Submitted by Calvin Finch, Ph.D., Manager, Conservation Division, Water Resources & Conservation Department, SAWS, and Horticulturist
TOMATOES IN CONTAINERS
It is time to plant tomatoes and peppers. They both make good container plants. Obtain a container that is at least 5 gallons in volume; 10 gallons or a half whiskey barrel is even better. The smaller the container, the more disciplined you must be in watering the plants. A tomato full of fruit in a 5-gallon container requires watering twice per day in June.
Fill the container with a high quality commercial potting soil. I have good luck with pure compost taken directly from my finished pile. Add a half-cup of Osmocote mixed into the potting soil and then plant the tomato or pepper.
There is a tomato variety called Patio that makes a very attractive container plant. The fruit, however, is not in the same league as Surefire or Merced. The Dwarf Cherry Surprise tomato that Jerry Parsons and the Gardening Volunteers of South Texas have been selling is another excellent choice for a container tomato. The variety is a determinate selection that sets fruit on a small plant.
Water your tomato in a container every two days for the next few weeks. As soon as the plant sets fruit begin watering every day if you have a 5-gallon container. Larger containers may allow you to go three or four days between irrigation. Irrigate until the water begins to seep out of the drip hole.
Once per week include some soluble fertilizer in your irrigation water. Mix it according to the instructions. Miracle-Grow, Peters, and Schultz are all good brands.
The planting works best if you place a tomato cage over the plant. Neighborhood nurseries have small aluminum cages that fit easily in the container. The cage keeps the plant upright and the fruit off the ground.
Place your container in full sun, out of the wind if possible. Severe winds affect tomato production and the plants can get top heavy when they are full of fruit. This is especially true for plants in the 5-gallon containers.
Use Bt (Dipel, Thuricide, etc.) products to control pinworms, hornworms, and other caterpillars. Malathion or Sevin control most other insects. Check the label of your favorite organic insecticides to see if it is labeled for tomatoes and peppers. Neem products provide some fungal and mite control.
Tomatoes in small containers are prone to suffer from blossom end rot. The fruit shows a black flattened bottom that looks like it is a disease symptom. In actuality, the symptom is caused by a calcium deficiency that is directly related to a break in the uptake of water. Even if you are a disciplined irrigator, tolerate a few disfigured tomatoes. Expect them to form during spells when temperatures rise 20 to 25 degrees F. from one day to the next. A thin layer of mulch on the soil surface may reduce the problem but the black end can be cut off and the rest of the fruit used.
A caged tomato plant in a substantial container can be attractive but a pepper plant is even more attractive. The plants are disciplined, compact growers. The leaves are shiny green. If you are slow to harvest the peppers it reduces the total harvest, but most of them become colorful. Jalapenos become purple and green peppers become red. Banana peppers are yellow and make an exceptionally fine container plant. They can be mild or hot.