growing tomatoes in pots: early, tasty dwarf types

Hahms Gelbe Topftomate, photo by Gayla TrailDEAR 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.

Tomatoes in pots in former roof garden of Gayla TrailNow 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.

Dwarf tomato seeds from Gayla Trail's gardenIn 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

Dear Friend and Gardener book cover from AmazonFAR 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.)

  1. Diana Pappas says:

    I’m trying a dwarf tomato plant as well this year and it’s purely be accident – it came unexpectedly (I think by mistake) with one of my seed orders and it’s called “silvery fir tree”. Hard to believe that it will produce fruit in 55 days or so! Also, I spy Turkish Orange Eggplant in that pile – I’ve got seeds for those started as well! Always fun to try new varieties and how nice to exchange seeds with a good friend.

  2. Deborah B says:

    I too have been reading books of letters between famous gardeners. I didn’t know about the one you mentioned between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd. Thanks for that mention; I have to find that. Another one that is my favorite is “A Year in Our Gardens” – this is letters between Nancy Goodwin and Allen Lacy. Both are wonderful writers as well as gardeners.

  3. alice schrade says:

    For years I grew Camp Joy heirloom tomatoes from Renees Seeds. Even after moving into my apartment. The plant is indeterminate and in the right conditions produces hundreds of larger than cherry but smaller than older varieties. So sweet. Right now I have Tiny Tim seeds to plant. A gift from a friend..we’ll see how they do this year.They’re from Hudson Valley Seed Co.

  4. naomi d. says:

    Thank you for that link to You Grow Girl – wonderful reading. I think now the reason I haven’t seen nicotiana in my yard after scattering seeds may be slugs (they get 6″ and more – I won’t describe further, it’s too awful). In the Fall I may try some of these tomatoes – it’s too late to plant seeds now. Hope your garden visits go well.

  5. Anne J Holmes says:

    Thanks for the mention of other books by gardening letter writers. One of my favorites is “The 3,000 Mile Garden” by Leslie Land and ROGER PHILLIPS, not Martyn Rix. Roger is also a famous British gardening expert. They had a wonderful TV series from the book narrated by each of them. I wish it could be rerun!

    1. margaret says:

      Oh, Anne, I swear sometimes I am losing my mind! I think we got it right on the podcast, just not when I typed it out! Thanks.

  6. Faye White says:

    One of my favorite pot tomatoes is the Big Boy Bush. Last year it produced 37 medium sized tomatoes comparable to a Better Boy. My other favorite pot tomato is Bush Goliath. These grow a little larger comparable to a small beefsteak and it produced 17 tomatoes. I just discovered an heirloom pot tomato that grows to the 4 foot height to which I’m accustomed. I’ve planted the seed and waiting for it to come up. Bush tomato seeds are sometimes difficult to find. That’s why I wanted an heirloom so I could save the seeds and not run out. I grow these small tomato plants for the widows and widowers of our church.

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