Archive | Container Gardening

Growing edibles in pots and containers, on the balcony, rooftop or patio

Growing Heirloom Tomatoes Upside Down in the Topsy Turvy Planters

Tomato Varieties Selected:

Raspberry Lyanna variety 2 weeks after planting

Raspberry Lyanna variety 2 weeks after planting

So many customers at the farmers’ markets have asked me which heirloom tomato plants would grow best in the upside down planters called Topsy Turvy planters.  These planters always seemed kind of odd to me, but I realize a lot of urban and apartment dwellers want to grow tomatoes and simply don’t have access to the space, the soil, or the sun, so I thought I’d give it a try this year to better answer people’s questions.

I decided to try two different heirlooms that I thought would be successful in this type of planter due to their smaller fruit size which would not weight down the planters with heavy fruit.  I planted Prescott and Raspberry Lyanna. 

Prescott Tomato Variety 2 weeks after planting

Prescott Tomato Variety 2 weeks after planting

  • Prescott is a small grape heirloom which is considered an early tomato (69 days) and is determinate.
  • Raspberry Lyanna is a medium, pink, fairly early (75 days) slicing tomato which is described by some seed catalogs as determinate and by some as indeterminate.  From the looks of the plant, my bet is on determinate.

Two weeks after planting, the Raspberry Lyanna has small fruit (see photo) and the Prescott only has flowers at this time.  The Raspberry Lyanna was also planted in the greenhouse and the tomatoes are about twice the size of the same variety planted in the Felknor Ventures 82506 Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Tomato Planter.  It is also interesting to note that the fruit on the Raspberry Lyanna is further along than any other tomato varieties planted in the greenhouse, including those traditionally known as “early”.  The Raspberry Lyanna is a new variety for me, and depending on the taste, it may become a staple of mine.

topsy turvy planting prep materials

topsy turvy planting prep materials

How to Plant:

  • Rather than use my organic potting mix and aged horse manure, I decided to use materials that the typical urban apartment grower might have easier access to.  Miracle Grow potting mix with moisture control seems to be a very successful medium for container plants.
  • the directions included with the planter are pretty clear on how to insert the seedling tomato and secure it.  Just be sure the seedling is old enough that the tomato stem is sturdy enough to be handled with breaking it, and make sure your plant was hardened off.  The photos here show a plant that is approximately 6 weeks old.

    Inserting plant into bottom of planter

    Inserting plant into bottom of planter

  • It is a little clumsy to hold the planter upright and scoop in the soil at the same time.  I balanced the edge of the planter on a table while using a large metal ice scoop to add the soil.  Alternatively you could get someone to help you, but it does get heavy, as it takes quite a bit of soil.
  • My biggest problem was finding a post or garden trellis that was sturdy enough to hold the planter once the soil was wet.  It does get quite heavy and I imagine it will get even heavier as the fruits start to mature.
  • They did not supply large hooks with the planter and it would be helpful to have these.  The planter should hang freely away from the post or wall and it should be high enough above the ground that you don’t get spashback from any diseased soil on the ground when it rains. I moved my planter several times before finding a spot that worked.
  • Don’t forget to water.  There is quite a bit of soil in the planter and the plastic sides, along with the moisture control in the potting soil should be enough that you don’t have to water daily like a plant in a clay pot.

Progress after 2 weeks:

Both varieties in the planters seem to be doing well and they look quite healthy.  Neither are as large or as far along as the plants that were planted outside, but they appear to be doing just fine.

Raspberry Lyanna planted in soil in the greenhouse (unheated)

Raspberry Lyanna planted in soil in the greenhouse (unheated)

  • With all the rain that we have had, I have not watered these planters once since planting two weeks ago.  Watering has always been the downfall for me with container plants in the past, so I am encouraged that these might help the sometimes neglectful gardener.
  • The Raspberry Lyanna planted in the soil in the greenhouse has much larger fruit at this time and it appears it will ripen earlier, but the leaf coverage is approximately the same.  I should note that the plants in the greenhouse were also planted with a good dose of aged horse manure, which could account for their larger fruit.  As noted above, I used Miracle Grow Potting soil in the planters.

I will report back in about 3-4 weeks with photos to gauge the growth of the tomatoes planted in the Felknor Ventures 82506 Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Tomato Plantercompared to the greenhouse tomatoes.  And, of course, report on the taste of these particular varieties!

Tomato Disease Prevention & Cure: Blossom End Rot

Beginning and mid stages of Blossom End Rot

Beginning and mid stages of Blossom End Rot

Re:  Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Growing tomatoes in containers and pots is a great solution if you are in need of space or have limited areas with sun.  Container growing does have its trials and tribulations however, and sometimes it is a little trickier to get high yields of beautiful tomatoes growing in pots than if you were growing in the garden.

Blossom End Rot is one disease that tomatoes are more susceptible to when grown in pots.  Blossom end rot is initially a light tan, flattened area on the blossom end of the tomato that then enlarges and turns black and leathery.  It is caused by a localized calcium deficiency in the developing fruit.  This calcium deficiency is usually caused by an inconsistent watering regime, i.e., a dry-wet-dry cycle of watering.  Tomato plants prefer about one inch of water per week, and if you allow them to get quite dry in the pots, and then deluge them with water when you notice wilting, you are setting yourself up for blossom end rot.



  1. Blossom End Rot on Tomatoes

    Blossom End Rot on Tomatoes

    Mulch the soil around the plant ro reduce moisture fluctuations;

  2. When rainfall is less than 1 inch per week, soak the soil slowly with water from a hose or set up a soaker hose (sprinklers or watering from above can splash soil onto the plant’s leaves and promote other diseases);
  3. If you grow in pots each year, make sure and use fresh soil each year;
  4. Select disease resistant varieties of tomatoes, and consider growing determinate tomatoes.  Determinate tomatoes are shorter and bushier than indeterminate and they do not continue growing until frost, so they do not vine and outgrow the trellis or stakes you may have in your pots.  With determinates you will get a lot of tomatoes over a 3 to 4 week period rather than fewer tomatoes over a longer period (all summer) as with indeterminates.  Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate, but a few examples of determinate heirloom varieties that grow well in pots are:  Raspberry Lyanna, Manitoba, Principe Borghese, Prescott, and Black Sea Man.  My favorite determinate “hybrid” tomato for pots is the Bush Champion.  It was bred for pots and it is a medium slicing tomato with good flavor.  You can certainly grow indeterminate tomatoes (heirloom or hybrid) in pots, they are just higher maintenance;
  5. Select plastic or fiberglass pots rather than clay pots.  Clay pots dry out too fast and it is harder to regulate the water regime.  A self-watering container, EarthBox 1010039 Organic EarthBox, Terracotta, or home-made wicking system is even better.


Wide range of healthy heirloom tomatoes

Wide range of healthy heirloom tomatoes

All is not lost if your first flush of tomatoes has Blossom End Rot.  It is not a disease that lives in the soil like blight so it is certainly possible to save the remaining tomatoes.  Follow these steps and you can still enjoy a large harvest for the remaining part of summer:

  1. Set up a soaker hose system, transplant to a self-watering container, or be very conscientious about seeing that the pot does not dry out to less than 1 inch of water a week (and water the soil, not the leaves if using a hose or watering can);
  2. Add 2 Tbsp. Epsom salts to a gallon of water and use this to water with every other week.  Epsom salts in the watering regime will replace the calcium that has leeched out of the pot from too much previous watering.

So, to sum up:  water management and Calcium replacement are the two primary factors to be aware of in preventing and curing Blossom End Rot on tomatoes.  Have you had any varieties of heirloom tomatoes that seemed to be more or less susceptible to Blossom End Rot?  I’d be interested in hearing your experiences!

Happy Trails,


Tips on What to Look for (and Avoid) when Choosing Heirloom Tomato Plants

Healthy Heirloom Tomatoes

Healthy tomato plants ready to be put into the garden

I started selling heirloom tomato plants at the St. Paul Farmers’ market about 14 years ago, and every year I am fascinated with the care (sometimes bordering on angst) that people take in selecting their plants.

Before moving to Minnesota, my husband and I ran a small Christmas tree farm in Oregon, and the process of selecting the perfect tomato plant is strikingly similar to finding the perfect Christmas tree.  Some will spend a good part of the day worrying out details that only they can see, and some will just turn to me and say “pick me out a good one”.

Healthy vs. Other Aspects of Heirloom Tomatoes

In an attempt to make your life a little easier, here are a few “dos and don’ts” for selecting healthy heirloom tomato plants.  Understand, I’m talking healthy.  The amount of tomatoes you get, the size of the tomatoes, whether they are early or late, and how they taste is dependent on the variety and your growing practices.  The following list is  just a set of tips for making sure your plant grows into a healthy expression of what it’s genes tell it to be.

What to look for when Choosing Heirloom Tomato Plants:

  • Make sure the size of the pot is in proportion to the size of the plant; if you have a large plant in a small pot it is likely to be rootbound.  I think the perfect pot size is a 4″ pot, as it has allowed the plant to gain height while comfortably spreading it’s roots.  The example of the taller plant above is a 12″ plant in a 4″ pot.  While some plants may be shorter than this due to variety, they would still be best in a 4″ pot which allows their roots to grow gradually until you get it into the ground.
  • Look for a fairly thick stem; tall plants with thin stems have been stressed trying to reach the light and they will not stand up well to wind and rain in the garden;
  • White nodes (roots) on stem of heirloom tomato plant

    White nodes (roots) on stem of heirloom tomato plant

    Small white nodes along the bottom of the stem is not a bad sign.  Those are trying to be roots.  Plant the tomato deep enough to cover those white nodes and you will get more roots, and more tomatoes.

  • Make absolutely sure your plant has been hardened off.  If you are buying it at an outdoor market, you will know by the fact that it is not drooping and wilting, but if you are buying from inside a nursery or a catalog…ask to make sure.  Plants can look extremely healthy in a cultured environment and will fall over and wilt if you plant them outside without being hardened off;
  • Look at the growing whorl at the top of the plant; the bottom leaves of the plant may have suffered while hardening off, but if the top whorl is green and growing well, that is the main thing.  You should plant your tomatoes fairly deep anyway and take off the bottom leaves if they touch the ground.  The stem and the top are the two most important signs of health.
  • Check the underside of the leaves to make sure there are no aphids or small bugs you would be bringing home;
  • harmless windburn on lower leaves of heirloom tomato plant

    Harmless Windburn on Lower Leaves of Heirloom Tomato Plant

    The color of the plant should be green (with the exception of any bottom leaves that have suffered windburn or sunburn while hardening off).  If the plant is yellow it has probably been in the pot for too long and is lacking nitrogen; if the plant is somewhat maroon it has an iron deficiency.  Green is good.  You can fix the deficiencies with nutrition, but if it has gone too far the plant may be stunted;


What to Avoid when Choosing an Heirloom Plant:

  • Do not get great big plants that already have small tomatoes on them.  They have already put a lot of energy into fruiting before their time and you will not get very many tomatoes from them.  It’s fun to see tomatoes so early on a plant, but you will pay for it later with a poor yield.
  • Early flower on heirloom tomato  plant

    Early Flower on Heirloom Tomato Plant

    In the same vein, try to avoid plants that have blossoms;  Early blossoms on a small plant means it has been stressed and feels it must hurry and produce.  The yield will be poor.

  • Small pots with large tomatoes will most likely mean the roots are tangled up into a ball in the pot.  If you get one of these, be sure and break the roots gently apart and spread them out when planting;
  • If you are going to grow your tomatoes in pots, ask for a variety that is determinate and you will likely have more success.  Indeterminate plants will vine until frost and it is difficult to keep them upright in a pot without them breaking over the cage.  A determinate plant will grow to a certain height and stay relatively stocky.  With a determinate you will get a large yield over about a 3-week period, whereas with an indeterminate plant you will get a smaller yield but over a longer period of time.  Not to say that you can’t grow indeterminates in pots…you can.  It is just easier with determinate plants.

Where to Buy your Heirloom Tomato Plants:

Lastly, try and buy your tomato plants from a farmers’ market or somewhere where you have access to questioning a grower familiar with how the plant has been grown.  The teenagers at Wal-Mart definitely need the jobs they have,  but they may not be the best resource to help with any tomato questions you may have.


Growing Vegetables in Containers – Gardening in Small Spaces

By Cyndy Crist

Small Contained Garden with Currant Bush Border

Small Contained Garden at HeathGlen with Currant Bush Border

A rectangular space with neat rows of plants in a backyard or community garden – this may be the image that first comes to mind when you picture a vegetable garden.  But for many of us in urban settings, this kind of garden isn’t an option because we may lack sufficient space or sun to grow vegetables. And you don’t have to live in an urban area to lack the time or physical ability to tend such plots.  Happily, a wide array of edibles can be grown in containers of various shapes and sizes. With a little attention to the choices of plants, pots, and growing medium as well as growing conditions, anyone can produce tasty vegetables in containers.  Here are some tips to help guide your planning.

Why Grow in Containers

A lack of space for a vegetable garden isn’t the only reason to grow edibles in pots, although it is a big one.  Some of us, especially in older urban neighborhoods, have little space that gets the 6-8 hours of sun daily that most vegetables and herbs require, but we probably have small, sunny spots here and there big enough for a container or two.  And we may be able to take advantage of shifting sunlight over a day or the season by growing edibles in movable containers.

In addition, growing vegetables in a container or two lets those who have little time to spend tending plants or who don’t want to devote much energy to gardening grow their favorite vegetable or herb. Finally, individuals with limited mobility or strength can often manage to tend a few plants in pots or containers placed on raised surfaces.

There are also a few botanical benefits for growing edibles in containers.  Karl Foord from the University of Minnesota Extension Service has identified three:
They’ll be less accessible to animals that like to munch on them.
Growing in containers reduces soil-borne disease problems.
Vegetables grown in pots tend to suffer less from leaf diseases since the water on leaves in pots tends to dry more quickly.

Choosing Plants

Some have suggested that nearly anything that can be grown in a garden can also be grown in a pot.  While that is generally true, you can increase the odds of success by carefully selecting what you grow.

Starting with tomatoes, many identified as the best choices for growing in pots are a dead give-away because of names that include words like patio, tiny, pixie, small, or toy.  Specific varieties frequently mentioned as good choices for containers include Patio, Tumbler (a cherry tomato), Bush (Dorothy’s number one choice for containers), Fourth of July, Purple Cherokee, Toy Boy, Tiny Tim, Gardener’s Delight (an heirloom cherry tomato), Tumbling Tom, Beefmaster, and Silver Fir Tree.

For other types of vegetables, a little common sense and attention to growing habits will go a long way in making good choices. For example, some varieties of cucumbers and pole beans can be grown successfully in pots but they’ll need support for their vining habits. Small to medium-sized root vegetables like radishes, carrots, turnips, and beets can be grown in containers, as can green onions, peppers, eggplant, and broccoli.  Just about any herb or salad green (lettuces, spinach, and other leafy greens) can be grown in containers and, in fact, well-placed pots of these edibles can make them handy to harvest for regular use in the kitchen.

White Plastic Bench, Bookended by Two Large Containers

White Plastic Bench, Bookended by Two Large Containers (and the Lab, of course)

Choosing Pots

When selecting pots for container gardening, there’s more to think about than color, shape, and design. At least three practical factors need to be considered.

Drainage is arguably the most important consideration. If you’re going to grow edibles in containers, your pot must have good drainage so that your plants never sit in water.  Sitting water in pots will kill plants; it’s that simple. And don’t forget about the water that may run out of the bottom of the pot.  If this water accumulates, you’ve defeated the purpose of drainage holes.  Either make sure you can lift the pot and dump out any water that does accumulate in a pot tray or keep your pot raised an inch or more off the surface on which it’s sitting.  You can also reduce the chances of root rot by putting an inch of gravel in the bottom of the pot to hold excess water away from roots.  I know gardeners who put a layer of packing peanuts in the bottom of large containers to provide drainage and reduce the weight of big pots.

Wood Barrels Do Not Have a Long Life in Minnesota

Wood Barrels Do Not Have a Long Life in Minnesota


The kind of pot used is also important. You’ll want to keep a few things in mind before you make your choice.  Wooden containers (half-barrels, for example) may offer a look, size, and shape that you like, but they will rot over time and need to be replaced.  The porous nature of unglazed terra cotta pots will make it difficult to keep your pots sufficiently watered since water will evaporate through the pot’s surface. Better choices are pots made of nonporous materials like glazed ceramic, plastic, glass, and metal, though at the risk of sounding like a broken record, don’t forget that good drainage is essential.


Variety of Attractive Plastic Pots for Growing Tomatoes

Variety of Attractive Plastic Pots for Growing Tomatoes


Size is the third factor to consider. Most tomatoes require pots that hold at least five gallons of soil or potting medium, although some varieties can be grown in two gallon containers.  Vegetables that remain smaller can obviously do well in smaller pots, though less than one gallon is generally not recommended except for herbs and small salad greens.  A few plants have specific requirements. For example, carrots need to grow in soil that is at least two inches deeper than their mature length, and green beans need to be spaced at least three inches apart.

Choosing a Growing Medium

Many experts recommend using a soilless potting medium for container growing because it drains well and is lighter weight (especially important if your pots are large and require lifting or moving).  With soilless mixes, however, it is especially important to fertilize your plants regularly, since these mixes generally contain fewer nutrients.  If you choose to use potting soil, make sure that you use a sterile soil mix, not soil dug from your yard or garden.  This will reduce or eliminate the chances of introducing soil-borne diseases into your containers.  You can make your own potting mix with equal parts of soil, compost or peat, and either sand, perlite, or vermiculite, but again, be sure to use sterilized soil.

Planting Container Gardens

Planting containers is the easy part.  Generally speaking, you’ll want to settle in your plants in pots just as you would in the garden.  For most plants, this means planting  them so that the level of the soil in the pot from which they’re being  transplanted is at the surface of the soil or potting medium in the container.  One exception to this rule is tomatoes, which can nearly always benefit from being planted so that the first set of leaves is below the soil line; this allows the tomatoes to grow additional roots and be both more stable and able to take up more water.  And be sure to follow directions for spacing if you’re growing seeds or using more than one plant per pot.

Maintaining Container Gardens

A key factor for successful container gardens is watering.  Because the soil in pots can heat up more quickly than soil in the garden and has less overall capacity to hold water, containers generally need to be watered daily.  In fact, in especially hot and windy weather, you may need to water more than once a day.  Some growers recommend that at least once each week you water deeply enough for water to run through the bottom of the pot, but be sure the excess drains away. As with gardens, you can help maintain moisture in your pot by putting a layer of mulch on the surface of the soil.  Finally, if you are concerned about not being able to keep up with daily watering, you may wish to try one of the water-holding gels now on the market; these should be mixed into the soil at the time of planting.

Proper and sufficient feeding of container plants is also essential for plant health and robust production.  For me, it’s easiest to use a time-release fertilizer like Osmocote Flower and Vegetable Smart-Release Plant Food, which should be worked into the soil at the time of planting in the amount recommended on the package.  With this approach, a single application will carry you through the whole summer.  However, there are many options for those who want to grow organically.  Just be sure you choose a fertilizer that’s labeled for your vegetables and follow directions carefully for the correct amounts, method, and timing of application. I still remember an early attempt at container growing when I inadvertently “killed with kindness” the plants I had purchased because I used much too much fertilizer.  That’s one lesson I’ve never forgotten!

Mint growing in Tin Container

Mint growing in Tin Container


So, for those of you with little or no garden space to call your own, take heart.  You can grow an array of fresh veggies on your patio, porch, balcony, or in any little sunny spot you may have.  Just choose your pots and your plants wisely, water and feed them regularly, and make sure they get plenty of sun.  If you do, they’ll reward you with tasty treats all summer long.  Now, how easy is that!

The Container Garden Book

The Container Garden Book

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