Planting tomatoes ON TOP of the soil outdoors - yay or nay?

organic_wonderfulApril 2, 2011

As most of us know, backfilling into the soil by adding ammendments like garden compost into the planting hole does not really work and can be counterproductive. However, a while ago I bought special bottomless pots for tomatoes that are meant to be planted on the soil surface itself and results in the roots emerging from the bottom of the compost (such as the 511 mix which is what I'll be using). I'm not sure if these pots have a special name, but can you experts out there tell me whether this practice is okay?

Or should I get smaller pots (like a small 5" pot) filled with the 511 mix and just plant this into the well cultivated soil?

Am I okay to add organic matter like compost, peat moss (if the soil pH is too high) or well rotted manure as a mulch, as long as it's distributed over as large an area as possible? The plan is to allow the earthworm population to drag the mulch below.

Finally, if I wanted to improve the soil drainage could I dig out a trench by my raised bed and place a large PVC pipe with holes in it, which is covered in secure permeable landscaping fabric, and fill underneath, on the sides and ontop of the pipe with gravel? The idea would be that the water would seep into the pipe away from the plant, and I could possibly place an electric sump pump in there to remove the water if need be.

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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Lots of growers turn their containers into raised beds and thus get away with growing in soils that are too water-retentive to be used in containers in the conventional way. Your idea of planting in a pot & letting roots run (into the ground) is fine & will work well if the (ground) soil, moisture levels and nutrition are favorable, and by all means - mulch as you described.

The drain you described would also be a VERY effective way to keep the soil drained. It appears you understand that you can't make clay soils drain by adding OM unless they have somewhere to drain TOO. ;o)


    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 1:19PM
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Excellent. Thanks Tapla.

Just one thing, if you don't mind though - can you recommend a rough size of PVC pipe to use (I suppose the exact size doesn't really matter that much)? I was thinking of using a four inch diameter PVC pipe. Would that work? Does it need to be as close the the plant roots in the native soil as possible?

Oh yes, and if I am growing tomatoes in containers and am potting up using the 511 mix medium in each pot, what final size pot would you recommend for a) determinate tomatoes and b)indeterminate tomatoes? I assume potting up is necessary when using he 511 mix like in almost any other medium?

I was going to go from a Root Riot cube or a peat pellet to a 5" pot (which is approximately one litre I think?) and then to a 3L pot and finally a 6L pot until the end. Does this sound okay?

    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 3:32PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Hey, Organic, I'll let Al answer, of course, but I wanted to say that 4 inch is fine.
Also, I grow tomatoes (indeterminate) in a container on my backdeck - for easy pickin' ;-)

I put my tomato directly into its final destination - which is a 15-20 gallon pot.


    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 3:56PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

4" pipe is fine, I would dig a trench so the pipe ends up about 12-18" deep, because it will only drain the soil above. I'm assuming you're low or growing in heavy clay?

I also put tomatoes from cell packs or 4" containers directly into 18 gallon containers of 5:1:1 with no problems. Remember to tear off the bottom of the roots and the lower leaves and plant DEEP - with only the upper leaves poking up through the soil. New roots will form along the stem & you'll wind up with a MUCH stronger root system, faster.


    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 5:27PM
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^ you mean there will be adventitious roots that form along the stem at the bottom?

Yes I am growing in clay, as you said.

How many leaves to I actually remove? Do you mean literally all the leaves up the stem except for the ones at the very top? Isn't that most of the foliage on the plant?

If I use this method do I need to do any other pruning? I'm not familiar with this technique so forgive my ignorance.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 6:25PM
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Also, 18 gallons is huge! I suppose the advantage of that is that you wouldn't have to water it so often. How often would you have to water an 18 US gallon pot containing the 511 mix?

    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 6:44PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

... you mean there will be adventitious roots that form along the stem at the bottom?


The advantage of a large container is that it doesn't inhibit growth due to root congestion as quickly. Generally, the growth of plants in containers remains unrestricted until about the point that roots and the soil mass can be lifted from the container intact. Using a larger container increases the amount of o/a growth that can occur before growth rate slows. The problem usually is that with heavy bagged soils, you can't pot in the large containers w/o risking root rot or other effects related to excess water retention and poor aeration, where you can, and with little concern for ill effects, when using a well-aerated, fast-draining soil.

You can start with a lesser volume of soil, however, if you know your roots are going to run to ground. Additionally, if your containers are ON the ground, it turns them into mini raised beds & you CAN grow in a heavier soil than you could get away with w/o problems growing conventionally.


    Bookmark   April 3, 2011 at 3:57PM
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Thanks, the photo and explanation was very helpful tapla. I did wonder how you could pot up straight into a large pot without the whole thing becoming anaerobic but if you're using a medium like the 511 mix that drains well and is aerated then that makes sense that it would work.

I never heard of the trick where you remove leaves and bury so that roots form on the stem. I'll definitely be trying that.

I just wish I had found this forum sooner.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2011 at 5:41PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Lol - you're the third person who said that in the last 2 days. Thanks - we're glad you're here!!


    Bookmark   April 3, 2011 at 9:41PM
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Tomatoes can be pretty picky about container size and plant spacing. They have huge root systems and use lots of water and nutrients. If they are too close together they have lots of trouble with disease and fungus. In the garden (at least in OK) we space them 4 feet apart. I plan to water my tomatoes in large containers every day during the summer. But of course we have highs over 100F through much of the summer.

It also depends on what type of tomato you grow. The bush and patio types can handle a 5 gallon bucket if you water and fertilize well. But if you want a large indeterminate tomato in a pot you'll have to look into giant rubbermaid tubs.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2011 at 10:44PM
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onafixedincome(z8-9 CA)

OW, I sense you have a tendency similar to mine--you want to do everything as thoroughly as possible. :) Not necessarily a bad thing, but you can spend a fortune on a relatively small return, then have to do it over differently next year.

My own favorite tomato growing technique, either in the ground or above, is to simply make sure that there is a suitable area (no container? Just prep an entire section of ground about 2' deep and introduce worms to the soil as well) and stick that 'mater plant in as far as it will go--in a container, I would not put the root ball on the bottom (trust me--ask me how I know), but rather about 2/3 of the way down at most.

I'm very fond of my soil here--it has high concentrations of vermicompost (it's not just worm castings, it's also partially decomposed organic material) and small porous volcanic rock called DryStall, so it remains nicely aerated and relatively loose (although it can be packed). It grows ANYTHING.

Tomatoes are 'hungy' plants; they feed and drink heavily, so make sure that you are giving them plenty to work with no matter what soil you have.

It's not really as hard as you seem to be making it, is what I'm saying. Nice big containers, good soil and plenty of water/nutrients and all will be well. Or jam them in the ground if you have the drainage and same thing.

I'm kind of wondering where you are that you think you might need a sump pump for runoff... :) I just took the hose and engaged in a little hydro excavation leading to where I wanted my extra water, and you know what? I didn't even need it. You might try that first to test the idea...

KISS is your friend here, I think...but that's just me. :)

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 6:10AM
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^ Are you saying you sink containers into the soil? If so with respect, I'm not sure that's the best way to go about things, since it will act as a sump, drawing in water and making drainage problems 10x worse.

But I agree, a KISS approach is desirable. I know it sounds like I'm making it more complicated than it needs to be, but don't worry, I've got it all under control I think. And more importantly, it satisfies my desire to improve my gardening skills. If we didn't push the envelope and try new things then we might still be making the same old mistakes people have been making for years. That's my take on all this anyway.

I do appreciate your advice though, thanks.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 5:19PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

It's the opposite, Organic.

The earth acts as a giant wick, drawing moisture downward and out of the containers,
which actually helps with drainage greatly.


    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 5:25PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

..... unless you sink the pots in heavy clay - THEN you could have an issue due to slow percolation and the accompanying 'bathtub effect'; but in soils with reasonable drainage, the earth does act as a wick & quickly removes any perched water from the container.


    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 6:04PM
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onafixedincome(z8-9 CA)

No, no sunken containers here... :) I appreciate your inquiring mind--you make me think, so thanks!

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 11:50PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Lol - thank YOU. I really do try to make people think about things when I post. It helps everyone when they can connect ALL the dots instead of just understanding certain aspects of container culture. I don't necessarily want a say in how you decide to apply information, though I will try to guide someone to a degree, if I think they're headed down a path that doesn't lead to the biggest bang for the effort. Still, the primary focus is on making sure you get reliable information to help with your decisions, then play cheerleader & hope they're all good ones. ;-)

It's been alotta fun talking with you, Pam. I hope you stick around, or at least remember where to find us.


    Bookmark   April 5, 2011 at 11:05AM
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pattypan(z6b CT)

thank you, al and others ! this thread has answered a lot of questions for me. luckily my soil is very sandy, but the voles have forced me into containers for my sweet potatoes and other root crops. i used sticks to plug up the big holes and sink the 12" high pots into the ground about 3". i didn't use wicks but did try to imitate al's mix, with about 50% of my garden soil, with no problems.
now i'm using 30 gallon food-grade drums cut in half(55 gallon are too big to dump for harvest). i drill 1\4" holes in the bottom and 2-3" up the sides, about 30 in all. if i sink them to cover the side holes, i believe the roots will go out and down, and no wicks will be needed. al, do you see any problem with this so far ? i've read that surface roots get different nutrients than roots that go very deep, so i'm trying to accomodate them all. i will try to find the .edu (library) webpage that shows root development. tomatoes and sweet potatoes can go 4 feet deep, parsnips 9 feet !

    Bookmark   May 28, 2012 at 4:45PM
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pattypan(z6b CT)
oops, this isn't a .edu, and i hope it is still true, since it from 1927 !!!

    Bookmark   May 28, 2012 at 4:52PM
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