deep brown (this will be different if you are growing tomatoes that always remain green, even when fully ripened—their skin will change to a vibrant darker green, instead). Tomatoes that are hard when given a gentle squeeze are not ready to pick.
Once your fruit is ready to harvest, cut it off the vine with garden snips or pruners—avoid tugging or ripping fruit off so the plant does not get damaged. Tomatoes should be cut just at the base of the stem, close to the fruit. Cherry tomato varieties tend to grow in clusters, so the entire cluster may be snipped off the vine.
Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator, as the fruit will lose flavor and its texture will change from juicy to mealy. If you find you’re inundated with tomatoes, they can be preserved in a number of ways for later consumption.
Tell Us In the Comments: What are your favorite tomato varieties to grow in your EarthBox®?