Here’s some happy gardening news: Tomatomania is back with hundreds of tomato choices
It’s been nearly a year since our worlds went upside down, when everything we took for granted — our jobs, our favorite hangouts, our friends, even our families — was suddenly snatched away.
Finally, though, there’s some hope for normal on the horizon, and not just from vaccinations: Tomatomania!, Southern California’s harbinger of spring gardening for 30 years, is coming back!
Tomatomania had a brutal season in 2020, when most of its venues were closed due to COVID 19, but it’s gearing up again, with a few tweaks, ready to start its traveling seedling show on Feb. 26 with more than 200 tomato varieties and 50 pepper varieties.
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Expect the same range of diverse sizes, flavors and colors—from Cherokee Purples, misshapen, mahogany monster fruits with exquisite smoky flavors, to deep orange varieties, or green with stripes, sunny yellows and of course varying shades of red from traditional Roma paste tomatoes to sweet mouthfuls of cherries.
This year, there’s a whole selection of heirlooms from the Dwarf Tomato Project, designed specifically to grow in small spaces, like a balcony container.
More good news: Gardeners will have more time to browse its offerings at each pop-up stop. The not-so-good news: There will be far fewer venues to visit this year, said owner Scott Daigre.
In past seasons, Tomatomania moved its three- or 10-day sales “events” to about a dozen venues from Ventura to San Diego counties, offering demonstrations, workshops, recipes and camaraderie for gardeners who can’t get enough of our favorite summer fruit.
The ongoing pandemic has nixed those in-person extras this year to ensure people don’t congregate, but Daigre said he expects some venues will offer mini workshops online (and lots of info, recipes and advice are offered on the Tomatomania! website).
Expect only about a half dozen Tomatomania venues this year, with online ordering and/or lots of space between tables so shoppers can keep safely distanced and not have to linger to find the plants they want.
Daigre said the events will stay a month at most places, starting with Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar on Feb. 26, and will regularly replenish their offerings, so shoppers don’t feel the need to crowd into the sales events the first day to get their favorite varieties before they sell out.
Other than that, the Tomatomania format is going strong, with Daigre heralding his annual pick for tomato of the year (an orangey-red Hawaiian hybrid named Lava Flow), and, in recognition of last year’s huge interest in container gardening, more than 20 or so types of dwarf tomatoes — heirloom hybrids bred to grow easily and profusely in small spaces and pots.
Daigre said the dwarf series tomatoes are just the thing for gardeners who want to grow more exotic heirloom varieties but don’t have the space for in-ground gardening.
Bush type tomatoes aren’t new, Daigre said, but these dwarf series are indeterminant heirloom varieties instead of the more common determinant hybrids like Better Bush.
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Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminant, producing tomatoes over many weeks unlike determinant varieties, which are bred to produce their crop all at once.
The problem is that indeterminant varieties tend to be enormous, rangy plants that require lots of staking and can take over a balcony, small patio or even a garden bed, Daigre said.
That’s the beauty of the dwarf series, he said. They produce heirloom tomatoes but on plants that are stocky and compact, requiring little if any staking. One of Daigre’s favorites is Saucy Mary, a tiny “micro dwarf” plant that can be tucked into a pot with several other plants, he said, and still provide dozens of delicious green-and-orange-striped fruit shaped like Roma tomatoes.
In fact, Daigre said, if you have a large pot where you would normally plant one regular-size tomato plant, you can successfully plant two or three of the dwarf series and triple your variety and production.
“Last year we tried a few of these, and I feel like I’ve found the key for people who can only do two or three containers on the back porch,” Daigre said.
Maria Luz Lopez sold houseplants out of her car in the 1980s, trying to support her three young children. But when she got fined for selling on the street she took the advice of the officer who cited her, bought a vacant lot in South Park and created Avalon Nursery & Ceramics, South Los Angeles’ only enduring nursery.
“These aren’t cherry tomatoes; you have the whole realm of tomato offerings in the dwarf series. I had one tomato, Cyril’s Choice, that started early, finished late and produced dozens of fruit double cherry tomato size off one small plant. If the production I got last year was multiplied into what people normally put in their backyards, you could feel like a real farmer, and you don’t need major scaffolding to make it happen.”
But that’s the allure of Tomatomania; there are so many opportunities to experiment.
And this year there’s the bonus that you can peruse most of Daigre’s offerings online. He will try to offer all 200-plus varieties at every venue, but some plants will run out and others might not grow as well as expected, he said, so be flexible in your choices.
Daigre is still negotiating with a couple of venues for dates later in the spring, and the details about how sales will be handled are still being finalized, but most of the schedule is set. Note that Tomatomania’s offerings will be listed online at Roger’s Gardens, Fig Earth Supply and Otto & Sons Nursery, if you want to do some early browsing. And because we live in crazy uncertain times right now, check the Tomatomania and venue websites for updates before you go.
Roger’s Gardens at 2301 San Joaquin Road in Corona del Mar, a four-week stay starting Feb. 26. All of Tomatomania’s offerings of tomatoes and peppers will be listed online.
Fig Earth Supply at 3577 N. Figueroa St. in Mount Washington, March 5-7. Gardeners can shop online for their tomatoes and pick them up at the curb or make appointments to browse.
Otto & Sons Nursery at 1835 E. Guiberson Road in Fillmore, starting March 12 for one month. Offerings available for online browsing and purchase, with curbside pickup as well as on-site visits.
Mission Hills Nursery at 1525 Fort Stockton Drive in San Diego, launching March 13 for a month.
Underwood Family Farms markets at 5696 Los Angeles Ave. in Somis and 3370 Sunset Valley Road in Moorpark, available March 27 into early summer.
Descanso Gardens at 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge, April 9-11. More details to come.
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