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Tomatoes on a Small Scale

Martha Stewart Living, March 2009

There's a potent magic in homegrown tomatoes. Picked at the peak of ripeness, a single sweet, tangy fruit can transform an ordinary salad, sandwich, or salsa into a sensual feast. Fortunately, because tomatoes adapt well to cultivation in containers, this luxury is available to almost anyone.

Get the Recipe for Tomato-Salsa Pasta Salad

Growing tomatoes in containers offers many advantages, even to those with large plots. And it's easy once you master a few basics. Fill the containers with a clean potting mix and the plants will be protected against diseases and pests, such as fusarium wilt and the nematodes that are endemic in the soils of many regions. 

Containers also allow you to place these sun-loving plants where they will receive the most light (tomatoes require six to eight hours of direct sun daily), turning a deck or patio into a temporary tomato patch. And your portable farm can satisfy the eye as well as the palate: Use attractive containers and the tomato plantings become a decorative element, especially as the fruits ripen to red and gold.

Planting Success
The key to a good harvest is selecting tomato cultivars that flourish in the confined space of a container. Naturally compact types such as 'Patio,' 'Tiny Tim,' and 'Yellow Canary' perform especially well in these conditions.

Balancing the Harvest
You'll find tomato seedlings labeled "determinate" or "indeterminate," depending on the cultivar. Determinate cultivars (such as 'Patio') ripen all their fruits at once, whereas indeterminates (such as 'Husky Cherry Red') bear fruit over several weeks or months. Make space for one or more of each type: Determinate tomatoes will furnish the bounty needed for making soups and sauces, while indeterminate ones will provide slow but steady pickings. Similarly, cultivating large-fruited beefsteak tomatoes and small-fruited cherry types will also expand your culinary possibilities.

Choosing Containers
Tomatoes require an ample tub such as a half whiskey barrel or a pot with a 15-gallon or greater capacity. Fill containers with fresh sphagnum-peat- or compost-based potting mix, which helps to keep plants disease and pest free. Renew the soil the following spring by mixing two parts of the old potting mix with one part of fresh mix.

Fertilizing
Tomatoes prefer a fertilizer rich in phosphorus and potassium (the last two numbers in the fertilizer formula). A suitable synthetic formula, for example, would be 5-10-10. Specially formulated organic tomato fertilizers are also available at garden centers or by mail. Whether you prefer organics or synthetics, mix a slow-release one into the soil before planting, and supplement with a water-soluble fertilizer starting in mid-summer.

Watering
Keeping the potting mix evenly moist (not sodden) is essential. Plan on watering containers daily by midsummer. Using "self-watering" planters with built-in reservoirs can extend the interval between waterings somewhat. Beware of drought: It stunts the vines and reduces the quantity and quality of the fruit.

Pruning
Pinch off suckers, the shoots that emerge from the base of branches, to discourage leaf growth and keep plants focused on fruit production. Pinching back main branches in mid-summer hastens fruit set.

Harvesting
Tomatoes are best when harvested at peak ripeness. Pick when the color is even and glossy, the skin looks smooth and waxy, and the fruit yields slightly to the touch.

Support Systems
Proper support lets tomato plants grow sturdier, minimizes pests and rot, and allows sun to reach more fruit, thus ensuring the greatest possible yield. The kind of support your tomatoes need will vary according to the cultivars you choose.

Determinate
Tomato cultivars such as 'Super Bush,' above, tend to be naturally bushy and will often produce an attractively compact plant that requires no more support than a couple of bamboo stakes slipped into the potting mix next to the principal stems. The stems can then be tied to the supports with loops of twine.

Indeterminate
Tomato cultivars tend to sprawl and require sturdier support. Install a tripod of stout stakes or a wire tomato cage around the seedling at planting time. As the stems lengthen, slip them into the cage or tie them to the legs of the tripod; if trained in this fashion while young, the plants will hide the scaffolding with their foliage as they mature.

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