The conventional wisdom about growing tomato plants in containers is that just one tomato plant can be grown successfully in a five-gallon bucket. The truth is that the number of tomato plants you should plant in a five-gallon container can be zero, one, or up to three, depending on whether the plant is an indeterminate, determinate, or micro dwarf variety.
You aren’t familiar with the differences between these types of tomatoes? Don’t worry. We will tell you everything you need to know about getting maximum production from each of these types of tomatoes. But first, let’s answer a common question.
Why a bucket? And why a five-gallon bucket?
There is a very simple reason horticulturalists often write about growing tomatoes in five-gallon buckets. Buckets are available everywhere, and they have a very small footprint. If you don’t have a garden or even a patio, you probably still have room for a five-gallon bucket.
Most five-gallon buckets don’t have the aesthetic appeal of, say, a five-gallon terracotta pot for growing tomatoes, but they come in a dizzying variety of features and a wide range of prices. But it’s also easy just to recycle a five-gallon bucket that has been to store anything non-toxic. What a simple way to start a container garden!
There are five-gallon buckets that sell for over $100 that include self-watering systems. There are colorful five-gallon plastic pots that turn tomatoes into ornamental plants. There are five-gallon buckets that come fitted with grow bags and potting soil. Some five-gallon buckets mount to the ceiling and allow you to grow tomato plants hanging upside down.
But the main thing you need in a five-gallon bucket is to make sure it has holes in the bottom for drainage. It also helps to add some gravel or lava rocks to the bottom of the bucket to make sure roots don’t grow down into the drainage dish beneath the bucket. After that, just add potting soil, maybe some compost, maybe some dolomite, and you are ready to grow tomatoes.
Indeterminate tomatoes aren’t the best choice for growing in buckets
Indeterminate tomatoes don’t have genetically predetermined limits to growth. They keep on getting taller and wider and bearing fruit just as long as they have nutrients, water, and the right temperature.
Indeterminate tomatoes are often a great choice for outdoor gardens. They bear fruit all summer long and into the fall, right up and sometimes even after frost. They can be pruned so they produce even more fruit.
In theory, indeterminate tomatoes have all of these fine qualities even if you grow them in a five-gallon bucket. The problem is that can grow 10, 15, or even 20 feet (up to 6 meters) tall if they are not pruned on an almost-daily basis. They need protection from wind, and their buckets need to be placed so people and pets don’t knock them over.
Still, some indeterminate tomatoes work better in five-gallon buckets than others.
If you have Husky Red, Patio (referring to the variety of tomato, not the location where it is grown), or Black Krim tomato plants, you can get good production in five-gallon buckets. You just have to be careful about how you prune them and where you place them.
If the only place you have to plant tomatoes is a five-gallon bucket and you want sauce tomatoes, you should grow a single San Marzano plant, even though a bucket is not a good home for it. A single Jet Star in a five-gallon bucket is a great choice if you are looking for a low-acid tomato that fruits even when summer nights are cool.
You absolutely, positively should not plant more than one plant of these indeterminate varieties in a five-gallon bucket. However, these are not your best choices in tomatoes for five-gallon buckets.
Determinate tomatoes grow well one per bucket
Determinate tomatoes are a much better choice for growing in five-gallon buckets. They don’t need as much pruning. They don’t produce all summer, so you don’t need to feel bad about leaving them to go dormant if you go on vacation. They can be extremely productive, especially if you choose to plant cherry tomatoes.
But you still need to plan on just one tomato plant per bucket.
Good varieties of determinate tomatoes for growing in five-gallon buckets include Celebrity, Marglobe, Moby Grape, and Patio. These varieties have especially desirable attributes.
- Celebrity is a determinate tomato that bears large fruit. If you want to grow big tomatoes in a five-gallon bucket, this is the variety you want to try. You will appreciate the fact that Celebrity is crack-resistant, Overwatering will not ruin ripening fruit.
- Marglobe is an open-pollinated heirloom tomato. This means that its seeds will look and produce like the parent plant. You can save seed and expect the same quality of tomato next year. This isn’t something you can do with hybrid tomatoes.
- Moby Grape produces sweet, 2-inch (50 mm) long grape tomatoes. They are great for eating straight from the vine. It is also good for grilling.
- Patio tomatoes are almost-dwarf tomatoes. only grow 2 feet (60 cm) tall. Their low habit protects them from wind damage. You, your children, and your pets are less likely to kick their bucket. You will probably be very happy with production: A single Patio tomato will produce up to fifty 3- to 4-inch (75 to 100 mm) fruit over an eight-week fruiting season.
Patio tomatoes aren’t quite small enough to do well with company in a five-gallon bucket. But the tomatoes in this next group sometimes flourish with up to three plants in the same five-gallon bucket.
Micro Dwarf Tomatoes
There is another group of tomato cultivars that are suited to planting one, two, or three in a five-gallon bucket. They are the “micro dwarf” tomatoes. The amazing thing about these tiny tomato plants is that they can yield huge tomatoes, and a bigger harvest per bucket than some of the other varieties that put more of their energy into growing stems and leaves than fruit.
Micro dwarf varieties of tomatoes include:
- Better Bush is a dwarf tomato that is comfortable in a 10-inch (25 cm) pot. Its fruits are larger than cherry tomatoes, but not big enough that a single slice would cover an entire sandwich. This variety is an excellent choice for growing tomatoes in a windy climate. It needs both regular watering and a well-draining potting mix, or it will suffer water stress.
- Tiny Tim is distinctively miniature. This variety grows just about a foot (30 cm) tall, and it only produces cherry tomatoes. But this tiny powerhouse of tomato production requires no staking or pruning and yields proportionally more tomatoes than larger varieties.
- Totem is a dwarf tomato that grows vertically rather than horizontally. Its vertical habit catches more available sunlight and produces sweeter tomatoes.
Micro dwarf varieties of tomatoes are fun to grow. You don’t need a five-gallon bucket for them. Many micro dwarf tomatoes are happy in a six-inch pot. They can be grown on windowsills or indoors under grow lights, You can grow these wonderfully productive tomatoes all year-round.
There is a tomato variety for every container garden. Just be sure to match the right variety to the container you have, and enjoy an abundant harvest.