How Many Tomato Plants Can You Grow In a 5 Gallon Bucket?
A 5 gallon bucket is the minimum size pot you need for one bush tomato plant or one vine tomato plant. Whichever variety you decide to plant, you should know that tomatoes grown in containers need some green-fingered tricks to help them grow well enough to produce a decent harvest.
Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables grown at home and that’s no great surprise.
Home grown tomatoes taste amazing!
If you’ve only eaten supermarket tomatoes so far, then prepare for a taste sensation.
When you grow your own tomatoes, you don’t have to settle for those perfectly shaped yet tasteless watery globes from the store.
Instead you can grow any one of countless varieties, and enjoy tomatoes bursting with intense flavor.
And when you pop one into your mouth, straight off the vine on a warm summer day, the flavor will knock your socks off.
I always have a wow moment when I bite into the first tomato of the season.
Container grown tomatoes are tricky to get right though.
When you grow tomatoes in any type of container, the plants can’t extend their roots and gather nutrients from the wider area like they can when they’re grown in the ground. Instead they can only feed on the nutrients in the potting soil and from any fertilizer you give them.
What’s more, every time you water your tomato plants in their 5 gallon buckets, many of those nutrients wash right out of the bottom of the bucket. And because containers dry out much faster than garden beds, you will water them often which means more nutrient loss, unless you know what to do to prevent it.
So join me in this bucket garden guide and I’ll teach you the secrets to growing super productive tomato plants in 5 gallon buckets.
How Many Tomato Plants Can You Grow In A 5 Gallon Bucket?
Even though tomato plants are small when you buy them, or when it’s time to transplant the seedlings you’ve grown yourself, the plants soon grow into great big bushy plants for bush type tomatoes (determinate varieties) and into huge sprawling vines for vine type tomatoes (indeterminate varieties).
If you tried to plant 2 tomato plants into a 5 gallon bucket, neither would have enough room to grow, or to access sufficient nutrients or water. And because the foliage would be so crowded, you wouldn’t get good air flow, which would encourage disease to take hold.
A 5 gallon bucket has enough room for 1 plant. And this is only true if you can commit to proper feeding and watering. All container-grown plants need extra attention from the grower over and above the needs of plants grown in the ground.
Given the choice, I would always plant pretty much every vegetable into garden beds, but if you don’t have a garden and are limited to growing on your balcony, patio, or deck, then bucket gardens can work really well.
And if you rent your property and your landlord won’t let you grow a vegetable garden, container gardening is a great way to produce your own fresh, healthy, and very tasty veg.
Which Tomato Is Best For 5 Gallon Buckets – Determinate or Indeterminate?
Either type will be fine in a 5 gallon bucket or other large container.
Determinate tomatoes are usually bush varieties and they take up a lot of room. If you don’t have a lot of space for your bucket garden, choose a vine type tomato instead.
With determinate varieties, all of the tomatoes are ready for harvest over a short period of time. This makes bush tomatoes a great choice if you plan to can your tomatoes. Bush tomatoes usually reach around 3 feet in height and they can spread out about 3 feet wide.
Indeterminate varieties of tomato are usually vine types, which grow up rather than out like their bush cousins. And unlike bush tomatoes, vine tomatoes produce a slow and steady crop over many weeks, until the first frosts kill the plant.
Although indeterminate tomatoes have an upright growth habit, they can quickly get out of control and turn into monster plants unless you pinch out the side shoots to keep the plant to one main stem.
With container-grown indeterminate tomatoes you really must pinch out the side shoots because the confined root system won’t be able to support a multi branching plant.
Both types of tomato will need some support and I’ll get into that later on.
Preparing Your 5 Gallon Bucket Before Planting
Before you fill your bucket with potting mix or compost, you need to clean it out and make sure you have drilled some drainage holes.
When you buy purpose-made planting containers, the drainage holes are already present, but when you’re turning a bucket into a container, you have to drill your own holes.
So obviously you’ll need a drill and be able to use it safely.
If you need to buy a drill, opt for a cordless model. Cordless drills make life much easier when you’re working on any outdoor project because you don’t have to trail extension cables around with you.
I’ve used Makita drills for years, but any reputable brand will be a good choice.
Avoid fly-by-night cheapo brands though, they’re never good value for money and wear out before you know it. As the saying goes: buy cheap, buy twice.
You’ll also need a 5mm or 10mm (1/4 to 1/2 inch) wood or metal drill bit.
To make holes in the bucket, turn it over so the bottom is facing you, then make marks about 1 inch in from the outer edge. Make a second ring of marks half way between the first set and the center of the bucket. Then drill the holes.
Filling Your Bucket With Potting Soil & Fertilizer
Tomato plants need a lot of water to support their abundant foliage and to make their fruits.
Containers are notorious for drying out especially in hot weather, so one thing that you should do before you plant tomatoes is mix in some water retentive medium with the bottom 4 – 5 inches of your potting mix or compost.
You can use wood chips, purpose-made water retaining granules, or you can use the interior of a baby’s diaper (nappy). Yes really!
Soak a clean diaper in water then tear it open, you’ll find a layer of polymer that looks like white jelly. This is the part that soaks up all of the moisture and it can hold about 100 times its own weight in water.
When you mix that with your soil, you will have a good source of water for your tomato plants roots to grow down into.
Simply add a few inches of potting mix to the bottom of your bucket and give it some water, then mix in the already wet polymer.
Now you can add more potting mix until your bucket is around one third full.
Next it’s time to add some calcium. If you don’t give your tomatoes calcium, they are prone to develop blossom end rot. You can buy calcium nitrate powder, but many gardeners use gypsum powder, or bone meal.
I’m a frugal type of person so I save my eggshells to add calcium to my plants.
If you want to use eggshells, you need to let them dry, then grind them in a coffee grinder into a powder. Next you need to release the calcium with white vinegar.
Take a look at this post to find out how to make calcium for your plants from egg shells.
Another very important nutrient your tomatoes will need is magnesium. The most economical way to provide this is to add 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) to your bucket.
The final nutrient to add before you plant is phosphate. The type of phosphate you use is important because some forms are less available to the plants than others. The best form to use is bone meal which is widely available. Add a couple of tablespoons of bone meal to the potting soil, and mix it in.
If you have access to aged chicken manure or goat manure (my favorites) those are really good phosphate sources too.
How To Plant A Tomato Plant In A 5 Gallon Bucket
Wait until your plant is about 6 inches tall. And make sure the weather is warm enough before you plant.
The minimum night time temperature for tomatoes is 50 °F (10°C) and in the daytime temps should ideally be in the 70’s F (+20 °C).
Note: When temperatures are over 85 °F (30 °C) tomatoes get stressed and don’t set fruit very well. If you have very hot summers, have some shade cloth on hand to shield the plants from the worst of the heat.
Make a slight depression in the potting mix.
Ease your transplant out of the pot and set in the depression.
Now add more moist potting mix to the bucket, until you’ve reached just under the leaves. The whole stem should be buried.
With tomatoes, you’ll notice fine hairs all along the stem, and when these come into contact with soil, they grow into roots. The more roots the tomato plant has, the better it can absorb water and nutrients.
Firm the soil down with your hand to eliminate any air pockets.
Give the potting mix a light watering to help the plant settle.
Try to avoid wetting the leaves, because wet leaves are an invitation to disease.
Move your bucket into a sunny, sheltered position.
As the tomato plant grows, add more moistened potting mix until the soil level is a couple of inches from the top of the bucket.
Keep a close eye on your tomato plant’s water needs. In hot weather you’ll need to give the plant some water every day; otherwise, get into the habit of using your finger to test the moisture level.
Simply push your finger 2 – 3 inches (5 – 8 cm) into the soil and see if the soil is moist at that depth. If it is, your plant has enough water. If the soil feels dry, the plant needs a drink.
How To Support A Tomato Plant Grown In A 5 Gallon Bucket
For indeterminate varieties, use a tomato stake or a long bamboo cane.
Push the stake into the soil just outside the plants root ball.
As the plant grows tie the stem to the stake every foot with soft flexible ties or tomato clips.
Because you will prune your tomato to one single stem (see below) this is all the support it should need.
Determinate bush tomatoes will need a tomato cage for support.
Again, set the support in place while the plant is young.
As the tomato plant grows, the ‘branches’ will grow out sideways through the squares in the cage.
How To Prune Your Tomato Plants
It’s important to prune your tomato plants as they grow to ensure good airflow which helps to prevent disease, and to make sure that your plants don’t put all of their energy into growing tons of foliage and barely any fruit.
The first parts to prune are the lower leaves that come into contact with the ground. These leaves are most susceptible to disease. To begin with, pinch off leaves along the first 6 – 8 inches of the stem.
As the plants continue to grow, keep on top of removing lower leaves when they turn yellow.
This next part only applies to indeterminate varieties. You can leave your bush tomatoes alone.
For indeterminate types, you need to pinch out side shoots as the plants grow.
In the image below, I’ve circled the side shoots. Side shoots grow in the ‘armpit’ between the main stem and a leaf stalk.
All you need to do is pinch the side shoots off with your fingers. It’s best to remove them when they’re small, but they are easy to miss and they grow really fast, so sometimes you’ll find side shoots when they’re a foot long! You can still remove side shoots at that stage, just carefully cut or snap them off.
If you want to grow some more tomato plants, pop the side shoots into a jar of water and they will develop roots. Then you can plant them like any other tomato plant.
I try to get around to removing side shoots once a week throughout the season.
Another pruning tip to follow is to remove the first flower truss. Your plants will develop flower trusses very early on, when the plant is far too young to be able to make any tomatoes. All the flower truss will do is divert energy away from robust growth. So pinch the very first flower trusses off.
Once every 2 weeks dissolve 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts in 1 gallon of water and water your plant. This will replace the magnesium that will leach out of your pot during normal watering.
Add more bone meal (or other phosphorus) after the first month. Use a couple of tablespoons sprinkled on the soil surface every 2 – 3 weeks.
Continue to add calcium. If you’re using calcium powder, add one teaspoon to your watering can every 4 weeks. if you’re using bone meal for calcium and phosphorus, just increase the amount you use every 2 – 3 weeks to 3 tablespoons.
Finally, after about 6 weeks you should begin to feed with a liquid tomato feed. Buy a feed formulated for tomatoes and follow the dilution instructions and application frequency on the bottle.
Frequently Asked Questions
By now, you should have everything you need to know about growing tomatoes in a 5 gallon bucket.
Start your plants off in a good potting mix amended with nutrients, pinch out side shoots as necessary, stake and support the growing plants, and water and feed regularly.
You should be picking the most amazing tomatoes you’ve ever tasted very soon.
Remember though to only plant one tomato plant per bucket.
Thanks for reading: How Many Tomato Plants Can You Grow In A 5 Gallon Bucket?