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What Type of Tomato Is Easy to Grow in a Container?

by Fern on March 24, 2010

in Fruits & Vegetables,Popular

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Lots o’ people out there are gearing up to plant themselves a good ole fashioned vegetable garden. Or in the case of us balcony gardeners, a not-so-old-fashioned container vegetable garden. People are super enthusiatic and thrilled to be outside soaking up sunshine and thinking about sticking their hands in some good quality potting soil. That is until they see the seed rack and vegetable section of their local garden center.

These eager newbie gardeners want to try tomatoes this year, but when they see all the options out there, they think to themselves, “Holy smokes Batman! How do I decide which one’s right for me?”

In my always humble opinion, I think you should look for three things in a tomato if you’re a beginning gardener looking to grow some red deliciousness on your balcony or patio:

  1. Hybrid
  2. Determinate
  3. VFNT or whatever is recommended for your area

Hybrid

Heirloom varieties are all the rage these days. And hybrids have gotten a bad rap because of the whole genetically modified seed controversy. But I think for a beginning gardener, hybrids are where you should start. Heirlooms can sometimes be a little finicky compared to hybrids.

Just because a plant is a hybrid doesn’t mean that it is genetically modified in the way that Monsanto has modified corn to have pesticides in the plant’s DNA. All “hybrid” means is that one variety of tomato was crossed with another to create a new, third type of tomato. Some of the most beloved varieties of tomatoes are hybrids, such as Early Girl, Better Boy, and Beefmaster.

Hybrid plants have the benefit of what is called “hybrid vigor” which means that–just like mixed breed dogs are often stronger and healthier–so too are first generation hybrid plants (sometimes labeled “F1″). Also, most hybrid plants are specifically bred to produce bigger fruit, earlier or later, on healthier, stronger plants. All great news if you’re a beginner and looking to start off gardening on the right foot.

Determinate

There are two broad typs of tomatoes, “determinate” and “indeterminate.” A determinate tomato grows to a specific height (usually about 3-5 feet tall) and stops, puts out all of its flowers at once, and then all the fruit ripens at pretty much the same time. An indeterminate tomato keeps on growing and growing, putting out flowers and subsequent fruit over the entire growing season until frost kills it. I’ve seen indeterminate tomatoes that are 8 or 9 feet tall.

Determinate plants are easier to stake and/or find a tomato cage for. A lot of beginners can feel overwhelmed by the vigor of indeterminate vines. They also need a larger pot to do their best, and some balconies may get close to running out of head room for an indeterminate type. So be sure to look for a tomato that says “determinate” on the tag or seed packet.

VF/VFN/VFNT/VFNA/VFFNT/FT

When you look at the tomato plants or seed packets, you’ll probably notice that some of them are labeled with a code such as “VFN,” “VFNA,” “VFNT.” This indicates that the plants are resistant to Verticillium wilt (V), Fusarium wilt (F), southern root-knot nematode (N), early blight (A), or tobacco mosaic virus (T). Tomatoes can be attacked by lots of different diseases and organisms. Not every part of the country has every type of disease, but if you ask someone at the nursery what things can be a problem in your area, they should be able to point you in the direction of a tomato that has the right combination of resistances.

Here are some varieties to consider…

Small & Compact Plants:

  • Better Bush
  • Patio
  • Small Fry
  • Toy Boy

Cherry:

  • Cherry Grande Hybrid VF

Standard:

  • Bingo (Known for having a great taste)
  • Biltmore
  • Celebrity
  • Early Bush (Good for coastal areas)
  • Early Girl
  • Floramerica (AAS winner)
  • Jackpot
  • Legend (grows extremely large fruits)
  • Mountain Belle
  • Mountain Delight
  • Mountain Gold
  • Mountain Pride
  • Mountain Spring
  • Roma VF
  • Royal Flush
  • Shady Lady
  • Sub Arctic Plenty (great for Northern gardeners with a short growing season)
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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Tychonievich March 24, 2010 at 7:52 am

Yay for tomatoes! I’ve got my seedlings started under lights in the basement.
Quick comment on GMOs — there are currently no genetically modified seeds being sold directly to average gardeners. Monsanto and friends are VERY protective of their intellectual property, and won’t sell them without extensive licensing agreements — in other words, no one needs to worry they buy a genetically modified seed without knowing it.

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Cristin Cochran March 24, 2010 at 8:09 am

Sun gold is a delicious orange colored cherry sized tomato that does great in pots. Generally speaking I find that cherry sized tomatoes do better in pots than full sized tomatoes which seem to be more sensitive to blossom end rot, at least on the top of my building in high altitude Denver.

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Mary C. March 24, 2010 at 9:13 am

good advice, I’ve got my man talking my ear off about all the tomatos he wants to grow so I’ll point him this way…

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Susan March 24, 2010 at 9:42 am

You always have such informative posts! Mahalo!

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val March 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I never knew about all these different kinds of things one needed to know about tomatoes. My tomato plants grew to over 6 ft. tall. I guess they were in-determinate. Thanks for the info. I want to grow heirloom tomatoes. This info will help me determine the best kind to choose for my garden.

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Sheila March 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Good advice. I would however add ‘Sweet 100′s’ cherry tomatoes and ‘Celebrity’ medium sized tomatoes!

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Fern March 25, 2010 at 8:31 am

Sheila–I believe both of those varieties–while good ones–are open pollinated. Hybrid vigor is really only there for the first few generations.

Bob March 24, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Thank you for standing up for hybrids. I decided to grow some hybrids (4th of July, Sungold) and some heirlooms (Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple) last year. I found the heirlooms to be less productive. Also, and more importantly, both the 4th of July and Sungold produced amazingly flavored fruit, while I thought the Cherokees were blah and the Zebras were okay. I will definitely be growing those two hybrids again this year, but I’ll leave the heirlooms to the people with plenty of garden space to waste on them.

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melanie watts March 25, 2010 at 5:40 am

Great advice Fern. In my experience the advantages of hybrids is they are more resistant to diseases and have meatier flesh while heirlooms are tastier and juicier. However, any homegrown tomatoes will taste better than one you buy at the store.

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Erin March 25, 2010 at 6:45 am

Great post!

Question: What tomatoes have you grown and would recommend other balcony gardeners to try for themselves?

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Fern March 27, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Erin–It’s hard to recommend specific varieties of tomatoes because, as I mentioned in the post, different varieties are better suited to different areas. I live in Southern California, the kinds I’ve grown here may not do very well in the midwest or New England or the South East. But if you find any of the varieties I listed in the post at your local garden center, you should be fine.

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Erin March 29, 2010 at 5:40 am

Oh, of course. Silly me.

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Kristina April 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Nice, clear explanations on the different types of tomatoes. I live in So Cal too and even though I love Heirloom tomatoes, I always do better with Hybrids like Celebrity and Champion. This year I’m going to do a mix of both, planting new plants over the next 6 weeks, hoping to stagger my yield.

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Carrie April 6, 2010 at 3:19 pm

I was given some Totem tomato starters this year since they are supposed to do well in a container. I’m in the PNW and we shall see how they do.

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patti April 12, 2010 at 4:32 pm

I just picked three tomatoe seedings out at the nursery. Everything is written in Japanese so all I could go on is the pictures on the plastic tabs. I am hoping the yellow variety is a small salad pear tomatoe. The other two are red ones that seem to be medium size. I went to Costco in Osaka last weekend and got 6 deep containers that I am going to use for the tomatoes. I was also planning on planting herbs in the containers. Patti from Nagoya Japan

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Fern April 12, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Patti–They have Costco in Japan?! Basil is a traditional companion to tomatoes. Are you on a military base there? I’d be happy to mail you some seeds of my favorite varieties of basil if that’s allowed? That way you can have directions in English.

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Lou Ann April 14, 2010 at 7:35 pm

According to research… Tiny Tim is also a good one.
“Just perfect for container growing or smaller gardens. Plants grow no more than 18 inches tall and can be grown in a 6-inch pot. Round, bright red cherry tomatoes are about 3/4 inch in diameter. Determinate. 60 days.”

I ain’t no pro at this yet but I do love to see and eat tomatoes. :D

Now after the carrot episode… I wonder how best to germinate these tomato seeds. No instructions on the packet. And how much compost do they need?

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jim May 12, 2010 at 7:56 am

I have tried a range called Sweet “N” Neats there is a few in the series but I grew the scarlet one and the yellow one the flavour was pretty good for both and the plants only grow to about 10inches so really easy to manage. This Year I will be growing them again and also growing the Tumbling Toms hope they do as well

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Kirstin June 14, 2010 at 11:10 am

I know this is tacky, but do you have any experience with the upside-down tomato planters?

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Fern June 14, 2010 at 11:31 am

Kirstin–I don’t personally, but several people I know have used them and have NOT had good success. I was at Home Depot this past weekend and they had one and the tomatoes were growing upwards like a normal plant. And I’ve heard from a professional grower who had a topsy turvy in his greenhouse and could never get the tomato plant to bear fruit.

Abigail July 3, 2010 at 5:15 pm

@patti I’m not far from you, I live in Ichinomiya! I’ve had fantastic results this year with aiko (cherry-size heart-shaped variety). I have one in a plastic wastepaper basket from Daiso that I bored some drainage holes in, and it’s now topping 7 feet and fruiting like mad. I’m planning to start some clones from it this week for autumn.

@Fern – I don’t think seeds can be imported without a licence, but for anyone who is in Japan there’s a shop on rakuten called otatane or otaseed that has a really good ‘world seeds’ collection :D

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Bellen June 21, 2011 at 5:45 am

Two varieties not mentioned:
Micro Tom – specially bred to grow in a 4″ pot. Grows 8×8 inches and produces lots of quarter sized cherry tomatoes with good flavor.

Solar Fire – specifically bred to set fruit in hot weather (75+ degree nighttime temps) They are indeterminate but can be trimmed back – just plant 2 instead of one or fix a trellis of string or other for it to grow on

We’ve been growing Celebrity and Roma VF in containers for several years. Some years one does better than the other, this year both seem to be doing OK

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mark May 26, 2013 at 8:53 pm

I grow yellow currants (indeterminate) on my apt patio. I sucker them and tie them to the balcony posts as they grow. This year I’m only growing 2 of them, and trying Celebrities and Roma to cut down on the work. Also trying Black Krim, so it’s still gonna be a jungle on my patio. I have (5) 15 gallon pots, plus some 5-gallon buckets. They always outgrow the cages so this year I’m stringing them to the ceiling on the balcony above. Can tomato plants cause allergies? Because I never had allergies till I started growing tomatoes a few years ago.

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