Updated on 04.21.07

A Frugal Project For A Warm Saturday Afternoon: Starting Your Own Tomato Plant

Trent Hamm

tomatoI used to live in a very small apartment in the city, and I was very poor. One way I saved money was by growing some of my fruits and vegetables inside the apartment in large tubs, and the easiest and most enjoyable of all was the humble tomato. I just filled up a large tub with dirt, planted a tomato plant in it, sat it by the largest window in the apartment, and watered it about twice a week. It produced about sixty pounds of giant, delicious tomatoes, so many that I couldn’t eat them all and used a few simple techniques to save them for winter.

Sound like a good plan? Here’s all you need to know to start your own tomato plant. All you need is a couple hours to get started, a window that gets a lot of good sunlight (or even better, a deck), and a reminder to yourself to water it twice a week or so.

Stuff You Need

A pre-started tomato plant Stop by your local gardening store and ask them for a tomato starter. Ask for a variety that requires minimal maintenance and grows well in partial shade. They should be able to point you towards an appropriate variety.

A large pot You should also pick up a large pot while there, one that could hold ten gallons of water or so. This will be your primary growing container.

Soil/dirt If you don’t have access to good dirt, then you’ll need to also purchase a quantity of potting soil, an amount that will fill the pot roughly three quarters full. Once you have this soil base, it can survive for a very long time with occasional replenishment.

A tomato cage You won’t need this for a month or so.

Miracle-Gro may be needed in future years to replenish the soil; if you want to go organic, you can use another organic fertilizer.

That’s all you need.

What Now?

Go home. Put the pot where you want it. Put the soil/dirt in the pot. Put the plant in the soil. Then water it.

How do I water it? Add a quart of water around the plant itself, then wait a day. If the soil is very dry, then that means you’ll need to water it with more volume – try putting in two quarts of water. You’ll want to find a balance so that you don’t overwater it (it’s always swampy) and you don’t let it go completely dry, either. It’ll take some work until you get the touch, so just check it every day and keep adding a little more each time until the surface is still moist the following day (if there’s sitting water, you watered it too much – give it a couple of days and don’t put in as much). At that point, you can water it every other day; you can keep stretching it more than that, but don’t go beyond twice a week if you want a truly healthy plant.

What about the cage? After about a month, you’ll need to put the cage around the plant, as it’ll be growing rapidly and will need something to guide it. Just put the cage around it and lift the branches so they rest on the cage. Every two weeks or so, try lifting loose branches up gently to higher points on the cage.

You may also want to rotate the plant occasionally, but it’s not fully necessary. I used to rotate it 180 degrees about once a week.


About three months later, the plant will begin to produce fruit, and if it’s healthy, you’ll get more than you can believe. Eat them while they’re fresh, as much as you can, but with the rest, I really recommend converting them into the most delicious substance on earth, fresh tomato sauce.

It’s really easy to do – just wait until you have about twenty pounds of them, cut off the stems, put them all in the biggest pan you have, add a little bit of salt and pepper and any herbs you like, and then turn on a low heat and start slashing open the tomatoes in the pan. Let it simmer for 45 minutes, then use a hand mixer to mix up the floating tomato pieces and make it all homogenous. Let it simmer for a couple hours, then pour it into freezer quart Ziploc bags and toss them in the freezer. One bag will be plenty to make a wonderful tomato sauce for spaghetti, pizza (boil it down to make it really thick for pizza sauce), or anything else you might want.

Then, in the middle of winter, you can have wonderful fresh spaghetti sauce made out of tomatoes you grew and prepared yourself – and the cost was almost nothing!

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  1. martha in mobile says:

    If you are using a pot with a hole in the bottom for drainage (which I think you should, but perhaps that isn’t what you recommend), then don’t forget to pick up a saucer to hold the run-off (at least two inches wider than the bottom of your pot).


  2. Kim says:

    I love this activity and do it myself, but I don’t think it’s exceptionally frugal unless you aready have a pot or a found container. By the time you buy the dirt, plant fertilizer and pot you’ve spent ??? i don’t know how much, and canned tomatoes are 3 for $1.00 regularly where I live. Now if we’re speaking in terms of quality, nothing really beats a fresh from the garden tomato.

  3. Is cooking really so easy? Between this sauce information and your pasta revelation of a couple weeks ago, I’m agog and aghast!

    Wrt Kim, I think that these are all sunk costs (except for fertilizer), but what you get is a lifetime of tomatoes. (or at least I think so). Do tomato plants come back every year, or do you have to buy new ones each year?

  4. matt says:

    We kept a cherry tomato plant alive for almost 5 years in our kitchen. It only produced really well in the first year, but we didn’t use any fertilisers or transplant it either. Our pot was also much smaller than what Trent recommended.

    Once or twice a year there would be a major die-off of leaves and limbs, we’d trim it back and slow down the watering and in a month or two it would come back.

    I think what killed it in the end was a combination of irregular watering habits, not enough sunlight, and an aphid infestation in a neighbouring set of plants.

    We never intended to keep a tomato plant that long. It just happened that one year frost killed everything and we were left with a couple of stragglers that really didn’t get going until august, so we just brought one inside to try and get at least a couple of fruits from it.

  5. PJA says:

    I prefer to boil them first, run them through ice water to take the skins off first (called blanching them) but yes – it’s that easy to make sauce – and it tastes better than store bought (I have no idea why).

    If you have a yard (or access to a garden plot) you can gather up yard waste, and then compost it right into the ground (called lasagna gardening). No need to pay for someone to haul away the leaves. No need for a composter. No need to purchase garden soil (or a pot).

    We once planted some seeds from one cherry tomato that went bad before we could eat it in a lasagna garden. We had free tomatos for years afterwards.

  6. Christine says:

    !! I’ve been planning to grow some tomatoes in a dorm room over the summer, and next year! Thanks for the tips ^.^ I’m also going to grow chives, and possibly basil.

  7. I grew tomatoes for the past two years. I usually start them inside, but then transplant them outside in the backyard.

    It’s really pretty incredible how many tomatoes a few plants can produce. I highly suggest it to everyone (and if you compost, no need for fertilizer).

  8. matt says:

    basil is a good companion plant. I’m told it helps keep the aphids away. (tastes good too!)

  9. wendyr says:

    I like your method of putting your extra sauce in ziplock baggies in the freezer. It’s simple and much easier than canning. I do the same thing with all of the zucchini that I grow. I shred it, put it in a ziplock bag and freeze it. Then I have some ready to eat or put in zucchini bread whenever I want.

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