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Growing Tomatoes & Bell Peppers in a Container

By Brian S.

Okay, so now you’ve got a handle on how to grow root and leaf vegetables in a container out on your balcony. But what about ‘flesh’ vegetables? Unlike root vegetables that grow below ground, and leaf vegetables that have no “flesh”, flesh vegetables are ... well, vegetables that grow above ground with flesh beneath their skin. Crisp, juicy tomatoes and sweet bell peppers are excellent examples of flesh vegetables, and are the next vegetables we are going to add to our container or planter box garden.

When it comes to growing veggies inside a container, the type of container doesn’t really matter as long as it’s been scrubbed clean, has drainage holes, and is light in colour (dark colours attract heat and can burn the roots). Ceramic flower pots, a wooden window box, galvanized steel buckets, plastic tubs are all suitable. The only thing that really matters is they must be of a suitable size and depth for the particular vegetable to be grown in it.

Pot Depth
Unless you’re growing a smaller variety of tomato, you need to use a large container to ensure success – the bigger the better. Try using one of those five gallon buckets that you see at the home center as long as it has a depth of between 14 and 24 inches. For bell peppers choose a two gallon sized container or a planter box, provided they are 12 to 16 inches deep.

Seed Spacing & Depth
Growing tomatoes from seeds is a little more complicated than the average vegetable. Plant the seeds one-eighth of an inch deep and roughly three inches apart in very moist potting soil. The seeds must absorb moisture from the damp potting mix in order to germinate properly. The germinating tomato seeds do not require sunlight, so place the container in a warm location out of direct sunlight. If you keep the soil moist, seedlings should appear within five to 10 days. As soon as the seedlings sprout, move the containers to a location with indirect sunlight. When the first few pairs of leaves are fully grown, transplant the seedlings so you have one plant per five gallon container. Strip all the leaves away from the bottom three-quarters of the seedling’s stem and plant it deep into the soil leaving the top quarter with the leaves above ground. Water thoroughly and move the container into direct sunlight immediately; avoid over-fertilizing for the next four weeks and water as directed.

For bell peppers, sow two or three seeds approximately one-half inch deep per pot. Keep the germinating seeds out of direct sunlight and the soil moist until the seedlings appear. As soon as the seedlings have a minimum of two pairs of leaves, they’re ready to transplant. Choose the strongest seedlings and plant them a little deeper than they were growing inside other appropriately sized containers. Tamp down the soil, water and move them into direct sunlight.

Insert a bamboo stake into the soil next to both the tomato and bell pepper plants. Loosely tie the plants to the stake with cotton twine as they grow. Retie as the plants grow taller.

Watering, Sun & Fertilizer
The biggest challenge to growing tomato plants in a pot is determining the correct amount of water. The goal is to keep the soil moist, but not too wet or soggy. If you overwater, the roots will rot, and if you under water, your plants will grow weak and the tomatoes will not blossom. If you’re having too much rain, protect the tomatoes by covering them or by moving the pots into a sheltered area. Likewise, if the weather is unusually hot or windy, you may need to water the plants twice a day. Unlike tomatoes, bell peppers love water. They need to be watered at least once every two days. If it rains frequently there is no need to move the pots and you probably don’t need to water them as much. Don’t let the soil become bone dry or too soggy in between watering. If you’re watering too much, the leaves will begin to turn yellow, and if too little the leaves will appear limp. In general, all vegetables take up more water and use water more efficiently when they are watered early in the morning.

Both tomatoes and bell peppers love the heat and sun. They grow best when exposed to eight or more hours of sunlight each day, but can get by with a minimum of six. If your balcony doesn’t get enough sun, you may have to monitor the amount and move the pots accordingly. If the sunlight is coming from only one direction, turning the pots daily will ensure the plants grow upright.

When it comes to fertilizing, tomatoes and bell peppers have similar needs. If the potting soil you used didn’t have fertilizer already mixed in (check the label on the bag), you’ll need to mix in a slow release fertilizer at the time of potting. Avoid fertilizing the seedlings for approximately four to six weeks, and then fertilize both tomatoes and bell peppers once a week with a water soluble (make sure to mix it thoroughly) fertilizer, like fish emulsion. Do this in the morning, right after you’ve watered the plants. You can also utilize organic fertilizers such as coffee grounds, which add nitrogen, and crushed egg shells, which add calcium to the soil.

Tomatoes are ready to pick approximately 60 to 85 days after planting, or when the entire tomato has turned red. Bell peppers are ready to harvest within a similar time frame. They should be picked when fully formed and uniform in colour. Both vegetables can be clipped off close to the fruit or twisted off the vine.