We planted our tomatoes and tended them carefully. They grew, sometimes to astounding size. But they always fell victim to the bacterial wilt endemic to our soil. The tomatoes of our dreams, meaty and juicy with a balance of sweet and acid, always eluded us.
We knew that growing tomatoes in the usual way would never produce anything but frustration. Thus we began to experiment with growing tomatoes in large concrete pots. The work came to involve not just soil but also tactics to fend off high humidity, broiling heat, frosts, and insects, insects, insects. Our efforts evolved into a system that works well in our small space.
We began with large concrete pots and whiskey barrel halves. Both proved impractical. Cement pots large enough to retain water for more than an hour in late July were too heavy to move and big trouble to sanitize at the end of the season. The half-barrels were even more unwieldy. They provided a haven for wood roaches, which like tomatoes almost as much as we do, and they were also susceptible to termites.
When the barrels fell apart in the third year, we sighed with relief and purchased 20-in. plastic pots and saucers. They are colored and styled to look like old fashioned concrete pot. At the end of each year, we scrub them to remove most of the dirt, mold, and algae, and then drop them into our heavily chlorinated swimming pool for cleaning. Dollies my husband made allow us to move the potted tomato plants around the patio with ease.
Good drainage and healthy roots go together. At first, we tried to achieve the goal by layering pebbles in the bottom of each cement pot. However, at the end of the season we wanted to dump the exhausted potting mix into our raised-bed vegetable garden. Deliberately adding rocks to our garden beds seemed perverse.
So we moved the river rock into the saucer instead. But we also line the bottom of each concrete pot with a layer or two of plastic window screening, cut to fit. Our soil stays put and drains well.
In heavy rains, we siphon the nutrient-saturated liquid from the saucers with a turkey baster demoted from the kitchen. We recycle the liquid, conserving nutrients and getting rid of the standing water mosquitoes love for breeding.
We fill each pot with 6 in. to 8 in. of potting soil and set a transplant at the bottom of the garden cement pot. As the tomatoes grow, we trim the leaves from the stem and add more of the enriched soil mix until the pot is filled. This practice helps build root mass along the stem as it is buried, which is similar to laying the stem in a trench.
This method also allows us to plant earlier. Since the plants stay below the pot rim for a couple weeks, we can cozy the plants in old mattress pads if there’s a cold snap or cover them with old shower curtains if there’s a deluge. Best of all, we can tie layers of nylon netting over each pot to keep early insect marauders at bay.