Tomato plants, like many other fruiting annuals, aren’t drought hardy.
Therefore, as soon as the ground becomes dry, they’ll likely display signs of water stress.
However, if you’re heading out for the weekend or are planning a vacation, you may not want to hire someone to water your plants, as it may cost more than you’d like to spend on your garden during that time.
So, just HOW long can a tomato plant go without water? Well, let’s look at the different planting methods!
How Long a Potted or Container Grown Tomato Plant Can Last without Water
If you leave a potted plant in the blistering summer sun, you likely need to water it daily or even twice daily.
If you don’t, the plant could begin suffering in as little as 36 hours, sometimes even less for large plants in smaller pots.
If you have a potted plant in the summer sun with a large tomato plant, I would not expect for the plant to make it to day #4 without water. If you were to heavily prune the plant, reducing its transpiration and water consumption, it might make it; however, this is an extreme solution and you may not get much fruit from the plant for the remainder of the season by doing so.
If a potted plant is moved to a shady, cool spot (say, a covered area on the north side of the home) and is watered heavily before leaving, you may be able to get 3 to 7 days out of the watering, provided that the tomato plant doesn’t take it all up quickly.
At the end of this article, I’ll give you some tricks to extend this.
How Long Can You Go Without Watering Tomatoes in the Garden?
If your tomato plants are in a heavy soil that retains moisture well, such as clay, you’re in for some good news! Many of us have clay soil, and sure; it’s a pain to work in the spring time. However, clay has an incredible amount of water retention, keeping plants alive and well even amidst a drought (trust me!)
I’ve found that, as long as there was a really good rainstorm that left 1″ to 2″ of rain OVER the course of 12 to 24 hours (not a 1 hour torrential downpour), the garden would hold up without additional watering for 10 to 14 days, with some plants lasting much longer. If plants were mulched, they would easily thrive past the 14 days! Please note: These were established plants, not seedlings. Many seedlings require special care until they become established.
Also, I’d like to note one other thing: I do not baby my established plants. I only water them during a drought or while they’re becoming established (until the plant “takes off” after transplanting), and I allow the weakest plants to fail. I do this so that my plants develop strong, deep roots that will hold up to high winds and that are capable of finding water further down in the soil. Frequent watering brings roots closer to the surface, which is a significant disadvantage during droughts or vacations.
For sandy or rocky soils, while they’re easier to work, will not work in your favor. Instead, these soils will drain water away quickly. These soils may dry out within 2-7 days, depending on how sandy or rocky they are. You will likely need someone to water your plants at least once if you plan to leave, especially during the hotter summer months.
Tips for Keeping Plants Watered When You’re Not Able to Water Them
Dishes, Pans, or Kiddie Pools: For your potted or bagged plants, move them over to a container that can hold water. For smaller pots (1-3 gallons), place them in aluminum or glass baking dishes/pans, such as a casserole dish or an aluminum side/salad pan. For the large pots, 5+ gallons, set them in kiddie pools. Fill the containers with water, and your plants should be okay for an additional 3 to 5 days (depending on the size of the pot.) If possible, experiment with this method BEFORE going on vacation to find out which container works best, and to identify the plant’s water consumption.
Using Self Watering Containers: These containers usually have a series of empty plastic containers in a layer at the bottom, with soil above them, and a wick leading up into the soil from the water that is retained below. The drainage hole for the pot is roughly 1″ higher than where the soil starts above the containers, which prevents the pot from retaining TOO much water. These pots can last a long time without additional watering!
Irrigation Bottles or Self Wicking Devices: You can take plastic bottles, punch holes in the caps, fill them with water, and shove them (cap side down) into the soil beside the plant. This will slowly drip water to the plant over the course of a few days, increasing their chances of survival. A wicking system is similar; you’ll use a length of thicker cord or yarn (preferably cotton), place one end at the bottom of a full bottle of water, puncture the cap so the cord can be threaded through, then the other end of the cord is placed close to the root system of the plant- at least 4″ into the soil, if possible. The water will be consumed much more slowly that the irrigation method. You want to keep the distance from the bottle to the root system as short as possible, to minimize evaporation. Keep the wick and bottle shaded, as well.
Mulching: Mulch prevents water loss through evaporation, and it helps to retain moisture after a rain shower or watering. Mulch your plants well at the beginning of the season, and you may have some moisture-retaining compost already forming by the time your vacation rolls around!