Maximizing 4x4’ tomato garden


#1

Hi. Ive added a 4x4 tomato planter on the sw side of our house (we are in denver colorado) we would like to grow some additional tomato plants and i am an amateur hack. At this point it will be store bought options, big box or garden center. We tend to love sweeter and smaller and have problems with big heirlooms cracking or only giving us 3-6 total tomatoes.

Im curious if you would recommend a couple commonly available varieties that produce abundant fruit but also talk to me about hot to get the most out of my 4’x4’ box as far as planting, staking and pruning. Its beyond confusing to try to figure out wether to prune or not. We have had my favorite sungolds turn into big wild bushes and they are still bountiful producers…can you give me an idea of how you would use the box?


#2

I’m going to preface by saying I am not a tomato expert, but here is some of what I know.

First of all, do you understand the difference between determinate and indeterminate varieties? Determinate varieties are limited in height and produce their harvest all at once, so they are good if you are planning to do canning or need all the tomatoes at once for some other reason. Indeterminate varieties keep growing until they are killed by frost and produce tomatoes a few at a time.

In general, heirloom varieties are adapted to specific climatic conditions which may or may not match yours, whereas hybrids will have greater adaptability in varied climates. There are some hybrids, such as Early Girl, which tend to produce decent quality tomatoes almost anywhere.

I don’t know that much about pruning them for greater production. I do know that if you go with an indeterminate variety, the little tomato cages that are commonly available everywhere are too small for the job. You will either need to buy some heavy-duty ones or stake and tie the plants.

My climate is very different from yours so I can’t recommend specific varieties, but there are plenty of webpages and videos on the internet about choosing varieties for your conditions.

Good luck :slightly_smiling_face:


#3

4x4 is good for one plant . You can put more but you run the risk of more soil born disease due to lack of air circulation. More plants does not necessarily mean more tomatoes when planting in confined space.


#4

Well, since you are limited to big box store varieties, it’s hard to say.

Bonnie Plants who supplies most of those guys used to have buyer reviews on their website. For what reason a wholesaler would have reviews, I don’t know.

I would try a ma and pa nursery in your area instead. I assume that they would be open for curbside pickup. Probably any locally started salad tomato would be OK.

Probably any of the Eastern European varieties would be at least OK. In my area I would go for Moskovitz if they have it. I like “Red Siberian”. “Stupice” ( pronunced “ Stu . PEASH” ). has a following here. I think that the taste is not as good as the others, especially at the beginning of the season, but it produces well, and has a unique ability to survive a light frost or two at the end of the season.

Assuming it’s really 4x4, I’d go ahead and put 4-5 plants in there. We don’t have problems with blight like they do Back East.


#5

I agree maybe more than 1 but its about Care also. One plant could bring more tomatoes than 3 . Might try a tomato tower using wire trellis . Also an option I have used in the past is hanging tomatoes in Planters or buckets. In my college apartments we replaced flower pots with fruiting plants with success. Cherry Tomatoes dont weigh down a plant so they do well trellis or hanging, same with smaller varieties like Roma, Amish Paste … One of my best tomato years we grew cherry tomatos on a Wooven fence wire frame as a privicy barrier on a porch. … Larger varieties dont do well bunched or hung Mr Stripy, Brandwine, Golden Jubilee.


#6

For quicker production, I would recommend Early Girl as mentioned above. It’s prolific, produces early, and my wife and I loved the taste. I believe that you could put at least two plants in your planter box, but you will need to figure out how to support the vines. I use 3/4" PVC pipe scaffolding and let the tomatoes crawl up garden twine I hang from the PVC.

Caveat: I haven’t tried a lot of the more exotic varieties, but am slowly trying different vareities.


#7

I would do 2 tomatoes in a 4x4’ and then plant something else at the base. At 3 and 4 tomatoes they are going to start shading each other other and only the ones facing towards the sun will be productive.

Quantity goes down as size increases, if you want a steady supply of a lot of tomatoes go with a cherry or plum (2-4 oz). Hybrids will also likely be more productive due to being more disease resistant and adaptable.

For pruning, I am of the opinion its not worth all the effort just to get maybe 20% more - Id rather just plant one more tomato. Tomatoes started indoors and fertilized properly can very easily get 8-10" tall and 3-4’ wide by the end of the season.

I’ll link to the way I grow tomatoes below, but you can also google “rebar mesh tomato cages”. Basically you plant the tomatoes and plop a 24" wide and 5’ tall cage over it, securing it to the ground somehow. Then the only pruning / training you have to do is removing the leaves touching the soil when the plants get tall enough and redirecting the branches that try to escape back into the cage. I wouldn’t grow them any other way.


#8

‘Better Boy’. One Better Boy is all you need. They’re the perfect size for a regular size burger or slicing for a plate. They don’t have funky shapes; They’re a bit better than ‘Beefstake’. They’re not as large as a Beefstake, either.

You could feed a family of 3 pretty well with one plant I would think. And don’t plant two unless you want to wind a cherry tomato around in there. It’s going to get out of control to have (2) plants in there, yet-one. ‘Sun Sugar’ a friend of mine is crazy about for cherry types. He is insane over tomatoes, he’s not a gardener, but he’ll try a dozen new ones a year and that’s still his favorite for a cherry tomater.


#9

I would plant 4 plants in a 4x4 planter (but I am always crowding things). As stated in this thread, ideally the cages would be steel mesh cylinders made from concrete reinforcing mesh, typically 5 feet tall (although die-hards can get the 7 foot stuff). I make them about 21 inches in diameter. Any home center sells it in a massive roll, but it is kind of dangerous to work with, as described in other posts. I would not use an angle grinder to cut it as it makes ever sharper edges than bolt cutters (my personal opinion). And the warning about it springing back at you and taking out an eye is very very real. But if you are serious about growing tomatoes, these cages will last for many years. You can find some big beefy tomato cages at home centers nowadays. I have never pruned a tomato and I never will. If you need something to keep you busy, go right ahead. As for small and sweet varieties, well your Sungold is already the winner! If you want smaller and sweeter, then your red round hybrids (like Celebrity, Better Boy, Early Girl, Whooper, Big Beef, etc) may not be what you want (but they are still great). You might try Juliet, an oblong saladette that is quite sweet. Stupice is awesome with a very strong flavor, but not super sweet. Sugary isn’t bad, but might be hard to find. Sunsugar is great too but usually is slightly inferior to Sungold. Mountain Magic is a good choice - small to medium with great flavor most years. For the adventurous you could try a currant tomato but it will outgrow everything else (but the flavor is fantastic).


#10

Always amazes me the diversity of opinions about growing tomatoes. Here’s my $.02. The size planter determines how many plants can be grown but this changes depending on whether you are growing indeterminate, determinate, brachytic, dwarf, or micro-dwarf varieties. For indeterminates, 2 plants at opposite corners would be happy. Amend the soil a lot more - as in 5 or 6 bags of brown cow compost or similar - and it would support 4 indeterminates.

Heavily amended soil:
4 - indeterminate
6 - determinate
6 - brachytic (Mountain Magic is brachytic)
9 - dwarf
12 - micro-dwarf

Perhaps more important is choice of variety. Barkslip suggests Better Boy which is a fairly productive tomato. I would suggest Big Beef as a better tomato than Better Boy because it produces 30% more fruit and tastes better. However, this does not take into account something really important. OP specifically stated that he wants a “sweet” tomato. With that in mind, I would suggest Crnkovic Yugoslavian, Eva Purple Ball, Goose Creek, HIbor, or Sungold. He is not likely to be able to find local plants of any but the Sungold.

Denver is the “mile high” city and has a relatively hot and dry summer climate. This requires 2 things, the first is a good way to water the plants, and the second is to mulch around the base of the plants. I want to emphasize the importance of the mulch because a raised bed can easily overheat from the sun shining on exposed soil.

Because the climate is dry, foliage disease is usually not a major problem. I would still put the plants up either with cages or on stakes both to keep the foliage dry and to avoid problems with fruit damage from pests.

To prune or not to prune, that is the question. The simple answer is that pruning usually reduces fruit production except when training plants on stakes. Prune to a single leader and you can put more plants in the same area. However, the best production comes from plants with the most foliage. So pruning depends on how much space is available, how many varieties OP wants to grow, and how dedicated to doing the work involved. If it helps, I rarely prune my plants and then only when basal sprouts are excessive. I have plenty of room for them to spread out which usually maximizes production.


#11

A little of topic, but it is rather amusing to see people’s opinions on different varieties. I haven’t spent much time on the big tomato forum, but the fig forums can get a bit crazy. That’s why I really like GF, you can get some great advice with very little strife (with the exception of the lounge maybe.)


#12

Thanks for this! We do have a heavily amended bed. I just added several inches of cow compost. We will go to the garden center over the big box store so there are some more choices but not many. I try to shop local when possible but still half of whats in the garden store are bonnie plants anyway.

We had some last year that were chococlate somethings and they were great. What i find for us is that we mostly prefer small tomatoes to bigger slicing ones. We get more and enjoy the flavors. Most importantly, my little preschooler will eat them by the handful.

I do use mulch, this year i was thinking about straw mulch. We have learned to water tons but also on a strict schedule to keep from having split tomatoes. This year im hoping to make some sort of greenhouse enclosure for them to let us get that final fall picking. It feels like our production (we always pland indeterminate) ramps up. Yes the plants continue to produce, but most of it is end of summer and an early frost can be a massive bummer.


#13

Well, if fall production is a major point let me reiterate ‘Stupice’.

The ability of a mature plant to produce through a couple of light frosts is surprising. So far as I know, it’s unique to ‘Stupice’. Even the big box stores sell it on my side of the Rockies.

Sunburn is a problem for me and probably for you. Pruning wouldn’t be an experiment I would try.


#14

Stupice was developed to have some cold tolerance. Siberian and Earlinorth have similar traits but better overall performance. Siberian has very good general tolerance to adverse weather including cool soil and rainy climates. Earlinorth has the ft gene which sets fruit at 40 degrees F.


#15

We’re in the same boat. I’d probably plant 4 or more in that space, but I tend to crowd – love videos on square foot gardening because it gives me license to :). This year we’re trying the highly regarded Juliet (large cherry sized) and some mixed color cherries, including Sun Gold, which is a favorite. We’re also trying to get more production by building up our soil. Good luck!


#16

Would ‘Siberian’ be the same as Red Siberian?

If so I like it a lot. Better taste than Stupice, equal production as early or nearly as early. I hadn’t noticed the same ability to withstand a light fall frost.

If it’s available as a start I would highly recommend it.


#17

Red Siberian is one of the names it is known by. Keep in mind that serious cold tolerance is not currently present in the tomato genome. I have some breeding lines that can take temps down to 28 degrees with minimal damage. They are not yet ready for the mainstream.

I have this blurb on my website. The Russian varieties mentioned are still killed if hit by radiant frost.

What is the temperature range at which tomato plants can grow and thrive?

120°F = Severe heat, but if plenty of water is available, the plants are fine. This temp is way above levels at which pollination can take place. Plants with heavy fruit set may show stress. Nutrient transfer imbalances occur because the plant is busy moving water into leaves instead of moving nutrients into fruit.

92°F = This is the temp at which pollen starts clumping and blossoms begin to drop.

70°F to 92°F = This is the goldilocks zone. Tomatoes grow prolifically, flowers set readily, plants need maximum fertility in the soil. The high end of this range is optimum for spread of several foliage diseases.

65°F to 72°F = the best temperature to grow seedlings. Temperature can be used to slow down growth. 60°F will cause growth to be reduced about 1/4 compared to 70°F.

50°F to 65°F = this is the beginning of cold stress. Tomato plants in this range grow slowly, often produce anthcyanins (turn purple), and become pale green from loss of chlorophyll function.

32°F to 50°F = This is the range where normal tomato plants show severe cold stress. Leaves shrivel, turn yellow, wilt, stems lose turgor, roots stop absorbing water. Rubisco is deactivated by free radicals with byproducts accumulating which causes the leaves to die.

28°F to 32°F = This is the maximum range most tomatoes can withstand without freezing. Note that if frost forms on the leaves, then the leaves will freeze and die. The plant may live and can form new leaves, but the stunting effects take quite a bit of time to overcome.The time a plant can stand at this temperature is very short, in the range of about 6 hours in a 7 day period. If the temperature remains below 50 deg F on average and if the temperature dips below freezing a couple of times, the plants will deteriorate rapidly.

22°F to 28°F = This is the range that a few select varieties can withstand for brief periods of time but stipulating that frost on the leaves will still kill them.

15°F to 22°F = This is the range that a few Russian cultivars are reported to survive, again only if frost does not form. The reports I have read indicate that this tolerance is only for a limited time period, in other words, repeated low temps for 3 days or more will still kill the plants.

0°F to 15°F = A few Russian cultivars are able to handle temps this low for brief periods of time. This is the low end of the range that wild tomato species S. Habrochaites, S. Chilense, and S. Lycopersicoides can withstand.

As the temperature goes below 60°F, tomato plants enter a state where normal photosynthesis ceases. Sugar accumulates in the leaves, rubisco - a crucial chemical in the plant - begins to be deactivated by free radicles. This process causes the leaves to become dysfunctional in such a way that they can not recover. One very special trick that greenhouse growers MUST know is that if plants are exposed to overnight lows below 45°F then the greenhouse must be let rise to a high temp near 100°F the next day. If this is done, then the plants totally reverse all effects of being too cold the night before.