DEAR GAYLA: Well, this is just perfect. You are publicly blaming me for the fact that you are about to be overrun by giant Nicotiana in your smaller garden, and I am in turn holding you to task for the fact that I am suddenly obsessed with growing dwarf tomatoes in pots in my bigger one. (At least we’re keeping all our finger-pointing in one botanical family: the seductive Solanaceae.) Seriously, though: Thanks for the unusual tomato seeds you sent, and the advice on how to grow them. Thanks to you, I’m starting tomato seed today.
prefer the podcast?
DEAR GAYLA is a series of “out loud” letters between me and my garden-blogging friend Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl [dot] com, and Gayla was also the guest for the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program, where we talked about dwarf tomatoes, nicotiana and also about the tradition of letters between gardeners, including in books we’ve been reading.
Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The April 15, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year this month, and is syndicated via PRX.
why grow dwarf tomatoes, and which ones?
TORONTO-BASED Gayla Trail was a rooftop gardener for many years, so growing things in pots was her norm (proof is in the photo below). But many of the commercial varieties of container and hanging-basket tomatoes, she says, don’t taste too good—they’re bland, and often tough-skinned. Long ago she started on the hunt for ones that are better.
Now Gayla has a real backyard (“like a bowling alley,” she says), but she still likes the dwarf types for other reasons: They’re small plants and reach maturity early (60-ish days, versus closer to 80 for a beefsteak type). That means she can extend her tomato-harvest backwards into June (again, even in Toronto!).
Other features she favors of these smallest of the tomato-plant world:
“Dwarf types tend to have ruffled leaves,” she says, technically called rugose, which are handsome-looking, and some plants are “tumbling types” that are especially suited to making a good show in hanging baskets.
In an old-fashioned Postal Service letter to me last week—the one in the photo above that also contained the packets of seed saved from her own garden—she shared these tricks about getting the most, both early and late, from the little plants:
“I start the dwarfs a little bit earlier as they don’t get to be an unruly size and will produce an early crop. Plus, once they are ripe you can harvest, cut the plants back, and they will produce a second harvest before frost.”
Who knew? (Well, Gayla did.) Listen to our entire conversation.
some of gayla’s favorite dwarf tomatoes
- ‘Dwarf Recessive’ was a gift from her friend Juliana, and for years Gayla thought it was called “dwarf medium ruffled pink oblate,” which was not its name at all but Juliana’s description. (I can’t find seed for this one online, though I’d inquire at Tatiana’s Tomatobase.)
- ‘Whippersnapper’ has early and profuse sweet-grape-shaped red fruit. I found seed at Bountiful Gardens, a longtime favorite source.
- ‘Hahms Gelbe Topftomate’ (top photo): With a “Lord of the Rings” name and a profusion of gold fruit, this is a gem. Read all about it, plus here’s a source for seed.
- ‘Ditmarsher,’ a.k.a. ‘Ditmarscher,’ is a tumbling, compact type she even recommends for a window box. Pinkish, cherry-sized tomatoes, and very early. The only seeds I found were from a new-to-me Canadian firm.
- ‘Lime Green Salad’ (bigger than a cherry, sort of “saladette” sized, and of course green!). More on that here.
starting tomato seed
GAYLA STARTS her seed for the smallest tomato plants—the dwarf types–extra-early, in March (starting her other tomatoes in April). Since the plants don’t grow too big, they can have a little extra time inside without needing repotting.
She sows all her tomato seed in coffee cup-sized pots (therefore requiring no repotting before they’re big enough to go outside). Choose a pot that’s deeper than it is wide—such as a recycled coffee cup, or a nursery pot left over from something else that came in that proportion.
To speed germination, Gayla puts the potted tomatoes-to-be on a heat mat until they sprout. (Me, too.)
After hardening them off gradually leading up to outdoor transplant time, we both bury our tomatoes very deep into the earth or pot of soil—burying most of the stem.
letters between more famous gardeners
FAR MORE FAMOUS gardeners than Gayla Trail and Margaret Roach have become friends through correspondence, or deepened their connections this way–and even made whole books of their back-and-forth. Ones to investigate:
“Dear Friend and Gardener,” letters between the English masters Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd (creators of two of my favorite gardens, and garden books).
“Two Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters,” between “New Yorker” editor Katherine White (wife to E.B. White) and Charlotte, N.C., garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence.
“The 3,000 Mile Garden,” Leslie Land, former “New York Times” columnist, and Roger Phillips, British garden photographer and author.
You can read Gayla’s latest letter to me—her cry for Nicotiana help—at this link. For my letters to her, work backward from this latest one on root-cellar envy. (Disclosure: All links to the book titles are Amazon affiliate links.)