I've grown to not only love, but rely on, growing so many things in containers. And, judging from the many questions I get (as responses to YouTube videos, on this blog, or email), many of you do as well. So the idea came to me that it would be a good time to try for a very high-level, summary blog post on success with containers for tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Here goes!Advantages of growing tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in containers
Issues with growing tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in containers
- Ability to bring the plants to the best sun conditions in your yard
- Convenience of having them close by
- Easier care/watering when they are in a concentrated location
- Control of growing environment - ensuring a start of disease free container and growing medium, which should delay onset of diseases
- A way to grow great vegetables if you don't have a garden, and are limited to a driveway, patio, porch or deck
- Greatly increased yields in the case of sweet peppers and eggplant, due to favorable sun-warmed root area
About varieties best suited for container gardening
- Cost of materials - pot and growing medium, primarily (but this can be controlled by thinking frugally)
- Possible reduction in yields of tomatoes, especially, due to limitation of root spread (this is especially potentially true of the tall growing indeterminate varieties)
- The need to pay close attention to plant care and needs - especially providing sufficient watering and regular feeding as the plants require.
- Possible increase in the incidence of blossom end rot for tomatoes if the watering needs are not adequately met during rapid plant growth and young fruit formation
- Support of the plant, especially for the tall, indeterminate tomatoes (they really need to be adjacent to where a tall stake can be hammered into the ground or lashed to the slats of a deck railing).
- Possibility of the containers tipping toward the middle/end of the season with vigorous, tall plants and heavy fruiting. A good idea was passed along by my tomato friend Keith - place a heavy metal or stone weight at the bottom of the pot or bag before filling to anchor it down in an upright position. (thanks, Keith!)
Guidance on container materials, sizes, growing medium, watering and feeding regimen and products and support methods
- ALL varieties of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant can be grown very successfully in containers. Any eggplant or sweet pepper or Dwarf or Determinate tomato variety will do just fine in a 5 gallon container. Tall growing (indeterminate) tomatoes will do far better using a minimum of 10 gallon size. And hot peppers can be grown well in containers as small as one gallon.
- Use the size for determining number of plants per pot - so I would put no more than one eggplant, sweet pepper or dwarf tomato in a 5 gallon pot. You can put two plants of these in 10 gallon pots....but for tall growing indeterminate varieties, I would suggest only one plant per 10 gallon pot.
- Any container with drainage holes in the bottom will work. If they have been used previously for tomatoes, peppers or eggplant, it is suggested that they be rinsed with dilute bleach prior to reuse. The black plastic pots that shrubs and trees are grown in work fine, as do mesh fabric or plastic grow bags. Whatever is the least expensive is the wisest to use. I've not explored earth boxes, grow boxes, self watering containers - I am a very frugal gardener!
- Size guidance: indeterminate tomatoes - 10 gallon minimum; Dwarf or determinate tomatoes - the larger the better, but 5 gallon works fine. If you want to grow a number of different indeterminate varieties just to experiment with, you can top them at 3 feet and one main stem to get 1-2 blossom clusters to set (extreme pruning) - this will provide a few tomatoes to evalutate and save seeds from - in this case containers as small as 2 gallon will work OK. Eggplant and sweet peppers thrive in 5 gallon containers, and hot peppers will actually do fine even in 1 gallon containers - of course the yield will be lower than in a larger growing area.
- What to use to fill the containers: I mix 1 2.5 cu ft bag of Miracle Gro potting MIX (NOT soil) with 1 25 lb bag of composted cow manure and use that to fill the containers. It is not an inexpensive solution but I've not yet played around with compost/manure mixes, or making my own soilless mix. The key is that it is sterile and drains well (hence the soilless mix, rather than heavy soil). Tomatoes will wilt from too much water (drowning, essentially) just as much from inadequate water.
- I strongly suggest using FRESH mix each year - we dump our pots at the end of each year into a pile and use the material to mulch our flower gardens, or use to fill pots for anything non-tomato, eggplant or pepper. Diseases can build up in soil in just one season, so my preference is to start with fresh material in a bleached container each spring.
- Feeding: I don't feed with anything for 3-4 weeks, until the plants are vigorously growing - then use either a slow release granular balanced food, like Osmocote, or a diluted balanced food like the "blue stuff" (Miracle Gro plant food), mixed 1 tbsp per gallon, every couple of weeks.
- Watering: If you use good loose growing medium you can't overwater. But you can underwater, and if the plants are allowed to wilt significantly on hot days with young fruit developing, you can induce blossom end rot. I water daily once the plants are really growing well, no hose nozzle, full open, and count to 2 for 1 gallon pots, 5 for 5 gallon pots, and 20 for 10 gallon or more - essentially until water is coming out the bottom.
- Support: For eggplant, sweet peppers and dwarf tomatoes in 5 gallon containers, I put a 4 foot stake in the container and use twine to tie the plant regularly to the support. For indeterminate tomatoes in 10-15 gallon pots growing along the edge of my driveway, I drive an 8 foot stake into the lawn, push the pot up against it, and tie the plants regularly to the stakes with twine throughout the season.
That should cover most questions.....ask if anything isn't clear!
let's finish the discussion on Container gardening. We've covered the rationale for growing in containers, as well as the types of containers to use. We've talked about keeping it as inexpensive as possible by not going fancy or high-tech.
If you are going to re-use containers from last year, and are going to grow peppers, tomatoes or eggplant, it is a good idea to bleach the pots first, to eliminate any possibility of bacterial, fungal or viral diseases carried over from the previous season. Though not the most fun gardening task, it can be made pretty easy and quick by partially filling a large trash can with water and adding half a bottle of bleach. (be sure to use gloves....I also do this outside). I dip the pots into the dilute bleach, and use a brush to lightly scrub the bottom and sides of the pots. Rather than rinse with clean water, I then just invert them in the sun to allow for the pots to dry. They are then ready to go.
As to what to fill the pots with: this is the one area that I don't "go cheap". I also don't reuse the potting mix year to year for tomatoes, peppers or eggplant, starting with new material each season - again, to minimize possibility of diseases. I use 2.5 cu ft bags of soil-less mix, such as Miracle Gro, mixed with 25 lb bags of composted cow manure - both available at the big home stores like Lowe's or Home Depot. The reason for the soil-less mix is its lightness and porosity. Because it doesn't compact and turn to muck when wet like soil, it makes for happy plants. Of course, if you have access to supplies of nice fluffy compost, you could use that instead of the soil-less mix. At the end of each season, I empty the pots into a pile, with the used mix fine for flowers or herbs or mulching the garden beds the following season.
As far as feeding, I like to grow my tomatoes quite lean and actually don't add anything for a few weeks; after that, I use a slow release, balanced granular food such as Vigoro or Osmocote. If the plants look like they need a boost while in mid-season and growing vigorously, I will use the "blue stuff" fertilizer - Peter's or Miracle Gro soluble plant food. Don't forget - when growing in pots you need to water frequently, so nutrients can leech out of the mix quite quickly.
Once I settle my plants into the growing medium (being sure to plant deep, as tomatoes will root all along any buried parts of the stem; I do this to peppers and eggplant as well), I put a heavy layer of mulch into the container, covering the medium completely to a depth of 2-3 inches. I use fresh grass clippings (we don't treat our lawn with anything). This layer of mulch helps conserve soil moisture, and breaks down to feed the plants as well.
Finally comes the matter of supporting the growing plants. It is difficult to grow indeterminate tomatoes in the middle of a patio or driveway because of the inability to pound a sturdy stake in or near the pot. That's why I grow mine at the driveway edge, with an 8 foot stake pounded into the ground next to the pot into the lawn. If you are growing determinates or dwarfs in pots, then a relatively short stake (4 feet or so) in the pot should work fine - and you can always use the metal tomato cages that you can find in garden centers that are 3-4 feet tall. When using stakes, I use twine to tie the plants to the support.
To remind on watering.....the worst thing you can do to plants grow in containers is to let them dry out for an extended period, especially if there are fruit on the vine. This is a sure way to end up with blossom end rot on the developing fruit. Plants tell you when they need water - if they look really wilted on a hot day, give them a drink! If you use good planting medium, as I described above, you can't really over-water! In the mid-summer, with mature plants, I actually water each morning and each late afternoon, letting the hose run into each pot for 20 seconds or so for a 10 -15 gallon pot - water will run out of the bottom, which is fine.
So there you have it - in three parts, quite a lot of information on growing tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in containers. If you have any additional questions, ask!
One of my main gardening beliefs is that it should NOT be an expensive hobby. Yes, I know - all of the fancy gadgets that are on display at garden centers or adorning pages of glossy catalogs look pretty seductive.
But is it essential to buy expensive gadgets and pots? Nope. Think about it - the essentials of gardening are seeds (then seedlings), something in which they grow, something to hold that in which they grow, water and sun - and perhaps some additional nutrition as the season wears on and the plant exhausts the nutrients in its immediate vicinity.
Seeds are pretty inexpensive, and even in many cases free - if you have friends who are avid seed savers and have far more than they need. If you want to start with seedlings, there is some cost involved, though, again, savvy shoppers can find good deals. The "dirt" - that is an area that I don't want to skimp on if growing my plants in containers (poor drainage and/or disease can end many a gardener's dream of a bountiful harvest).
As to what to put the soil and seedling in, you can purchase expensive containers and pots at stores or in catalogs, or you can go with the least expensive option, or reuse containers that shrubs or trees or perennials come in. I've been known to stop by the side of roads to gather nice large black plastic pots that either flew out of someone's truck, or were tossed there by someone who obviously didn't need them. Then there are Grow bags - inexpensive, reusable, and pretty easily portable, as long as they aren't too large.
I've found that saucers aren't needed, and color, though it could have minor effects, isn't really all that important. I think it is wise to avoid clay/terra cotta, due to its porosity, hence poor water retaining ability. Drainage holes in the bottom are essential. Bleaching prior to use is recommended, in case there are soil borne diseases embedded in the walls of the container. I've found that plants in containers sitting right on my concrete driveway, perhaps due to the baking heat of the direct sun, out grow (in speed) and, in the case of eggplant and peppers especially, out-yield those grown in the garden soil.
Below are an array of the different types of pots I am using - 10 to 15 gallon large ones for indeterminate tomatoes, smaller 5 gallon pots or grow bags for peppers, eggplant and dwarf tomatoes, and very small - half gallon - black plastic pots in which to grow hot peppers sufficiently large to give them a good test.
I am sure that many of you have all sorts of questions about container gardening. Please be sure to either post a comment, which I will respond to, or send an email. A few things to be covered in my next Container Gardening blog post - what to put in the pots, fertilizing/mulching/watering, and providing support.
I hope that this is helpful to you!
We used to have a driveway. But I figured out that the place in our yard with the best sun exposure is even better suited for an additional garden. So, between mid March (when we use it for our Seedlings) and mid October, our driveway becomes a perfect place to grow tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in pots.
Aside from being the location in our yard that gets the most direct sun, there are other reasons why I've gone in the direction of container growing. First is the ability to control the quality of the soil that the plants grow in. After growing tomatoes in our main garden for more than 10 years, soil borne diseases were increasing to the point where a substantial portion of each year's plants were dying prematurely and yield per plant was decreasing at an alarming rate. By using pots that can be bleached each season and using sterile soil less mix, the plants have a significantly better chance at making it through the season sufficiently healthy to provide a decent crop.
Second, and this pertains primarily to eggplant and peppers, my theory is that these heat loving plants enjoy having their root zone baked in the hot sun. I've found that yields are far higher with container grown plants than when grown in the ground.
Finally, having the plants right outside my garage door provides an ability to make closer and more frequent observations of the plants and fruit. On my way out the door to work, and following my return home, the plants are right there in my face, making it easy to spot problems and progress.
Of course, no gardening activity works perfectly....but I will save the issues of container/driveway gardening for another blog entry!
Where did the week go? One minute we are at Sunset Beach, and...whoosh!...it is Friday and I am back lugging bags of Miracle Gro potting mix and filling Gro Bags! It was a busy week at work, but a good one, and we are looking forward to a relaxing (if HOT) weekend of gardening and making great meals with the greens, beets and squash we are harvesting.
One thing we did do this week that was incredible - another memorable concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art, where Sue and I were lucky to be in the front row center for the Buddy Miller/Patty Griffin concert. We knew nothing about Buddy prior to the concert, but he is an incredibly gifted musician, both on guitar and as a singer and song writer. Despite and lingering ringing in my ears (it is LOUD in the front row...), it was an event Sue and I will not forget.
So - the garden is coming together. Though there have been a few issues, most everything is looking pretty good, and today I finished the Gro Bag dwarfs in the driveway. There are some pics below of how the driveway garden is looking. Next jobs are staking all of the driveway plants (especially the indeterminate varieties), planting the garden front row dozen dwarfs, pulling dirt over the second row of potatoes (the initial mulch post-emergence), and then, clearing out the back rows and putting in more indeterminate varieties.
Take a look!