Urban Tomato Garden

I grew up in the 1970s in Dallas, Texas, at a time when processed food was the hot new thing (think Funyuns, Cap’n Crunch and Velveeta, and the list goes on…). So you can imagine what I must have been surrounded by foodwise.

Fortunately, my mom was a foodie at heart—she baked loaves of bread, cultured her own tangy yogurt, and not only grew a good-sized vegetable garden, but maintained a healthy compost pile. She was no doubt considered “weird” for the time and the place, and I for one have never stopped appreciating her weirdness.

My mom’s garden was really sweet, and gave me a whole new appreciation of fresh vegetables as a kid. I remember once she grew a cucumber that was nearly as tall as my younger brother. We were in awe. I also remember stealing plenty of tomatoes, fresh off the vine and warm from the sun. And I still think that there is probably no better thing in the world that you can eat than a freshly-plucked tomato at the peak of ripeness.

Up until now, I haven’t really been in a place where I could easily grow my own vegetables. So, a few weeks ago, on a whim, I decided to buy a few half wine barrels and start my own urban garden. I managed to find 4 barrels for only $20 each with free delivery on craigslist . What a steal! Finding the soil and then lugging it up our steep flight of stairs to the front of our house wasn’t quite as easy, but somehow we managed.

I have to admit I went a little overboard and bought 9, yes NINE, tomato plants and planted 3 in each barrel (I’m saving one barrel because my mom is bringing me cranberry beans to plant this weekend). If they actually work out, I’ll be swimming in tomatoes, but that’s ok. I love them. Especially plucked right off the vine.

How to Make An Urban Tomato Garden

1 half wine barrel (make sure it has a few holes drilled into the bottom)
A warm, very sunny spot
3 bricks
About 6 large handfuls of large pebbles or rocks or broken terra cotta pots
2.5 cubic feet of good-quality, preferably organic, soil
.5 cubic feet of compost
1/4 to 1/3 cup organic vegetable plant food
2 or 3 tomato plants (I chose brandywine, early girl, beefsteak, roma, and sweet 100s)
A tomato cage
A hose for watering
Gardening gloves

1. Put the wine barrel in your sunny spot. Perch the wine barrel atop your 3 bricks so it’s stable and not wobbly.
empty wine barrel

2. Get all your ingredients gathered round and put on your gardening gloves.
supplies for urban tomato garden

3. Cover the bottom of the wine barrel evenly with the pebbles.
add pebbles to wine barrel

4. Add enough soil to fill the barrel about 2/3 full. Water the soil and mix it around with your hands.
add soil

5. Add the compost and more soil, and mix them all together with your hands to make a nice, rich base for your tomatoes.
add compost

6. Water the soil again, and mix together.
water soil again and mix together

7. Sprinkle the plant food over the soil and mix it in.
add plant food

8. Place the tomatoes on the soil in the spot you want to plant them. Try to position them so they are evenly spaced from one another, not too close to the outer edge or the center.
position the tomato plants so they are evenly spaced

9. Dig a little hole for each tomato under the spot you placed them. Remove the tomato plant from it’s container (gently!) and (gently!) loosen it’s roots.
remove plant from container

10. Place the tomato plant lovingly into its hole and pat the soil around it so it feels all snug and tucked in. Water the plants again.
water plant again

10. Position the tomato cage so the tomato plants can grow up and around it. You might have to tie them as they start. Make sure to water them, not too much and not too little. And give them lots of love and care, and hopefully you will get loads of flavorful, succulent, juicy tomatoes.
position the tomato cage so plant can grow up and around it

An Urban Tomato Garden 18 June,2008Kim Laidlaw

  • Great pictures and content. I have never tried growing in a wooden barrel before.

  • CukeBoy

    With nine plants you will be swimming in the tomatoes. Canning is easy and lets you have somewhat fresh tomatoes all winter! Just make sure you do it proper-like: I’ve used the USDA method for crushed tomatoes to good effect. The last time I canned, I put all of the tomatoes together and made a tasty concoction of brandywine, San Marzano, and beefsteak. Yummm!

  • John Houston

    I have grown so tired of Craigslist sometimes. I have found other places like, GoGinzo.com, Kijiji.com, and BackPage.com where I can post without so much difficulty. Just my two cents

  • Just wanted to thank you for posting this – it’s inspired me to plant a garden of my own.

    I didn’t buy compost though; the guy at home depot just pointed at a pre-mixed bag of potting soil (marked “for outdoor herbs and vegetables”) and told me it was all I’d need. The plants are growing all right though, so maybe it doesn’t matter so much? Do I need to “feed” them or anything?

  • Sara, good for you! I think everyone should plant an urban garden (or a rural one if that’s where you live) and get back to the seasonality and sustainability of food. I think you’ll be fine with just the potting soil. Really, I’ve never grown any veggies in SF and I’m not sure if these tomatoes will do well or not, so I just pulled out all the stops. Just keep them watered, flick off the worms, and see what happens. Good luck!

  • The pre-mixed stuff will work just fine Sara. I’ve been growing tomatoes in containers in San Francisco for a few years and started out gung-ho mixing my own soil and have shifted to the pre-mixed stuff myself. Depending on the plants, you will likely need to feed them at some point during the summer. It depends on the size of the container and quality of the dirt you put in. I would recommend that you dump out old dirt and put in fresh each year. I reused my dirt one summer and had to feed them continually which was a big pain. I’m not known for my green thumb, but found that through trial and error along with regular reference checks on Google I have gotten some great tomatoes even in our weird bay area eco-climates.

    Pick the sunniest spot in your yard. The more sun they get the better tastin’ tomatoes you will have. I’m still experimenting on the various varieties, but find that the smaller cherry tomatoes do best for me. Not all tomatoes need the same amount of water. I planted an Early Girl tomato and a Sun Gold Cherry tomato my first year. The Sun Gold was *always* thirsty so I watered them both the same amount each day. The Early Girl wasn’t as big a drinker and I managed to get some weird sort of fungus. I let it dry out (a lot) and it eventually recovered. Keep posting updates on your various gardens. There is NOTHING better than a steady stream of fresh *cheap* tomatoes to make summer feel like summer. Which will lead to the eventual recipes of what to do with all these damn tomatoes!

  • This is cool, city wise I just have a window sill , and 4 house plants.
    and they aren’t doing well.

    I just found this guy who like tomatoes , Alot , torn up his lawn.

    check it out

  • Ann Abbruzzese

    This is such great info. I live in Sonoma County, accessible to wine barrels.
    I put them my driveway & wanted to be able to easily move them to follow the sun & in case I wanted to move my car in. I found a great deal at Harbor Freight on movers dollies for $15.99 & bought 2 to put my wine barrels on.

  • JP

    Wooden Planters Barrel half’s work great! Just remember to water properly I have used drip irrigation with a separate station just for my planters, it works great especially if you need to go away for a short vacation. I have a new green product, which you can use in a barrel half.
    Rather then, use chemical pest-control for your veg. garden used Ladybugs, to learn more go
    To my above web site: http://www.thebestladybughouse.com.

  • Dave E

    WIne Barrels…If you go directly to the wineries it’s way cheaper than craigslist…We were looking on clist and saw the same $15 to $20 each for the barrels. Went to Kenwood in Sonoma and bought them for $9 each..(Actually $6 each with a discount I got, but still $9 beats $20 hands down).. I thought it would be more expensive from the wineries.

  • Ann Abbruzzese

    I got rid of the movers dollies on my wine barrels because they looked so ugly & weren’t that easy to move. I’ve since bought 6 more wine barrels & screwed 4 inche casters on a board & then put the barrel on top. It makes the barrels higher than bolting the casters to the bottom. Lettuce works greater & so do other greens like arugula, radiccio & tatsoi. Bush beans & pole beans did fine but I didn’t like the toughness of the plants I bought. I have a dwarf Meyers lemon in one barrel & it’s doing fine.
    Cherry tomatoes do fine but regular ones have only worked for me in the garden.
    Let me know if anything else grows well.

  • Tina

    My mom planted everything corn cucumbers onions potatoes in her wine barrel.

  • patrick

    nice how-to post (pics and instructions). however, 3 tomato plants per pot … did that end up being too much? those suckers can end up growing pretty big.

  • Barbara

    Same question as Patrick — is three too many? I’m just getting ready to plant my tomatoes in barrels and I’m not sure! Trial and error I guess.

  • Thanks for your fantastic step-by-step break down here Kim, I relied on it today while creating my first Wine Barrel garden in my wee yard. I posted my progress on my blog if you’d like to take a look! Thanks again.



Kim Laidlaw

Kim Laidlaw is a cookbook author, editor, food writer, producer, project manager, and baker who has been in the kitchen covered in flour since she was big enough to stir the biscuit dough. She has over 16 years of experience in book and online publishing, and a lifetime of experience in the kitchen.

Her first cookbook, Home Baked Comfort, was published in 2011; her second cookbook, Baby & Toddler On the Go, was published in April 2013; and her third cookbook, Williams-Sonoma Dessert of the Day, was published in October 2013.

She was the first blogger on KQED’s Bay Area Bites blog, which launched in 2005, and previously worked as a professional baker at La Farine French Bakery in Oakland, CA. She lives in Petaluma with her husband and their child, whom she cooks for everyday. Find out more at http://www.kimlaidlaw.com.

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