Plant Tomatoes In An Earthbox

Here is the second “Gardening for PhDs” tutorial- how to set up an Earthbox to grow tomatoes.  I won’t go into as much detail as I did here, but I will demonstrate the different needs you’ll have for growing tomatoes, in comparison to herbs.  And since all my readers are smart, I’m sure you can figure out how to combine techniques to grow peppers, right?

We all know many reasons for growing our own tomatoes, most of which are related to tastiness, and the non-rubbery texture home garden tomatoes have, in comparison to their (dare we call it? ) relatives that one finds in Minnesota supermarkets in February.

An Earthbox is designed to handle two tomato plants, which will grow and prosper.  DH and I actually did the experiment of 2 plants in the ground in the yard vs. 2 plants in an Earthbox one summer.  Ground: 3 tomatoes, Earthbox: 40+ tomatoes.  You now understand why we haven’t bothered with the ground since.  If you want to have more tomato plants (more varieties, etc), get more planters, rather than crowd the box (We did this one year, too, and there’s a reason the experts say to do it the way they do.  Believe them.).

Think ahead a little about what kind of tomatoes you like, and what kind you think taste best.  It is also good to check if the plants are determinate or indeterminate types when you are pairing them in boxes.   Determinate plants will stop growing in height after they reach a certain size, while indeterminate plants don’t.  This can be important when planning for your staking needs.

I would recommend not having more than one cherry tomato plant unless you have a household of more than two people, unless you have plenty of time for picking, or you just like teeny tomatoes.  I think we had six different varieties of plants this year.  This summer I  finally really understood the appeal of “beefsteak” type tomatoes.  I usually just head down to the Farmer’s Market here in town, and start asking questions about varieties from the plant vendors.

Note some of the following pictures show the Earthbox with a staking system, which we use for our tomatoes, though as you’ll see, traditional tomato cages can also be used to good effect.

Initial Planting

Once you have the casters on the box, and you have installed the grate and the watering tube, you’ll add soil to the square holes in two corners, to create the “wick” for the water to reach the soil.  Then you’ll fill the reservoir with water through the watering tube, until some water starts coming out the drain hole.

Wicking soil added to corners, after grate and watering tube

Wicking soil added to corners, after grate and watering tube

Tomatoes need the extra nutrients supplied by lime or dolomite, so if you got the kit, now is the time to mix your dolomite package with the potting soil.

Mix the dolomite with the potting soil

Mix the dolomite with the potting soil

Get your hands right in there and mix it up.  Don’t be afraid to get dirty… this is GARDENING!

Again, fill up the box as full as possible, mounding the soil up over the rim, as shown in the profile view below.

Profile View of Soil

Profile View of Soil

Now, add the plant food/fertilizer strip on top of the soil, in the appropriate position for your tomato plants.  This time, you want the fertilizer along the opposite long side of the box from where you will be placing your plants.  And yes, I do use Organic fertilizer.

Fertilizer Strip for Tomatoes

Fertilizer Strip for Tomatoes

Then, put on the mulch cover.  Now you’re ready to plant.  Cut your X shape into the mulch cover in the corners opposite the fertilizer strip and watering tube, dig out a hole for the seedling, and push the seedling through the cover.

Plant Tomato

Plant Tomato

Here you can see I am planting my tomato seedling.  This is a good view of the outriggers for the staking system, which also have places for casters at the bottom.  The casters are especially useful in the fall when temperatures dip at night.  When there’s danger of frost, we just wheel the tomato plants into the garage overnight.

Water in your seedlings from the top JUST THIS ONCE, and assemble any staking system, or place your tomato cages.  Do it now, since it’s hard to do once the tomato plants are bigger.

Tomatoes planted in Earthbox with Staking System

Tomatoes planted in Earthbox with Staking System

And all you’ll have to do now is keep the water reservoir full for the season, either with a hose, or your trusty bucket and funnel, or, if you are really not into maintenance, the Earthbox people have come up with a perpetual watering system if you have several boxes.  Even we haven’t gone this far yet.  We still see the fetching and carrying of buckets as a small part of our fitness routine.

In just a matter of weeks, your plants can look like this:

Tomatoes in Cages

Tomatoes in Cages

And you will be the grinning  (urban or suburban) farmer(s), not unlike MIL and FIL, here.

S and J, happy suburban tomato growers

S and J, happy suburban tomato growers

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16 Responses to Plant Tomatoes In An Earthbox

  1. Lenette says:

    Thanks for the post. What kind of fertilizer do you recomend ? Is Dolomite any good ? We want whatever kind you add at the beginning on one end, top with the red plastic mulch (or black cover as you did) and thats it. We did this last year with great results for the first time, but misplaced the name of the one time fertilizer. Any info you can provide will be so very appreciated.

    Thanks a million

  2. admin says:

    I do mix Dolomite into the potting soil when I am planting tomatoes, and since I’ve always done it, I can’t tell you if it works better than without. The Dolomite helps change the acidity of the soil.

    For fertilizer, I’ve used organic ones and regular ones. I usually go to my local garden supply store and find something that is meant for vegetables, especially if it has tomatoes on the label. Don’t use fertilizer for grass, which is mostly nitrogen. Usually they have 3 numbers, the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK). The sources I’ve seen from university horticulturists say that 1-2-1 or 1-2-2 are the appropriate kinds of ratios. Try and find one where the first number is smaller, or even to the other numbers and you should be OK.

  3. Gail Hahn says:

    Help! I put three tomato plants into my EarthBox this season. Watered religiously, and all was well until about a week ago. The top third of my plants’ leaves are starting to wither—as if the water isn’t getting there. I do have some fruit, which seems to be growing, but this doesn’t look good. Any advice?

  4. admin says:

    Are they just drying out and turning yellow? Or are they all green and limp? If the former, just pick those leaves off at the main shoot. If they’re all green and limp, is it because there’s a break in the shoot further down, where it bent over due to wind? I sometimes lose a branch that way. If none of the above, I’d see if I could get the Earthbox into a little more sun.

    I hope this helps!

  5. eliz says:

    2 healthy looking plants but NO FRUIT-did EVERYTHING per instructions…..plants are waist high including box-what happened-what to do?

  6. Jennifer says:

    Did your plants have blossoms on them? Family members and friends have run into similar problems, and we did research that suggested that a very hot environment could have been the problem, or that there could be a problem with having enough pollenation. My MIL bought some spray for the blossoms that she has put on the blossoms of her plants to aid in this situation.

    Where did you get your tomato plants to begin with? I’ve had very good luck with plants that were started by local gardeners, but I know a few people who’ve had terrible luck with plants from big box stores. This could be that the big box plants are varieties that might not thrive in your location.

    I hope that this information helps. Sorry for the delay- I’ve been away for several weeks.

  7. Gail M Woodburn says:

    I did put three cherry tomatoe plants in one earth box. It worked great but I watered twice a day in the early morning and at night. I weeded the small sprouts and I had over 800 cherry tomatoes Mine went into the fall also. I would not plant three in the earth box if I had cherry toematoes. I tried it with roma toematoes and got a lot of them but it was too crowed the plants were extremely heavy and were seven feet tall so this yr I am only gonna plant two romas in one and three cherries in the other. I also had good luck with cumcumbers in earthboxs and summer squash together.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Now that our temps are finally above freezing in Minnesota, I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to plant this year. I might even try some cucumbers and summer squash this year.

  9. Edward Nevalsky says:

    i have 20 earth box’s and only have problems with tomato end rot , summer squash starts out great some yields then end rot starts. My pickling cukes do well but then after about 150 cukes plants turn yellow then die out and i think too quickly.That is a total of (1) tomato, (2) summer squash, and (4) pickling cukes.i have followed every step using 10-10-10- and all 13 other container doing very well. Any sugestions?

  10. Jennifer says:

    I’ve had some end rot issues with my tomatoes, too, but usually it’s not with all of the plants, just some of them. Do you start your seedlings yourself, or buy them? I have read that sometimes the way the seedlings are grown can affect the blossom end rot kinds of issues. Do you add the Dolomite, or lime to your soil?
    If it is only with some of your boxes, do you think it might be because of variations in sunlight or drainage? Have you called the Earth Box people themselves?

  11. MAURICE GAGNON says:

    I live in Gatineay, Qc. Canada. That’s near Ottawa. I have two questions:

    Where can I buy these boxes. Do you have to change the earth every year.


  12. Jennifer says:

    I’ve always bought my EarthBox stuff online (, though I have seen them in some hardware stores around. You might try putting your address in their dealer locator on their site.

    You don’t have to change out the soil every year, but I find that I do tend to change it out after three or four years.

  13. Pingback: Tomato Support For Earthbox

  14. Lorraine says:

    I filled my Earthbox with organic Gardener’s Gold soil mix, and it has poultry manure and composted manure. I thought I wasn’t supposed to use soil mix with manure but the tomatoes are thriving. Should I pinch of any flowers that bloom the first week or two?

  15. Jennifer says:

    I wouldn’t pinch off any flowers myself, but I am not a great gardener. It might cause your plants to get bigger first, rather than concentrate on fruit.

  16. Laurene Creekbaum says:

    I have had my tomato plants in an earthbox for about 3 weeks and they look terrible! They haven’t grown any bigger and they look like they are dying….what’s up? The box seems to be retaining too much water. The soil is constantly wet. It’s on a level surface and I have only watered the box twice…once when I started and again this week!

What do YOU think?