The Nickel Pincher: The Easiest Plant You'll Ever Grow

Growing cherry tomatoes is the best way for newbies to ease into gardening.

April 19, 2012

With just a pot and some good soil, you could be harvesting cherry tomatoes until Fall.

Love the idea of growing your own food, but daunted by a brown thumb? Grab a pot and a cherry tomato seedling, and you'll never again wonder how easy it is to garden.


Cherry tomato plants are great because, even if you grow just one plant, it will bear a steady crop of bite-size fruits.

You'll Need:
1 cherry tomato plant (find an organic variety at a farmer's market or nursery)
1 tomato cage, the largest size your retailer carries
1 20-quart bag of organic potting mix; we like Organic Mechanics
1 bottle or bag of organic tomato food; try Terracycle's Tomato Plant Food (a general-purpose organic will do if you can't find tomato food)
1 5-gallon plastic food bucket

I'm suggesting using plastic buckets because they are cheap (I get them for a buck apiece at a local doughnut shop) and sturdy. There are lots of different planters and pots and even ready-made self-watering models available at you local garden supplier, even plastic-free models. Just choose one that holds about 5 gallons; a round 5-gallon flower pot is about 12 inches tall and 12 inches across at the top.

No space, but still want to give cherry tomatoes a try? Plant your cherry tomatoes in the Nickel Pincher's $1 Upside-Down Tomato Planter (made from a reusable grocery bag).

For the uninitiated, a tomato cage is just what you guess: wire mesh you place around your tomato plant to support it as it grows. Depending on the variety, cherry tomatoes can grow as tall as 10 feet. Just avoid any that look as though they're covered in plastic. That's usually vinyl, a toxic plastic that can expose your plants to lead and other undesirable substances.

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The how-to:
1. Drill ¼- to ½-inch holes every few inches around the bottom edge, plus another few in the center bottom so excess water can drain. If you've bought a planter with drainage holes already, you can skip this step.

2. Pick a location. For best fruiting, you need a location where the plant will get at least 8 hours of direct sun each day (the roots can be in the shade). You can skip the tomato cage—and save a little cash—if you have a spot close to a balcony or railing, which you can use to support the tomato vines.

3. If you do go with a cage, insert the pointy end into the planter, and then fill the planter with potting mix.

4. Water until the potting mix is evenly moist. Top it off with a little more potting mix, adding enough so it comes to about ½ inch below the rim of the planter and making sure the soil surface is level.

5. Dig a small hole in the center of the planting mix. Carefully remove your tomato plant from its original pot (unless the pot is designed to dissolve), and slide it into the hole, planting it deep enough so only the top four to six leaves show once you cover it back up with potting mix.

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6. Water every two or three days to keep the soil evenly moist (in hot, dry weather you may need to water every day). Once a week, feed your plant organic fertilizer according to the label directions.

7. As the plant grows, the branches will start to poke through the holes in your tomato cage. Push them back inside so the plant doesn't droop.

Time to Pick!
Most cherry tomato plants will start flowering in about a month. You'll see flowers appear that are followed by tiny green fruits. After a few weeks, those turn into full-blown cherry tomatoes you can harvest. A really ripe cherry tomato will come off its stem very easily and is well worth waiting an extra day for, so hold off on picking them. Pluck individual ripe fruits every day for best results. With luck, your plant will continue to produce right up until frost. If the weather turns unseasonably cool or an early frost threatens, tuck an old sheet over and around the plant to extend your harvest season.

Varieties to Look For
My absolute favorite cherry tomatoes are 'Sweet Million,' which bear long clusters of sweet yet tomatoey red fruit; 'SunSugar,' which produces super-sweet, richly flavored golden fruit; and an heirloom called, rather unimaginatively, 'Black Cherry,' whose tomatoes have a complex, rich, sweet flavor. All three are what are called "indeterminate" varieties, meaning they will continue to grow taller and produce more until the plants are killed by frost, which—if they really like where they are—means the plants may grow to six, eight, or even 10 feet tall. If you don't want to deal with that much plant, see if your garden center has any "dwarf" or "patio" varieties of cherry tomatoes for sale.

Red or yellow pear tomatoes are fun because of their shape (they have necks just like their namesakes), though their skins tend to be a little thicker than your average cherry tomato. You can also often find grape tomato plants, which bear very sweet oblong fruits similar to those sold in supermarkets.

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