A Tale of Tomatoes

I thought I was done ordering tomato seeds for the season. But, in the immortal words of Michael Corleone in The Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

By “they,” I’m referring not only to seed catalogs (they keep coming!) but also Craig LeHoullier, as I’ve been reading his book Epic Tomatoes.

I’m only a third of the way through the book and my tomato seed-planting has already increased by a million percent. I hope everyone in San Diego County is ready to plant some more tomatoes, especially the new dwarf varieties that LeHoullier has helped popularize through the Dwarf Tomato Project, because I now have seeds for five varieties resulting from the Dwarf Tomato Project.

The Dwarf Tomato Project

The Dwarf Tomato Project is a cooperative venture conceived by Craig LeHoullier and Patrina Nuske Small. Craig noticed a lack of variety among dwarf tomatoes and teamed up with Patricia to see if they could remedy the situation by crossing dwarf varieties with heirloom tomatoes. They drew inspiration from a 1915 Isbell Seed Catalog, which listed a New Big Dwarf variety, a cross between Dwarf Champion (which had been grown since the late 1800s) and the largest-known tomato at the time, Ponderosa.

Page 7 of the 1915 Isbell Seed Catalog, advertising Isbell’s New Big Dwarf tomato: “Ponderosa Fruits on Dwarf Champion Vines.”

By the end of 2005, Patrina had successfully made eight crosses and she and Craig used the material to start a project where anyone (that means you and me too) could volunteer to grow some dwarf tomato plants to test and stabilize the variety. They wanted to create a bunch of shapes, sizes, tastes and colors that would equal heirloom varieties while offering the advantages of dwarf tomatoes’ compact size and habit.

As a result, I now have about 100 dwarf tomato seedlings sitting on my patio.

Here’s What I’m Growing:

What I’ve Learned from Epic Tomatoes

This may seem a bit random, but here are some insights that have filled in my tomato-growing knowledge gaps. I blogged about tomato-growing basics and you can read about that here.

Most recently I’ve learned:

  • There’s no such thing as a low-acid tomato. All tomatoes possess a similar acid range (they vary but not that much), though the acidity can be masked by high sweetness.
  • Tomato colors don’t correlate to flavor, with the possible exception of white tomatoes being a bit bland. If you doubt this, do a blindfolded taste test of a bunch of tomatoes and see if you can identify which are which color. Maybe I’ll host such a challenge at the end of summer.
  • What are dwarf tomatoes? They’re like slow-growing indeterminate tomatoes that top out at 3 to 5 feet. You can grow them in containers as small as 5 gallons (vs. 15 gallons for regular indeterminate tomatoes). They have very thick stems and can produce all shapes and sizes of tomato.
  • Hybrid tomatoes aren’t necessarily more disease-resistant or prolific than open-pollinated or heirloom tomatoes. To understand these definitions, read the blog post here. That said, I’m still gonna grow my Citrine hybrid tomato from Johnny’s as I’ve never tasted anything as sweet and tangerine-like in a tomato.
  • After you transplant seedlings from seed trays to little pots (I use 3.5-inch pots like these and these), put them in the shade for a few days. Even if you water them, the sun will dry them out as the transplanting has reduced the plant’s roots’ ability to take up water. So let them rest and root and then harden them off outside.
  • I’m growing my tomatoes too close together. Craig says vertically grown (vs. cage-grown or sprawling) tomatoes should be 3 feet apart. This is debatable, as I’ve seen the tomato plants at San Diego Seed Company and other successful tomato growers, where vertically grown tomatoes stand a foot apart. Mine are about 1.5 feet apart and I’m pruning suckers and have excellent soil. I’ll keep you posted on how this goes in my own garden.
  • The prune-or-not-to-prune suckers debate continues. LeHoullier writes that leaving suckers on the tomato plant will have no effect on fruit ripening. And he says that tomato plants with more suckers will produce more tomatoes. Then he says that it’s good to remove suckers because it promotes better airflow. So it seems like the debate continues within a single book. For now, I’m pruning suckers because it does indeed improve airflow (which reduces pest and disease pressure), but sometimes it seems like a tomato wants to have two main branches (one coming from a sucker) and I’m good with that and will support both branches.
From Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier–isn’t it a beautiful image? This year I’m growing 22 varieties of tomato, including some pictured here: Black Krim, Sun Gold, Tiny Tim and Yellow Brandywine. Other heirlooms I’m growing include Beefsteak, Cherokee Purple and Yellow Pear.

That’s about it for now. I continue to learn so much! And I’m excited about all of the dwarf varieties I can grow in pots. LeHoullier grows all of his tomatoes–indeterminate, determinate and dwarf–in pots in his driveway, which literally has dozens of tomato plant-filled containers. I guess wherever there’s sun, tomatoes can grow!

Please let me know what tomatoes you’re growing this season and which are your favorite. I’d love to hear any insights or observations.