A fresh, ripe juicy tomato is the crowning glory of the home gardener’s summer bounty – we all know that. There’s a lot that goes into that process, though, from selecting your seed variety all the way to knowing when to tell your plant that enough is enough. One of the biggest challenges with growing your own tomatoes, especially in a location with cold winters, is knowing when to start them. Most guides will tell you 6-8 weeks before the last frost in your zone.
The tough thing about that is that in many zones, my Zone 5b Pittsburgh garden included, I can’t really tell you when the last frost will be. Yes, the almanac says May 1. But honestly, I don’t quite trust that. One terrible frost and all the tomatoes will be goners. Having said that, delaying seed starting just to push the transplant date well into mid- to late-May is not a great plan either, knowing that it will cut my growing season short. Of course, there’s the added hitch – I simply don’t want to wait anymore! It’s cold, snowy, icy and bitter outside. I work odd shifts, sometimes not seeing the sun for days. Those little sprouts of green poking their heads out are pretty much all I have to remind me that this isn’t the end of the world.
So your question is probably this: What’s the solution to all this?
Well, there’s a magical little thing called a dwarf tomato. These are usually determinate varieties, which means they set fruit all at once, and are compact and well suited for container growing. Some examples of this are Tiny Tim, Goldilox, and Hahms Gelbe Topftomate, all of which I’m hoping to grow this year. The advantage of starting these seeds early is that even as they start to grow, you know that they won’t start to sprawl and creep all over the place. Even in case of a late frost, you can comfortably keep them indoors in containers and they won’t get rootbound or get out of control.
I started ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Hahms Gelbe’ a few days ago. I’ve heard great things about both varieties. Tiny Tim is a small red cherry, and Hahms Gelbe is a slightly larger yellow. Remember that tomatoes need lots of light to avoid getting spindly and leggy. Keep the grow light no more than 3-4 inches away, the closer the better. I’m using a cool fluorescent bulb set up in my basement, which is about 65 degrees F.
Follow along with me and we’ll see what they do this year – it’s all a big experiment!