GardenDC Podcast with Doug: All about tomatoes

I’ve know Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener Magazine for many years. We have connected through the Internet and get to see each other about once a year, usually at the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show in Baltimore.

Dan Cummings of West Mifflin has been growing out a tomato called ‘3945’ found on a WWII battlefield by his late friend Joe Roberts. It’s in memory of him and all the servicemen who fought from WWII, Cummings said of the tomato. You can get a free packet of seeds, here are the details.

Her GardenDC Podcast is wonderful and I was so happy to be featured in this episode. We talked all about tomatoes and I even do a little singing. We had a blast! Enjoy listening and follow Kathy on social media, she has great insight about gardening.

Free plants from Jeannette, Pa. gardener!

I’ve been friends with John Wassel of Jeannette in Westmoreland County for quite a while now. He called me today asking, “Is gardening going to be a big deal this year due to what’s happening?” Then added, “if so I’d like to help.”

John Wassel in one of his two greenhouses with a picture of friends who love to garden. It includes Uncle Punzo. Wassel would like to give gardeners some of the plants he grows.

This is one of the reasons I love gardeners, they have big hearts. John donates most of his plants to lots of worthy causes. He grows thousands of seedlings in his two small greenhouses. “95 percent of what I grow is heirlooms,” he told me. Some were actually brought from Italy.

I wrote about John back in 2018 when I was still with Everybody Gardens. He told a wonderful story about Uncle Punzo, who taught him to garden. You can read the original story here.

John wants to share some of his plants and knowledge, especially with new gardeners. “You don’t need a 20 by 20 foot garden, he says, you can plant next to the house or on the patio.”

He’s got tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, other greens and much more, but wants the plants to go to gardeners who need them. “I’ll leave them out for them, with their names on the plants in April or May,” he added.

This season he spent $150 on seeds and asks people who are able to help his seed fund with a small donation if possible. “I don’t want people to think I’m selling plants though,” he says. “I just want to make new gardeners happy.” Be honest, if you need the plants and can’t donate, no problem, but if you have a little extra, John is an honorable person and will use the money the right way.

Contact John Wassel at to find out what plants he has and which varieties you’d be interested in.

“I want to be able to inspire people to garden,” John said. “For them to have a fresh tomato, lettuce or a frying pepper.

Anything can be a container

By Doug Oster

Long before being quarantined in the garden, I always re-purposed a wide variety of things, turning them into planting containers.

I’ve gone through a few watering cans, boots, garden carts and many more things.

This garden cart goes back to 1983. It was a gift from a dear friend.
This garden cart goes back to 1983. It was a gift from a dear friend.
This watering can is filled with fresh lettuce.
This watering can is filled with fresh lettuce.

Most have a special meaning, that’s one reason they are recycled. The garden cart was a gift from a good friend who sold my wife and I our first house in 1983. The boots came from my wife in the 1980’s. They were expensive and bought as a gift when we didn’t have much money. One of the watering cans was a gift from a good gardening friend. Being nostalgic is a blessing and a curse, but I couldn’t bear to throw them out.

The most important aspect of any container is drainage. Drill or poke holes in the bottom so excess water can drain. Next is choosing the right plant for the right sized container. Sedum is fine for a pair of boots, but a tomato is going to need a 15 gallon pot.

My wife gave me these boots a long time ago. Now they are filled with sedum.
My wife gave me these boots a long time ago. Now they are filled with sedum.

Stuck at home, try to find a medium to fill the container. I’ve got left over pots that I’m dumping for soil, digging in my compost pile and even excavating under old piles of leaves for good stuff to plant in until it’s permitted to go to a nursery or garden center again.

Another fun watering can container.
Another fun watering can container.

If you don’t have a garden and want to grow your own food, containers are a great idea. Even some lettuce seeds sowed in a small watering can will produce some fresh greens. Bigger is usually better for containers as they don’t need to be watered as much. On the other hand, larger pots are hard to move once filled with soil. Lettuce, beets, other greens, radishes, Swiss chard, spinach and many other plants will thrive outdoors in the cool spring. Later on warm season crops like tomatoes, beans and peppers can be put in place.

I like to fertilize mine every other week now and then every time I water during the summer. I use a liquid organic fertilizer called Grow from Espoma.

Look around the house, garage and garden for a cool container project to keep you busy during these strange times.

Free tomato seeds found on WWII battlefield

By Doug Oster

I originally wrote about Dan Cummings in 2016. Unfortunately he has since passed away. We were gardening friends for decades. Whenever I was in West Mifflin, I would stop by his house. He loved growing dahlias, tomatoes and lots of other things. When he told me about tomato seeds he had been growing, which had originally been found on a battlefield during WWII, I was intrigued.

Dan was grounds supervisor at CCAC South Campus in the 1970s, where he became friends with Joe Roberts, who enjoyed walking at the grounds at the school.

The two became friends and when Dan visited Joe’s garden he was blown away by the size of a tomato growing on the vine.

Dan Cummings of West Mifflin has been growing the '3945' tomato discovered on a battlefield by a friend during WWII. Photos by Doug Oster Tribune-Review
Dan Cummings passed away in 2018. He loved gardening. Photos by Doug Oster

“I said, ‘Holy smokes, Joe, that sucker is a monster,’” Dan said back in 2016 while relating the story.

Joe then told him the tale of how he stumbled on to the tomato while crossing a battlefield during WWII. He picked some of the tomatoes, enjoying a fresh snack. Joe loved the big red tomato and saved a few seeds, stuffing them into a pocket.

‘3945’ tomato

The tomato’s name has changed several times. First, because one slice of the tomato was enough to cover an entire slice of bread, Roberts named it ‘Sandwich.’ He then settled on ‘Sweetheart’ for a few years.

“In the ’90s I said to him, ‘World War II started in 1939, and it was over in ’45. Why don’t you just change the name to 3945?’ That’s how we came up with the name,” Dan said.

Over the years, the story has faded. Roberts passed away around 2003, and Cummings couldn’t remember where exactly Roberts found the tomato or what branch of the service he served in. But he shares the seeds and story with any gardener interested.

“It’s in memory of him and all the servicemen who fought from WWII,” Cummings said of the tomato, which he started growing in the 1980s.

The giant tomatoes are a reddish orange with a texture that’s both meaty and juicy, with lots of tiny seeds and a wonderful old-fashioned flavor.

“When I plant the tomatoes, I usually make a sign of the cross, bless them and ask the good Lord to make them grow so I can share them with everybody,” he said back in 2018.

He stressed that the plant needs a big cage, anchored in the ground with a long piece of rebar.

“I fly a flag every day in my yard in memory of those who fought and died for us,” he said proudly. “Can you imagine a unit of soldiers going across a battlefield and seeing a field of tomatoes? They took time out from protecting themselves to stop and eat some tomatoes and then to bring the seeds home and to grow them. It’s just mind-boggling.”

I also have some ‘Clint Eastwood Rowdy Red’ tomato seeds from Tomatofest that I will include. Tomatofest is a great seed company, you should order some seeds from them.

For a free packet of ‘3945’ tomato seeds and the Clint Eastwood seeds, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to:

Doug Oster,
3945 Tomato
P.O. Box 11013
Pittsburgh, Pa

A new beginning at 60

I started getting texts Friday from co-workers. Each one telling me they were being laid off. That’s when my phone rang and I got the bad news. The supervisor on the other end of the line was actually quite kind and then started reading a prepared statement. I asked a few pretty stupid questions and from what I could surmise, this wasn’t so much a layoff, it was the end of my time with the company.

Daffodils emerge every spring regardless of what happens in our world. Photo by Doug Oster

For the the first time since 1972 (when I was 12), I was unemployed. I was just finishing a post about seed companies being overrun with orders is response to the coronavirus when I got that call. It was thrilling to be ahead of the curve, writing that story; covering the biggest news in years from a gardening perspective. It was just after the final quotes were emailed to me from around the country that I took that call.

I walked out the kitchen door and yelled up to my wife, who was walking the dogs, “I just got laid off.” She was more upset than I was, as she new I just worked about a month straight preparing and appearing at the Duquesne Light Home and Garden Show for the company. Sometimes when these things happen, you second guess yourself for working like that, but it needed to be done.

As I sat in front of my laptop jobless, I put the finishing touches to the seed post, adding photos, and hit the button putting it out on the web.

I don’t know what I’d do without my wife and also the garden. Both offered solice during the first few hours, trying to figure out what was next. I walked the trails through the forest with a beer in one hand and my chin in the other, pondering the future.

For now there are some constants. I’ll appear every week on Sundays at 7 a.m. for The Organic Gardener Radio Show on KDKA 1020AM. You can listen to it anytime here. I’ll still appear on KDKA-TV’s Pittsburgh Today Live on certain Fridays. I’ll be posting videos, stories, columns photos here and at my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sites.

I love telling these stories of gardeners and their love of being in the dirt. I’ll continue to do so because it’s just what I do.

Lastly thanks to all of you for your support during the first days of this life changing experience, and remember, gardening is fun. No matter what happens in our world, the daffodils emerge each spring.

Here’s a video of my first day jobless.

Native Plants are Beautiful, Tough and are Great for Pollinators as Seen on KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live

Monarda or bee balm is a favorite native for butterflies.
Monarda or bee balm is a favorite native for butterflies.

Native plants are tough and beautiful.

Some of the advantages of natives are that they are low maintenance, don’t need a lot of water, are good for pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies.

But it’s their beauty that attracts gardeners. Most people would be surprised that they are already growing native plants.

What’s a native plant, well that’s debatable actually, but it’s a plant that was found already growing here before colonization.

They provide food and habitat for native wildlife.

Serve as an important genetic resource for future food crops or other plant-derived product.

Decrease the amount of water needed for landscape maintenance.

Require very little long-term maintenance if they are properly planted and established.

Produce long root systems to hold soil in place.

Protect water quality by controlling soil erosion and moderating floods and droughts.

I brought Joe Pye Weed, Hay Scented Ferns, Black Eyed Susan, Coneflower, Heuchera, Monarda and more on the show.

All the plants used on the show came from Hahn Nursery.

Colorful summer shrubs as seen on Pittsburgh Today Live

Choose the right hydrangea and enjoy the blooms for a lifetime.
Choose the right hydrangea and enjoy the blooms for a lifetime.

Summer blooming shrubs are a great addition to the garden. When I moved into my house the garden was filled with spring bloomers. It wasn’t long until I found shrubs which would continue to bloom through the summer and extend the interest in the garden.
Once things cool off a bit, they can be found on sale and planted in the garden.
I always like to add some compost to the soil and it’s important to keep these new planting watered until the ground freezes if we don’t get rain.
Hydrangeas are one of my favorite summer bloomers, but not the mopheads that are not reliable bloomers. When you go to the nursery look for other varieties which will bloom year after year.
There are variegated rose of Sharon which are beautiful year round, the flowers are a bonus.
The same is true for Japanese pieris.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw buttercup bush blooming in a dear friend’s garden during a July heat wave. The bright yellow flowers lasted until frost. The plant is indestructible and a perfect foundation planting out in sun.
Spend some time at the nursery and you might find a bargain that will provide beauty year after year.