With a little initiative and planning, most spaces, regardless of size, can become mini tomato cities. —INGRAIN, Summer 2018
STORY / Jenn Garbee
Tomato plants like space. You live in the city and don’t have much. You meant to plant those seedlings in May. It’s July. Never fear! You can still grow tomatoes on your rooftop, side patio, or apartment balcony before the first frost. No floor space? A hanging planter will work for smaller tomato varieties. Take stock of your outdoor growing options, then hit your local garden shop posthaste.
Beyond general weather conditions in your region, consider your rooftop, patio, or balcony’s unique microclimate. Take a good look around the area where you want to plant. If dominant shade is an issue, is there a sunny balcony railing spot you can snap up? Rooftops are often exposed to extreme weather conditions like high winds or thunderstorms. Plant those tomatoes near a wall where the wind will be kept partially at bay.
DECODING A TOMATO LABEL
Indeterminate, determinate, heirloom, hybrid – Indeterminate varieties produce fruit continually throughout the season. With determinate varieties, you can expect most of the fruit to ripen all at once. Unless you’re a one-stop canning-and-preserving type, go with an indeterminate plant. Heirloom tomatoes are those that have not been crossbred. Hybrid tomatoes are a cross between different varieties but are not genetically modified. That’s really it. One is not necessarily better than the other. Find the specific variety that has the flavor, size, and growing qualities you’re after. Still confused? Talk to a garden expert.
Select the type of container and tomato variety that works best in that space.
Seedlings need enough room to lay down a solid foundation of roots. For most medium-growth tomato varieties, choose pots that measure at least sixteen inches at the base and stand two feet tall. Small containers like hanging baskets will work if you select a tomato variety bred to thrive in tight spaces. (We will get into that shortly.) Regardless, plan on only one seedling per pot. They may look small now, but just wait.
Rooftop gardens are a great place to consider raised beds, which are essentially multiple giant pots. Plan on generously spaced seedlings, at least twelve inches between each plant.
Sunny and hot where you live? Pots and raised beds made from materials like recycled pulp and wood help the plant retain cool root temperatures. Are balmy, rainy days the norm? Choose containers with plenty of drainage holes.
In theory, any tomato variety can be grown anywhere if the plant has a solid foundation and the growing conditions are favorable. We all know how that mealy tomato story ends.
Don’t waste a few extra weeks waiting for seeds to sprout. Seedlings (small tomato plants) are a good choice any time of year, but especially for late plantings. Look for plants with deep green leaves without too much yellowing or spots.
Good late-season picks include continual fruit-producing varieties that also mature (produce fruit) quickly (in fewer than 80 days). Almost any cherry, grape, or pear variety is good for short-season, continual growth.
Pick plants that are relatively compact at maturity (less than two feet tall). Most small tomato varieties (like those cherries and pears), but also some larger varieties (like Bushsteaks, Early Girls, and Window Box Romas), fall into this camp. Or look for the word dwarf in the plant name. It indicates varieties bred to produce smaller plants, but not necessarily smaller tomatoes. With hanging pots, choose a cascading tomato variety and let gravity do the work (leave enough room for the plant to grow down).
GROWING A HEALTHY PLANT
Let the countdown to long summer tomato days begin.
Always use fresh soil that hasn’t been leached of nutrients by other plants. Layer your food-safe fertilizers in the container with the soil. Now is the time to gloat to your friend with the big backyard that you don’t have existing clay or sandy soil restraints. Settle that seedling into a generous hole a solid twelve inches deep. Burying some of the stem creates a sturdier plant. (Water the root ball well before planting and remove any leaves beneath the soil line.) If your raised bed is shallow, allow plenty of room for the plant to grow to the side.
Overwatering tomato plants can affect the fruits’ flavor. That said, tomato plants in containers require more frequent watering than their ground soil–planted cousins. Water often the first few weeks, then back off somewhat and let the soil dry out between waterings. Don’t forget to fertilize regularly.
Some varieties (those bred specifically for containers and many cherry-type varieties) yield plants that are so short in stature, they don’t need a support structure. Larger tomato plants benefit from cages or other support structures. On balconies and rooftops, small ladders or wall-mounted trellises work well. Secure the vine with kitchen twist ties, wire, or hook-and-loop closures.
Many bugs and animals love tomatoes as much as the rest of us do. Read up on blight so you have the best chance of saving your plants from the home grower’s dreaded disease. If not, rest assured that there is always another BLT out there next year.
When you're ready to put those homegrown tomatoes to good use, check out this recipe for a fresh, delicious Tomato Ricotta Salata Salad. (It's so good that we understand if you use store-bought tomatoes!)