I’ve got a question on tomatoes. I’ve recently ordered about nine tomato plants. They’re still kind of babies, but it turns out that they’re indeterminates, not determinates like was expected. In the book it says that garbage bins work well, but if I chose the cheapest ones I found (they’re 13 bucks) that would be 117 dollars. What else could I stick them in that might be cheaper and easy? – Emily
Before I answer your question I’m just going to fill-in beginners on the terminology you used. For those just starting out in tomato growing, tomatoes come in two types that determine their growth habits and in turn, the needs you will have to meet to grow them successfully. Determinates are tomato plants that grow in a bush habit. This means they are likely to stay short and probably won’t require staking. Determinates are the best tomato varieties for container growing. Indeterminates on the other hand are the really big varieties that grow into tall vines and are traditionally trained to grow upwards using cages or stakes. The root systems on these plants can get to be quite large and demanding requiring ample space and water. It is hard to meet the needs of a large plant in a small space. This accounts for a lot of the difficulty and frustration experienced by gardeners who are new to container-growing. Container soil dries out much faster than in-ground gardens and tomatoes drink a lot of water, especially when they are producing fruit. Dry soil can put a lot of stress on the plant causing disease and unproductive plants.
That said, indeterminates can be grown in containers. The trick is to give them lots of room, keep them watered, and make sure that the pot is appropriately sized for the plant. Do not put more than one tomato plant in the same container!
When it comes to purchased containers, garbage bins are about as cheap as you’re gonna get. The lowest price I have come across for a good-sized bin (about 25 inches tall by 14 inches wide) was $10. Generally, containers of the same size purchased in the garden section of any department or hardware store is going to run you almost double that price.
Thrift stores can be good for containers however they generally don’t carry containers that large — I suppose this is because when garbage bins are put to their intended use they are used until they are no longer fit for reuse.
I think your best bet in this situation is to look for your containers along the curb on garbage day. No, I don’t mean steal your neighbor’s garbage bin! Instead look for large buckets and tubs that are being thrown out. Just because it can’t hold water anymore doesn’t mean it can’t hold soil. Look outside restaurants and laundry mats where oil and detergents are kept in bulk sizes. Better yet, go inside and ask if there are any empty buckets that you can have. Growing really large indeterminates in buckets can be tricky since the buckets aren’t as big as garbage bins, but I have seen it done many times.
To ensure success in a smaller container I would recommend spending some money on a good container soil that holds water but is also light enough to allow for good air circulation — you don’t want those roots to get crushed and compacted in such a tight space. If air circulation seems like an issue try drilling holes in the sides of the containers (and the bottoms). This means more water runs out but what you lose in water you gain in air circulation. And finally make sure to keep the soil moist. Monitor the moisture levels of the soil, watering everyday during the hot months if not twice daily when the heat gets intense.
If all of this seems a bit overwhelming you could try trading some of your indeterminates for less demanding determinate varieties with someone who has the space. That way you don’t lose any money but gain less hassle.