Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Growing Tomatoes on a Balcony

This is my post for Fern at Life on the Balcony's Container Gardening Blog Carnival and it is all about the main reason I got into balcony gardening in the first place - tomatoes. Sure I had herbs and a lemon tree before the 'matoes' hit the tiles but it was these love apples, with their variety of colours and amazing home grown taste that got me hooked, and saw the few pots dotted in and around the balcony grow to many pots all over the balcony. I am by no means an expert on tomato growing in pots, but luckily through trial and error, googling and just plain experimenting I have managed to work out a thing or two about this endeavour. So without further ado here are the five ideas (note not rules) I live by when planting tomatoes in the balcony garden.

1. Indeterminate is just a label (but it is an awfully good idea to invest in some good stakes for the never ending growth spurts)

So many seedlings in the nursery shout 'perfect for pots' or 'container friendly' which are squarely aimed at the balcony gardening market. They are good and the fit well in pots, but they are usually a pretty basic tomato. That's great if you like to start with the basics or love to follow the many rules and guidelines set out on today's society. But for those who like to live on the wild side, or maybe just like to tip toe over to the rainbow section of life for a second or two and jump back without anyone noticing, don't let labels limit you. I have only ever planted one type of tomato (in two varieties) that was made specifically for pots.

These were cherry tumbler tomatoes and are pretty much the only thing you can grow in hanging pots that make cascades of tomatoes which head towards the ground not away from it. As far as labels go, cherry tomato is another doozy because most cherry tomato vines are bigger than normal vines (I made that 'mistake' early on in my growing days, but luckily I planted them in an onground pot and the results were delicious.)

So if you want something other than red, other than round, other than golf ball sized, look outside the box earmarked for pots. Green Zebras are fanstastic and tart and green when ripe. I've heard Aunt Ruby's German Green are another amazing green when ripe tomato (but alas none thrived in my garden due to wilt, an ailment we will get to in idea number 4.) Black Russians kept my balcony sitter so happy one summer with their rich, dark brown, smokey taste. Tigerellas with their yellow striped red look give normal salad tomatoes a good run for their money. Pink Mortgage Lifters are my idea of a perfect tomato. Yellows and Oranges, rippled Zapotecs, the ubiquitous Purple Cherokee and even white tomatoes can all be grown in pots. Yes they are all indeterminates (that means they keep on growing till weather, wilt or wild dogs pull them down, not that we get too many of the last variety on the balcony.)

You will need to support them in some way. I use stakes, lots of stakes, and old stockings to tie them on with. I am not sure the body corporate is too happy about my bright pink and purple ties but so far they have kept mute about it. I guess they are just happy to have such a lovely garden as a centrepiece (yes my apartment is dead centre of this complex and it always features in the realestate ads, in fact I can tell if the photos are out of date according to the state of the balcony garden!!!) You can really use anything to tie them on with, so long as it is secure.

So instead of going to the easy, peasy pot friendly tomato why not buy with your eyes and go for one of the tastier, showier, heirloom numbers.

2. Feed your tomato friends with food, love, and watery fun times

Ok so I admit it, occasionally I talk to my tomatoes. We don't get too political, though the environment is quite a hot topic, but sometimes the ones closer to the door like to argue about the new developments in Summer Bay or muse about how suave Jarvis Cocker was on Spicks and Specks. So they get the love and they grow in return.

Of course there are the other goodies that they need. Pots don't hold a lot of soil, so the soil that is in there should be top notch. I do spend a significant amount on top grade potting mix, but the results are worth it. Extra top ups of food and seaweed solution for good roots help from time to time. The leaves will probably let you know when they are hungry as they will turn a violent shade of yellow.

So too the leaves will tell you when the plant is thirsty. Tomatoes plants are thirsty fellows and in the Australian summer they need a good drink everyday. In a country with water restrictions this can be a tricky enterprise, but there are amazing ways to save water around the house. Water at even intervals too, particularly when fruit are formed, otherwise they will crack (though generally this just degrades their aesthetic value, and non-fusspots can certainly still enjoy eating them.)

3. Tomatoes work best with friends (but not all friends are good, some are 'toxic')

Lego companions for tomatoes are something of a staple for the balcony garden however they are not the friends I am talking about in this instance. Companion planting is good in gardens but it was tailor made for potted gardens. One pot, two plants, twice the yummy goodness. Usual bedfellows for tomatoes include basil (I use the sweet green kind), carrots (any colour here will do) and marigolds. The basil can add flavour to the tomato and also goes well with it when eaten! Carrots add air to the soil which helps the tomatoes root system. The carrots might end up a bit deformed, they may bifurcate when they hit a root or end up stumpy but they will still taste great (refer comment above about cracked tomatoes, fussy eaters may not agree.)

Some neighbours are bad for tomatoes and will inhibit their growth. At least as pot gardeners we do not have to worry about tomatoes number 1 enemy, the walnut tree, which excretes jugolone from its roots that can be highly toxic to tomatoes. If anyone manages to companion plant a walnut tree and a tomato (or even to put a walnut tree in a pot on its own) then they deserve the consquences. Infact Walnuts don't play nice with many plants, so bear that in mind. Don't say you weren't warned.

4. Wilt happens

Bacterical Wilt, Fusarium Wilt, Verticillium Wilt, they happen. Late Blight, Early Blight, any Blight, they happen. Moulds, funguses, caterpillars, aphids, white flies, fruit flies, fungus gnats, they all happen. Sometimes you can't help much, sometimes there are sprays, sometimes the sparrows do the work for you. I, unfortunately, am mostly in the first category. It seems a wilt, I suspect fusarium, has infiltrated the balcony, and caused the deaths of all my lovely heirloom varieties. Sad for me, but not impossible to overcome. I can plant resistant varieties, and yes if I look hard enough some are even yellow and orange coloured. This is limiting but it is a solution.

When you get a tomato problem just google, that's what I do. Google image is great because you can match the symptoms. Look up forums, ask other gardeners, come on here and ask me! Don't let a small, medium or major issue make you not grow your beloved love apples.

5. Toothbrushes of the electric kind are your best friend.

Most apartments with balconies are in a city, or in the city, the inner city in fact. Mine is, it is smack bang on a four lane road (6 if you count the trams, 7 if you drive like some of the Melbourne drivers I've witnessed.) This is not the favourite territory for bees. Luckily it reduces your chances of a painful sting but the tomatoes won't be so thrilled about your awesome pain reduction manouvre. You see tomatoes need pollinators. Some say wind works but I say that's a lot of wind in itself. My balcony is extremely windy but it didn't add one bit to the pollination of my first crop of tomatoes. No bees = no pollination too. So what do you do? Stare at the plants and will themselves to pollinate?

No, you get proactive, and you get a tooth brush, an electric toothbrush. The motion of the head of the toothbrush mimics the vibration of the bee. It is called sonication. Don't trust me, then look it up. By touching the flowers, or the stem, or wherever on the plants that works for you, you can make the tomatoes pollinate. You have to do it daily, usually when the weather is warm and the flowers are open. Yes your neighbours will probably think you are bonkers, and they will continue to think you are bonkers after you explain the reason to them but who really cares what they think. They wont think you are all that bad when you have baskets of tomatoes to share with them will they!!!

So there you have it. Totally Inept Balcony Gardener's guide to ideas on how to grow tomatoes, any tomatoes, in pots. You can even try growing them inside in a sunny window over winter. I did, with mixed results, but the tomatoes were awfully tasty! Don't let a confined space get in your way of an heirloom harvest.


Kalena Michele said...

You explained this very well. I'm going to have to plant a lot more tomatoes on my back porch this year because I have more varieties than I can grow in the ground. I'll check back to this post often as I go about my growing season. Can't WAIT!! It's in the 20s here and the ground is frozen :(

Funkbunny said...

what a fantastic (and funny) post. My toms are mainly in the ground, but I do have some in pots that I am nurturing from the laterals of the big plants so I will be following your advice.

Right, I'm off to have a chat with them now!

sev said...

I cant wait to start growing tomatoes this year , right now my balcony and garden is under snow . I didnt know that about the walnut tree , fascinating !

prue said...

Kalena Michele - glad it all made sense, I have been writing so much for my thesis lately that sometimes I forget how to write!!! Hehe oh I am jealous that you can grow so many varieties, once it has all defrosted.

Funkbunny - from the looks of it your tomatoes are going really well. heheh definitely chat with them, sometimes they give the advice you just needed to hear!!!

Sev - walnut trees are just not friends with tomatoes. Hope the snow is at least pretty and spring comes quickly so you can grow those tomatoes

Kerry said...

I love the toothbrush idea and have never head of it. I'm in total agreement about ignoring all the tomatoes that say "great for pots." I love growing huge sprawling tomatoes in pots.

Andrew Bergzoid said...

Thanks for the very informative article. I started my balcony about 3 or 4 months ago (inner city Brisbane). I have loads of herbs a couple of cherry tomato plants and a couple of money maker tomatoes. Everything is growing well (although planting mint in the same pot as banana chillies is something I will never do again). I've tied my tomato plants to the railing with old stockings and it seems to be working well, they started fruiting about 3 weeks ago but they are getting a little out of control. Is it advisable to trim them back? If so do you know of a method?

prue said...

Hi Andrew - there is always controvery about cutting back tomatoes, or pruning offshoots but it mostly pertains to whether it affects overall crop rate. Wounds on tomatoes can invite infection, but sometimes we just have to work within our boundaries. Tomatoes will eventually get too heavy and the vies will fall back down (unless fully trellised) so you may need to trim them if they get too big, or let them hang naturally. Do remember they are an annual, and will likely die off at some stage so the end is near.

Anonymous said...

I love how you personify all the "characters" of tomatoes, trees and toothbrushes in your blog. It was really funny and enjoyable - truly an easy read. I encourage you to keep writing because you definitely have a new follower. I will be trying you tips out soon, here in NYC. Thanks!