Sunday, 30 October 2011

How to grow Tomatoes in a container on your balcony

Most of the time, when I tell people I grow vegetables, they assume I live in a villa with a  huge garden. I actually live in an apartment and although, I do have a large terrace, I believe there's no reason why you can't grow food on your balcony if you set your heart on it. Honestly, when I started last year, I had never so much as SEEN a tomato plant, let alone grow one. Once I started, I expected my plants to die every day. Surprise, surprise, they didn't just NOT die on me, they gave me absolutely gorgeous loads of ripe, fresh fruit from January all the way into April.

So here's how you can go about growing a tomato plant on a balcony/terrace or in a container in your garden...

Shopping List
To start
  • Tomato seeds
  • 4-8" pot or plastic cup with a small hole in the base
  • Potting soil  (50l )
  • Watering can
  • For your growing plant
  • Cosmoplast container or bucket(50l) 
  • Compost bag (50l) or Granular fertiliser (small pack)
  • Water-soluble general-purpose plant food and tomato plant food (optional)
  • Tall bamboo cane or stake
  • Plant ties or nylon socks 

Choose seeds 
Start with Franchi , Alta Selezione or any of the other brands available in Carrefour/Geant/Lulu and plant nurseries such as the ones in Satwa (on the Maya/Laal Supermarket road near the bus station). 

Sow seeds 
October, in my view, is the best time in the UAE to sow seeds outdoors. There's still time in the first half of november for you to get going. Use plastic cups, newspaper tubes, toilet roll tubes, egg cartons, yoghurt pots or buy seed trays- anything will do but I do recommend you sow your seeds in a small container to start with. Fill it up with potting soil, dampen it with water and making a slight hole with your finger, drop a seed in. Cover with soil and water again, gently, with a watering can. Check everyday and keep soil moist at all times. Don't drown your seed by overwatering!

Fill up big bucket 
If you are using a bucket (the cheaper option at 21 Dhs), drill a couple of drainage holes in the bottom. Next,  I suggest you improve your soil to give your plant the best headstart.
You can:
  • Use 50:50 potting soil and compost to fill your bucket. 
  • Use only potting soil and add recommended quantities of granular GrowMore or other all-purpose inorganic fertilisers available in supermarkets. Don't confuse these with water-soluble fertilisers, often sold as 'plant food'.
Whichever option you choose, water your pots deeply and leave for a couple of days before transplanting.

At the right time! Leave your growing seedlings in their small pots for too long and they'll start going all sad-looking and spindly on you. Those rapidly growing roots need space. See our tips for transplanting here.

Religiously! Ahhhh, this in my opinion is where the real labour of love starts. We have no rainfall to fall back on. Get yourself a nice watering can as you'll be using it quite a bit. It really depends on how much the temperatures drop but I find that up until the end of November, you need to water everyday, early in the morning or late in the evening. Water deeply until the top of the soil is thoroughly wet and water drains from the pot. Always water near the base of the plant rather than overhead. For December and January, you can probably get away with watering every other day.

A word about the ideal amount of sunshine for your tomato plant- try to position it so that it receives 2-4 hours of sunlight in a day, preferably the gentler morning sun or later afternoon sun.

Prune and Stake
Drive a stake or bamboo pole into your bucket a few centimetres from the plant. As the main stem grows, tie it to the stake at intervals, using plant ties or nylon socks. If your seed packet says your tomato is the indeterminate type (get big, produce all season), you have the choice to prune. Pruning basically involves removing the suckers- these are the little shoots you find growing in the v-shaped point between your main stem and a branch. If not pinched as soon as they appear, they will develop into individual stems with their own fruit-bearing branches. If you get lazy like me and forget to prune,your plants will get very big and top heavy. This definitely means more produce but may result in smaller tomatoes. If you are growing Determinate tomatoes such as Roma, there is no need to prune as they have a much more compact growing habit.

When it comes to fertilisers, we are not spoilt for choice in our part of the world. Having said that, if you start with improved soil as outlined above, your tomatoes are already on their way to healthy growth and produce. But tomatoes are heavy feeders and will do better if fertilised periodically and when flowers and fruit appear.

Choose from:
  • General purpose water soluble plant food until first flowers appear. After that, switch to plant food especially formulated for tomatoes, with high potassium levels. These are easily available in supermarkets under various brand names. Always stick to the regime and quantity suggested on the pack. Nutrients from a liquid fertiliser are immediately available to the plant but also leach out relatively quickly due to frequent watering.
  • Slow-release granular fertilisers such as Growmore. Rake and water recommended quantity into the top couple of inches of the soil around your plant.
  • For those who want to go the organic way, top with compost or vermicompost, both available from Shalimar.
  • For extra TLC this year, I am looking forward to trying a product called Bio-Vita from Shalimar herbals- a liquid plant tonic containing seaweed extract, humid acid, Niacin, folic acid and other nutrients. 

Don't let the pests pester you too much
In my experience, the first to arrive are the leaf miners. Often, gardeners despair at the first sight of them, burrowing their way into the much-loved, tender young leaves.  But really, much as I worked myself up into a frenzy last year, I found that they cannot do much harm, especially once the plant is a little established. As long as the seedlings sprouts new growth steadily, it will be alright.
Another problem you may see earlier on is curling/discolouring of the leaf edges. Usually, it's a case of water stress- your young plants not getting enough water.
Once your plant is producing tomatoes, you may notice something called Blossom End Rot, a dark patch at the base of your tomatoes. Again, usually a case of water stress.
Ofcourse, there are many many other things that can go wrong with your tomato plants but more often than not, they don't. So I suggest you don't let your imagination and your Googling run away with you and scare you off growing tomatoes even before you start.

Instead, just throw a couple of seeds into some soil and see what happens. I promise, you'll learn so much in one year, you'll never need to come back here. But do! We'd love to hear your tomato growing stories.

Also, any other ideas, products, comments are welcome!

Shalimar Herbals 009714 2239474


  1. no compost at the time of sowing??

  2. Well, with the potting soil we get here, no you don't need it but there's no harm using compost to sow seeds really. It's just that compost is not commonly available here and i wanted to make it easy for everyone...

  3. Really comprehensive information. I'm not feeding mine enough so must rectify. This link about saving seed is interesting

  4. thanks Sally- this lady at My Tiny Plot really inspires me- definitely planning on saving seed this year so as to be completely self-sufficient in toms next year :)

  5. Shumaila, you have not left out anything, how thorough! sounds like something I can do, but then again all my plants never grow beyond the first sprout :( I really would love to be able to plant some herbs or vegs, will definitely try this one, and let you know how it goes! Afterall I love tomatoes :))

  6. what a thorough post,Shumaila! I'm never into gardening but was thinking of it for the sake of having greens on my shots but the space issue kept me out of it.(My balcony is really small.)Your post inspires me to try it! Let me give it a try and see how it goes..Thanks dear

  7. how wonderful! We are in late spring now in Australia and my tomato plants are growing!

  8. Hi Anh

    Thanks for leaving a comment. What bit of Austraila are you in? Is your spring quite warm (22-30C) like in Dubai?

  9. Very informative post indeed. I love growing tomatoes in containers. I am sure this post will help and encourage lots of gardeners. Will be visiting your blog more often.

  10. Hi Khabbab, thanks...look forward to seeing you around

  11. superb blog. really enjoyed it.

    i have a huge garden. am wondering if i can drop by your place some time for inspiration and tips. am tempted and encouraged by you.....thinking of going with baby spinach, lettuce and buk choy. do you thinkits too late to sow?


    ps.some sufaid mooli sounds great......just like home :)

  12. Hi Rabia,
    Come round by all means...i don't think its too late for spinach, lettuce and bak choy...all these don't mind a bit of cool...i have planted some malabar spinach and one seed has just germinated, planning to get some seeds/seedlings in from pakistan when i go next month...lettuce hasn't shown up yet and i need to check on the bak choi- i seed to have forgotten about it! I have some safaid mooli seeds that my dad sent from karachi- happy to share...i haven't put them in myself yet...
    drop me a line at and i'll send u my number...

  13. r u shumaila ahmed from Hamdard public school??

  14. Help! Some of my plants aren't growing and the leaves are very pale. Maybe there's not enough sun on my balcony?

  15. Hi u r superb.& ur help in growing plant indeed help all.I feel tat ur from Pakistan.Am I right?I m also a plant lover last time I grow Spring onion,garlic plants(I hope its the right name)& methi in my balcony. I love to grow tomatoes, chilies & other vegies.I hope u will help me.

  16. Im new to this and i dont know from where to get the soil or seeds, i have a terrace and want to plant different kinda of plants, lettuce, bittergourd, tomatoes, eggplant,coriander,curry leaves,would you help me?

    1. Anil, both seed and soil are available in lulu and carrefour. You can get soil especially meant for growing vegetables. There are seed packets available in carrefour. But I grew my tomato plants by taking seeds from a tomato itself.

  17. Hi Shumaila.. Thanks for wonderful post.. I reside in abu dhabi and would like to grow tomatoes in pots and very new to gardening. In the post you have mentioned to sow the seeds in October.. can I do it now that's some time in July and as u have in previous comment can I use the seeds from tomatoes and put it inside the pot directly. how much sunlight is required. As I am working, can u suggest me the ideas.

  18. Hi
    I have tomato,green chilli,coriander,mint,curry leaves,sarso and methi,I want to try my hand at growing something ,but I'd like to do it from seeds dat would b available at home in the kitchen..plz help with some tips..Ohh and my tomatoes r all green,how long before they turn red?

  19. Hi, am thinking about growing some herbs and tomato, maybe some other veg, beside some balcony colorful flowers that can resist the weather in dubai.
    any advise on when and what and am little bit greedy, where to find good materials for planting, as Dubai Gardens is not really the perfect place.