Q: I love fresh tomatoes. I moved into an apartment with a small patio. It gets a lot of sun, so it should be OK to grow plants, but I need small plants. Are there any really small tomato plants?
A: I have good news for you. There are a lot of small tomato plants that have great tasting, full-size fruits. The only problem is that most people have never heard of them.
First, we have to define a few terms. Tomatoes come in determinate and indeterminate varieties. Determinate tomatoes grow a stem or branch until it sets a flower bud cluster on the end. The plant stops growing leaves and starts growing fruit. All the fruit mature within a couple of weeks, and there are no more on that plant.
Indeterminate tomatoes produce flower clusters along the sides of the branches. The trunks and branches keep growing in length and in a few varieties can reach over 15 feet long. The fruit are produced over a long time. One of these plants will take over your whole patio.
What we want are indeterminate dwarf tomato plants that produce great-tasting tomatoes of different sizes and colors. That is where the Dwarf Tomato Project comes in. In 2005, Patrina Nuske-Small of Australia and Craig LeHoullier of Raleigh, North Carolina, started a breeding program that now involves volunteers from all over the world. In a normal project like this, you would cross some potential varieties and produce some seeds. This would get one cross per year. But with volunteers north and south of the equator, you can get two summers in a year. In only a few years, you can get new stable varieties that come true from seeds.
Incredibly, there are now over 40 new dwarf tomato varieties that have been created by this volunteer effort, and they show no signs of slowing down. The dwarf plants grow to around 4 feet tall and can be grown in a 5-gallon pot or bucket. Of course, they will not grow as many fruit as a 15-foot-tall monster, but there will be more than if you were to not grow any at all.
They are not just for patios, either; any vegetable garden can grow these dwarf plants to allow for more room. You can try more kinds of tomatoes in the same space or add other vegetables. There is a lot less work involved because you don't have to prune, stake and tie up the plants. A small tomato cage will work just fine.
There are bicolor, black, orange, pink, red, stripes, white and yellow varieties. There are small salad tomatoes and full one-pound, slicing tomatoes for topping your summer hamburgers.
For more information, check out dwarftomatoproject.net. LeHoullier is the author of "Epic Tomatoes" and "Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales." You can find out more about his books and the Dwarf Tomato Project at Craiglehoullier.com.
The seeds for the new dwarf tomatoes have been initially released through four companies: Sandhill Preservation, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Tomato Growers Supply Company and Victory Seeds. Now there are varieties available through Heritage Seed Market and Tatiana's TOMATObase.
The dwarf tomato seeds are starting to be carried by a variety of other seed companies. Renee's Gardens has heirloom container tomatoes including Dwarf Tomato Project's Tasmanian Chocolate.
Email questions to Jeff Rugg at [email protected] To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.