Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

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Where I live, the snow is rapidly melting, leaving behind a landscape that seems almost barren and asleep. However, for many native plants and quite a few garden perennials, it is this act of freezing and thawing that awakens them and actually increases their ability to survive and reproduce.

Cold stratification is the term used to describe this very basic need; the need for winter. Winter has the ability to soften the outer seed coat of some of nature’s toughest seeds through the action of freezing and thawing in a moist environment. For many plants that require stratification, this process can take up to 2 months and typically occurs between 34 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

During that time, the seed coat softens and embryonic growth is stimulated. Eventually, the embryo bursts through the softened coat and begins the process of germination.

For those of us who enjoy starting our own flowers, there are some classic perennials that require a period of cold stratification to increase germination. One example is Echinacea, a personal favorite of mine. Echinacea is a plant gifted with many benefits.

Most home herbalists are aware of its medicinal properties and gardeners love it for its beauty, low maintenance requirements and as a mid to late season nectar source for beneficial insects. For these reasons, Echinacea has a place in nearly every garden and farm. But purchasing mature Echinacea plants from a nursery can be expensive and often some of the most interesting varieties (rare or endangered native prairie Echinacea varieties have only been available in seed form recently) are not available commercially.

For these reasons, I started growing my own Echinacea from seed a number of years ago. In the beginning, I had mixed success. Without a period of cold stratification, the germination rate for this garden beauty can plummet to less than 30 percent. However, with stratification, it is possible to germinate nearly 100 percent of all Echinacea seeds that are started.

Cold is Good

Cold stratification is a process that is easily replicated at home in a controlled environment. After the seed is planted into a good quality potting mix, water thoroughly until the soil is completely saturated but no longer dripping out the bottom drain holes (I like to plant one seed per cell in a 78 cell container). Then, wrap the top of the container in clear plastic wrap and secure it loosely with duct tape. Put a piece of tape on the top of the plastic wrap with a label indicating both the date the seed was planted and the date that you are removing the container from cold stratification. Also include the name of the cultivar that was planted in the container if starting multiple varieties or species at the same time. Place the container onto a cookie sheet or nested in another hole-less tray that will catch any excess moisture and eliminate any dripping or mess.

When all of these steps are complete, slide the tray into a spare refrigerator (like the drink fridge you keep in the garage) and place a note on the outside door of the fridge with the date the seed was started and the date the tray should be removed from cold stratification. Typically, 30 days is enough stratification time for Echinacea.

Other species may take longer. During those 30 days, check on the container about once a week and make sure that the soil is still sufficiently moist. If need be, pull out the container and water thoroughly. This should only need to happen once in the 30 day period since the plastic wrap will help to retain soil moisture.

After the period of stratification has finished, pull the container out from the fridge, remove the plastic wrap and continue the seed starting ritual like usual including any heat mats or lighting that you typically use for your vegetable starts. For ensured success, follow the germination temperature guidelines specified on the seed packet. Temperature can be controlled by adding a thermostat onto your heat mat.

For those of us who like to collect seed heads from plants we already own or from native plants (ex: Balsam Root), an even easier hands-off approach is to take the saved seed (good quality, mature seed heads), plant it into a ½-gallon or similarly sized pot, place the pot in the shade outside your house for the summer and then water the pot intermittently over the fall and allow it to freeze and/or get snowed on over the winter.

Come spring, move the pot into a sunnier location and water regularly without overwatering. Take note of the rate of germination and experiment with overwintering your seeds in different locations around your yard to see if germination increases or decreases with location.

Cold stratification can be a lot of fun! With practice and persistence you will be able to grow more than enough Echinacea for your needs as well as those of your family and friends. Good luck and Happy Gardening.

Eron Drew is co-owner of Tierra Garden Organics and retreat center manager at Tierra Retreat Center. One of her most recent projects is founding FARMY-Food Army, an organization aimed at offering support to small and start-up farms in North Central Washington and fundraising for a future equipment co-op. If you would like to read more from Eron including essays, past garden-related articles and more, please visit her personal blog, Farmertopia, and find all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Cindy washing lettuce

I recently spoke at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference about transitioning from being a home gardener to growing and selling produce at the markets. That talk was so well received that I thought I would pass on some of the information here.

The first thing I stressed was to feed the soil and build the ecosystem. We can’t have healthy people and healthy communities if they are being fed less than nutritious food. In order for food to be nutrient dense, the soil needs to be as healthy as possible. I advise to put your space, time, and energy into growing cover crops to feed the soil and make your compost, rather than bringing those materials in from somewhere else.

As you are working on getting your soil into shape with cover crops, you will also be building the ecosystem and attracting beneficial insects with those crops. Learn what other crops you can grow to enhance the system. Not everything will be a market crop, bringing in money. What these additional crops will bring in is balance.

Saving your own seed will help to bring in beneficial insects with their flowers. Yes, it often takes more space to grow plants out to save seed from, and space in a market garden is at a premium, but you will benefit in the long run. Feeding the soil, building the ecosystem, and saving seeds are all things you can practice in your home garden and will be the foundation of your future market garden. As for making money with your crops, there are some tips about that at Homeplace Earth.

Another thing I stressed at the conference was to have a washing station in your garden so you are not washing all your produce in your kitchen. That can be disruptive to your family. Also, unless what you pick that day is sold the same day, a packing shed is necessary to keep the mess off your porch. The packing area could be part of the outdoor washing station.

I sold vegetables for ten years and my market garden provided employment for whichever of our children was a young teenager—actually the youngest two were ages 11 and 10 when they started. As they became the age to get a “real job”, the next became my employee. How else would you find yourself side-by-side with your young son or daughter talking about everything under the sun for an hour or two at a time while you washed lettuce or picked beans? After ten years it was time to devote my attention to teaching and give up selling produce. I was out of homegrown employees anyway and it would not have been the same.

I wouldn’t trade those years in the garden with my children for anything. No matter how much money you make, there are other things that come out of endeavors like this that money can’t buy.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Rain barrel

Before we had concrete, storm drains, and rain gutters, our diverse habitat naturally carried and captured rainwater via streams and rivers and filtered the water in wetlands. In contrast, in today's urban developments, rainwater flows down driveways and streets, contributing to flooding, erosion, and landslides. Runoffs also collect pollutants from our cars and fertilizers as it travels to the ocean and pollute the environment. 

Fortunately, there are a variety of simple and easy ways that we can re-design our spaces to follow nature's model! 

Calculate Your Rainwater Harvesting Potential

Harvesting the rain with a barrel is a simple way to recycle water. Before you get started collecting rainwater, calculate your catchment to determine just how much water your property can collect and how much.

By harvesting the rain, we can collect every drop and grow healthy gardens instead of letting it run-off to pollute our watersheds and ocean. Here in Southern California, we get about 15 inches of rain/year. It might not be much, but it adds up quickly. In fact, the average Southern California rooftop could collect almost 1,000 gallons of water with just 1" of rainfall!

Follow the instructions below to calculate your catchment so you'd know the rain barrel size you'd need to obtain or build!


1. Using your tape measure or string, measure the width and length of your home, classroom, office, chicken coop etc. Any structure with a roof can harvest the rain!

2. Calculate the square footage (width x length [floor in feet] = catchment area [square feet])

3. Awesome! Let's assume the square footage is equal to it's roof. Now you can estimate how much rainwater you could collect.

4. Harvested Water (Gal) = Catchment Area (sqft) x Rainfall Depth (inch) x Conversion Factor (0.623)

5. For example, let's say your square footage is 3,000 sq. ft. (the size of the average Southern California home), and it rains 1 inch.

6. 3,000 sq ft x 1" x 0.623 = 1,869

7. That's 1,869 gallons of water that we could potentially divert from the drain and into our garden.

Make a Stand for Your Rain Barrel

Proper placement of your barrel is important. It ensures that you maximize your barrel in terms of both aesthetics and function. For some of you, determining where to position your barrel will be easy, for example, if you have only one downspout, or very limited free space in your yard. For others, the options on where to place your barrel could seem infinite. Follow the instructions below to determine where to place your rain barrel and how to build a stand.


1. Choose a downspout - Explore the outside of your home to determine where, if any, the downspout(s) is located. Larger homes and apartment complexes will typically have more than one.

Once located, there are a few questions to ask before you choose which downspout to place your barrel underneath: What is the potential harvest off this particular section of roof? This is easy to determine using the formula above. How easy will it be access your barrel? Is it near or far to the garden? Is it blocking a walkway that people or trashcans regularly move through?

2. Build the foundation - Once you’ve chosen a downspout, you’re ready to build the foundation for your barrel. Make sure the ground is solid and level. If the area is concrete or asphalt, you should be good to go! If it’s comprised of dirt, consider using bricks, pavers, tiles, broken concrete, or whatever you have to provide a solid base. If you place your barrel onto bare dirt, it could shift and become unstable when it rains.

3. Make a stand - Now, you need a stand. Why a stand? The purpose of a stand is two parts. One, is to provide easy access for a watering can, or hose, to the barrel spigot. Two, is to lift the barrel off the ground just enough in order to use the force of gravity for water pressure. The last thing you want is a barrel, full of rain water, with no way to access it! Use what you have to make a stand. Get creative! Stack cinder blocks or bricks, or build a simple wooden stand. If building your own stand, keep in mind the weight of a full barrel (example: 55 gallons at 8 pounds/gallon = 440 pounds plus a few). You can build a simple bench seat with a few nails and 4x4‘s boards.

4. Install - Now that your barrel is beneath a downspout and above solid ground, you’re ready to install. Follow the instructions below if you need some installation tips. Consider securing the rain barrel to your home. 440 pounds of water could easily fall and injure someone or something during an earthquake. If this is a concern, use a tie-down strap or rope to secure it to your home.

rain barrel stand 

How to Install a Rain Barrel

With a rain barrel, you can capture that rain and reuse it to feed plants with nutrient-dense water, save money on your water bill, and reduce harmful urban run-off that would otherwise pollute our watershed and ocean. Installing a rain barrel is easy. Here’s how:

Materials and Tools

Rain barrel (you can use a variety of water-tight containers or sealed drums). We recommend food-grade, BPA free, drum grade HDPE resin, such as this 55-gallon rain barrel.
Measuring tape, pencil, beam level, electric drill, Phillips screwdriver or drill bit, material for solid surface base, rain barrel installation kit (includes hole saws [2 1/8” & 1 1/2” & 1”] spigot and gasket, diverter, fill hose, winter hole cover, water seals and screws)


1. Select a site for your new barrel—close to a downspout, near the desired area of use, and on a solid surface.

2. Build a level platform for your rain barrel before beginning the installation process. The platform will allow your barrel to fully drain using gravity. Try using cinder blocks, bricks, or wood blocks. Ideal height will be 18”-32”, based on your needs.

3. On the barrel, measure 2” down from the top and drill a hole using 1 1/2” hole saw. Insert gasket. This is where your barrel will connect to the downspout.

4. Measure 2-4” from the bottom of the barrel. Drill a hole using 1” hole saw. Insert gasket and screw in spigot. This is where you will connect your hose to water your garden. Empty barrel of plastic shavings left behind from hole saws.

5. Position barrel. Use the beam level and pencil to mark a reference line on the downspout, at the height of the barrel, then measure 2” below that. Here, drill a hole in your downspout with the 2 1/8” hole saw. Note: Make sure the hole in your downspout is level with (or slightly below) the hole in your barrel.

6. Connect fill hose to diverter. Insert diverter into downspout hole, funnel facing up, and tighten with the 2 screws provided.

7. Connect opposite end of fill hose to barrel. Cover with the lid and lock into place.


Many cities, counties, water districts, and conservation agencies offer rain barrel rebates and incentives for rainwater harvesting. Be sure to check with your local jurisdiction or water district for how to apply.

 rain barrel installation

How to Connect More than One Rain Barrel

Materials and Tools

• Two or more rain barrels
Rain barrel diverter & parts kit
• Power drill
• Pencil
• Female garden hose end or male-to-female hose adaptor


1. When connecting two or more barrels, ensure you have sufficient, sturdy, and level space. This is important, especially if you want your barrels to act as a single unit, then they must be level.

2. Measure 2” from the bottom on each barrel. Mark with a line. Using the hole saw, drill a hole using the 1.5” hole saw at the line. Insert threaded seal into hole.

3. Position the second barrel adjacent to the first and attach hose to bottom drain on first barrel. Connect other end of hose to the bottom of second barrel.

4. Viola! As your first barrel fills, the second barrel will fill at the same level.

If you notice that your rain barrel's still over full, remember to direct your overflow back into your garden or to a pervious surface (and not out the driveway). Follow nature's model and always Slow It, Spread It, Sink It!

All photos by Scott Sporleder

Ann Nguyen joined the educational nonprofit The Ecology Center in Spring 2014, where she manages the marketing and PR teams, facilitates online content, creates and implements marketing campaigns, manages social media channels, markets events and workshops, and produces the center’s quarterly sustainability journal, Evolve. She holds a certificate in permaculture design. Click here to read all of Ann’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


February Kitchen Garden

February is the month to start your seeds indoors!  You can get a one to two month jump by starting seeds inside.  It is easy and a budget friendly option that allows you to grow many varieties not available at your neighborhood nursery or big box store. Besides, it is nice to have green things growing again!

10-12 weeks prior (end Jan/beginning of Feb in our Zone 6 garden)

• Artichokes
• Broccoli
• Cabbage
• Celery
• Endive
• Escarole
• Kale
• Mache

8-10 weeks prior (mid-February in our Zone 6 garden)

• Chamomile
• Chives
• Eggplant
• Lavender
• Leeks
• Lovage
• Parsley
• Peppers
• Rosemary
• Tomatoes
• Thyme

For a full seed starting calendar, Indoor seed starting calendar  

What are the tricks to successful seed starting? The most surefire I have found with a gadget is the Aerogarden with the seed starting tray. I have almost 100% germination rate with it.

Aerogarden Seed Starting System
Aerogarden Seed Starting System

The key is using sterile seed starting mix, pots and containers. You can make your own seed starting mix with peat moss or coir (renewable), compost, and vermiculite. Just be sure to heat the compost to at least 150 degrees to kill any pathogens before using to start seeds.

Place the seeds in the starter mix in the pots and wet thoroughly from the bottom (watering from the top can dislodge seeds). After fully saturated, they are ready to put in a catch pan. Make sure any catch pan that you use has been thoroughly washed in a bleach solution so all pathogens are killed. The one I just bought has a water reservoir in the bottom of it that wicks the moisture up under the seedlings. I put my seed starts in a plastic tray with a clear plastic lid in a sunny window that I have had for years that you can buy at any big box store. Keep moist, but not wet, and with the clear cover on until seedling emerges. Once seedling emerges, remove the clear lid.

Make sure you label your seedlings as soon as you plant them; you may think you will remember 2 months from now what was where, but likely not. Now is also a great time to start keeping a journal. Start tracking what you planted when so you can review next year what worked well to repeat and what didn’t work so well to tweak.

Your seedling’s first leaves are not “true” leaves; think of them as baby teeth. The second sets of leaves are their true leaves. They are ready to be hardened off when they have their first set of true leaves. Seedlings must be hardened and not just thrown outside. You take them out a little at a time, gradually increasing their exposure to sun and cold, only during the daytime. I try and plant when there is a warm spell forecasted to minimize the shock.

There are great selections of herbs and veggies at nurseries and big box stores nowadays so you have great options just waiting until spring is officially here and picking up what looks good at your nearby store in a couple of months. This is also a great back up if your first seed starting adventure goes a little awry.

For different garden ideas, here are some to choose from: Heirloom Sicilian kitchen garden, Small space French kitchen garden, Start a kitchen herb garden!

Garden Planning

Happy garden starting!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Seed starting begins at Candlemas — also known as Groundhog’s Day or Imbolc, depending upon your belief structure — or February second. After dinner, we light a new candle and break out the seeds, potting soil, and planting trays. We plant all of the tomatoes and the early spring crops—some mustard, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and cabbage. By Spring Equinox, the cold hardy crops will be ready to be planted out in the first bed and covered by our repurposed windows cold frame and the tomatoes will be bumped up to four inch pots and distributed to other homes. This year, I am trying an experiment.

Because we have a new greenhouse, I am playing around with when to start planting. Every week, starting in January, I set out a six-pack of lettuce and mustard seeds on the greenhouse shelf, just to see if they would sprout and grow. The answer was — no. They all came up within a week of each other at the end of January and are growing at the same slow rate. No real gains there! However, I double planted all of the cold hardy crops on Candlemas. Half of them are in my classroom, under a light, warm and cozy, surrounded by talking adolescents. The other half are in the greenhouse, sitting quietly on the newly constructed shelf by the window. I also direct seeded several rows of lettuce, arugula, and mustard in the garden bed under the shelf.  I am hoping that the cold hardy plants will sprout and grow as well as the ones inside, although I will always sprout the tomatoes in class.

I’ll let you all know how it goes in two weeks!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


The first step in the permaculture design process is observation on site. In the northern hemisphere, creating thermal mass to the garden’s north provides a warming effect.

The northern edge of the garden also has the opportunity to house a vertical strutter that can bolster harvests for small spaces. We erected a vertical wall where we grow herbs on the vertical in pockets, and artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes atop the wooden structure. Our garden receives approximately 150 pounds of herbs and produce on this added urban garden vertical system.

Increase Edges and Margins

The next place we found increased capacity was in the gardens edges. On all 68 raised beds in our gardens, we plant the fringes of the beds in beans and peas continually in succession. In addition, we grow peas  or runner beans on trellis on all northern edges. These north edge walls give added vertical growing space while also serving as wind blocks without shading other plants.

A pea trellis may not seem like much of a wind break, but 70 of them begins to make a difference in urban lots.

Cucumbers Growing Up and Out

We also grow cucumbers on the raised bed edges. They will then root in the bed, while snaking down into the mulch or concrete outside of the bed to set fruit in unused real estate. We also use tomato cages or chain-link fencing to trellis cucumbers up vertically like the vines that they are.

On a native plant research trip in 2010 to the mountains of Baja Sur, Mexico, I came upon a wild cucurbit vine, a relative of squash and melons and cucumbers. It was traipsed upon a large shrub and had grown up above the surrounding foliage. By mimicking this in the vegetable garden, this seems to create less powdery mildew than specimens grown on the soil.

Leave Some Areas Bare for Native Bees

On our vertical garden we installed a mason bee house. This keeps pollinators close by in our urban gardens. We also leave some ground areas free of sheet mulching. Because sheet mulch will drastically reduce seed sprouting, I recommend raking out one meter circles that are left bare. Into these circles, I seed wildflower mixes, such as California Poppy eschscholzia californica, Lupine lupinus albifrons, and Yarrow achillea millefolium.

These bare zones can foster native insectories, in the form of pollen as well as leaving some ground bare for ground-nesting native bees. For more information on ground-nesting bee habitat, check out The Xerces Society website.

Want to rethink your relationship to weeds? Check out the new book written by a fellow permaculture designer, writer and friend, Tao Orion, entitled Beyond the War on Invasives, published this year by Chelsea Green.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


By now, your mailboxes are probably recovering from the strain of holding the endless stream of winter seed catalogs. Your eyes are likely red and tired from eyestrain as you flip through the pages. Possibly, your brain is hurting from sorting through the possibilities and making decisions. It reminds me my dilemma when deciding which music to listen to. My musical tastes are broad; I love music, and listen to it pretty much all day long. But sometimes trying to decide what to listen to brings about mental paralysis.

With thousands of choices of tomatoes available to tomato growers (especially if starting from seeds, rather than seedlings), a few simple basic considerations can provide some guidelines for narrowing the field, helping you make choices of what will appear in your garden this coming season.

Let’s start with one of the most basic attribute of a particular tomato variety – its growth habit. (In the next blog post, I will touch upon an equally important set of attributes – hybrid, heirloom and open pollinated.)

Indeterminate Tomato Varieties

Indeterminate tomatoes will be familiar to those who grapple annually with wild, tall, out of control plants that take up lots and lots of space. The central growing stem expands outward (or upward, if you tie it to a vertical stake or trellis) indefinitely – until you prune it at a particular height, or it is nibbled by a critter, or, most often, the plant dies at the end of the season from frost or disease.

Another characteristic of indeterminate tomatoes is the formation of side shoots or suckers at every joint between the leaf shaft and stem. Each sucker itself produces more suckers. This is what creates the great width of an indeterminate variety, which when combined with the infinite upward growth of the fruiting stems, create single plant jungles, or multiple plant hedges.

Example Varieties:

Hybrids: 'Better Boy', 'Lemon Boy', 'Big Beef', 'Sun Gold', 'Sweet Million'.

Open pollenated and heirlooms: 'Cherokee Purple', 'Brandywine', 'Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom', 'Kellogg’s Breakfast'

Advantages of Indeterminate Tomatoes

Most tomato varieties are indeterminate; the vast majority of heirloom varieties certainly are.  The selection of indeterminate tomato varieties is therefore huge – a blessing in terms of options and a curse in terms of making decisions.

The optimum ratio of foliage to fruit provides indeterminate tomatoes the potential for the very best flavors. Plenty of foliage in relation to the number of tomatoes means lots of photosynthesis and other necessary processes for excellent flavor development. This doesn’t mean that all indeterminate varieties are delicious, but most flavor favorites seem to be in this category.

Tall, wide and spreading plants mean potentially heavy yields, depending upon how they are grown.

Indeterminate varieties produce fruit continually until killed by frost or disease, meaning gradual but long duration harvests.


For most gardeners that don’t have infinite space and possible diseases in their soil, some sort of control is necessary – typically staking, trellising or caging. A sprawling indeterminate tomato plant on garden soil is an invitation for disease.

It isn’t necessarily a disadvantage but a consideration – removing or leaving suckers is a key decision for those growing indeterminate tomatoes. Those that cage don’t typically prune at all, and potential yields are enormous. Removal of all suckers, leaving just the central growing stem, will reduce yields and may lead to sun scald on tomatoes that are exposed to direct sun. A happy medium – letting two suckers develop, meaning 3 main fruiting stems – is my current practice, and serves me well.

For those who grow in containers, a capacity of 10 gallons is the minimum for reasonable yields of tomatoes.

Determinate Tomato Varieties

Determinate tomato varieties have a genetic characteristic that limits growth and tends to ripen the crop in a fairly concentrated time span. The gene for this type of growth, also known as self-topping, wasn’t discovered until the 1920s. There are very few true determinate heirlooms for this reason – the growth habit simply hasn’t been around for all that long.

Because so many tomatoes are often formed on plants with such reduced height and width, the fruit to foliage ratio is far higher than for that of indeterminate or dwarf varieties. This seems to be why flavors of most determinate tomatoes are less intense; think Roma, probably not the first tomato you would reach for to get the best fresh tomato eating experience.

Example Varieties:

'Roma', 'Martino’s Roma', 'Sophie’s Choice', 'Southern Night', 'Taxi'

Advantages of Determinate Tomatoes

Determinate tomato varieties are perfect for container gardening and short stakes and cages. They don’t need to be pruned at all; in fact, removing suckers significantly reduces the yield. A five gallon capacity container will grow a determinate variety very well.

Since the tomatoes on determinate varieties tend to ripen within a short time frame, they are perfect for preserving; grow a few Roma types and get ready to do lots of canning once the fruit all start to ripen.


There are far fewer determinate varieties available to choose from, spanning a limited fruit size and shape and color range.

The flavors of determinate varieties just don’t seem to have the sparkling intensity and complexity of indeterminate or dwarf varieties.

Determinate tomatoes are not suitable for those who desire a long harvest window, since they tend to ripen their fruit in a short time span. This makes them a good choice for processing, such as canning, when a large quantity of ripe tomatoes make the work worthwhile.

Dwarf Tomato Varieties

Dwarf tomato varieties are the least familiar of the three major growth habits. Due to the recent releases from the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project that I co-lead, this is changing rapidly, and space-challenged gardeners can now replicate the “heirloom tomato experience” by using exclusively dwarfs.

Though known in America since the 1850s, only a few Dwarf tomato varieties were in existence until very recently. Unique because of their very thick central stem, dark green crinkly foliage (also known as “rugose”), continuous fruiting and short stature, I consider Dwarf tomatoes be similar in many ways to indeterminate types, but they grow vertically at only about half of the rate. They need no pruning, grow happily in containers as small as 5 gallon capacity, and are the perfect tomato type for those familiar wire cone-shaped 4 foot cages.

Example Dwarf Tomato Varieties:

'New Big Dwarf', 'Dwarf Champion', 'Lime Green Salad', 'Dwarf Wild Fred', 'Dwarf Sweet Sue', 'Summertime Green'

Advantages of Dwarf Varieties

Because they fruit gradually but continuously until killed by frost or disease, like indeterminate varieties, the ratio of foliage to fruit is not nearly as out of whack as with determinate types. There is sufficient photosynthesis in the ample foliage to allow for the very best of flavors; we’ve found that many of our dwarfs mirror indeterminate types in flavor excellence.

The short stature allows for closer planting, and because they don’t need tall stakes or trellises, they are perfect varieties to bring the joy of tomatoes via decks, patios or (in my case), driveways.

Disadvantages of Dwarf Tomatoes

Though great progress has been made recently on expanding the available options, there are still less than 100 dwarf varieties for gardeners to choose from. Yet, among the varieties are large fruited, delicious tomatoes in just about all possible colors.

Because many of the new dwarf varieties are so recent, availability of many of them is limited, but increasing yearly.

With plants at half the height of indeterminate varieties, the yield of dwarf types are lower; closer spacing due to the compact size can help compensate, howerver.

My own gardens, despite growing all of my tomatoes on my deck or in my driveway, are typically a mix of indeterminate and dwarf types. Before the Dwarf Tomato Breeding project began in 2005, the vast majority of the tomatoes I grew were indeterminate. A sure sign of how successful our project is lies in my move toward growing mostly dwarfs.

We are simply very fortunate to have such a wonderful selection of tomatoes to choose from. Having a clear idea of the differences in growth habit will help guide you to success. In my next blog, I will share my guidance and views on the terms hybrid, heirloom and open-pollinated when describing tomato varieties.

Craig Lehoullier is an heirloom tomato expert (and amateur plant breeder). He currently is on book promotion tour for Epic Tomatoes, setting upcoming tomato workshop events, updating his website and blog, devising a totally new, all-heirloom weekly podcast, shooting a tomato know-how video series and pondering topics for future books. He is co-leading the Dwarf Tomato breeding project to put 36 new dwarf-growing, open-pollinated tomatoes in the hands of various small seed companies. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.