By Jim Long
There’s exciting news for home gardeners who want to grow full-size, full-flavored heirloom tomatoes. In the past, a grower would either need plenty of space for the sometimes eight- to ten-foot-tall plants, or choose to grow dwarf tomato plants that take up little space, but produce miniature tomatoes with only modest flavor.
But in 2005, on the popular website GardenWeb, longtime heirloom-tomato enthusiast and Seed Savers Exchange member Craig LeHoullier of Raleigh, North Carolina, and Patrina Nuske Small of Australia began discussing the possibilities of creating open-pollinated heirloom tomato plants that could be grown in a space as small as a patio yet still produce full-size, luscious-flavored tomatoes. “Patrina and I realized that her perfect weather and [self-taught] ability for carrying out crosses combined with my knowledge of varieties meant we would be in for a really enjoyable, fun and informative—as well as unique—project,” says LeHoullier.
The pair formed the Dwarf Tomato Project and, before long, had gathered about a hundred volunteers across the United States, Canada, Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand—all avid tomato growers and gardeners excited about the possibilities of dwarf-size plants producing full-size tomatoes. “Only the seeds were shared,” notes LeHoullier. “The tomatoes were…hopefully…happily consumed by the volunteers, since flavor is the most important parameter for our new varieties. Of course, quite a few were likely also unhappily consumed, as in breeding new tomato varieties, one finds the bad along with the good…all just part of the fun and excitement of it all!”
LeHoullier and Nuske Small set out to create new varieties using a method of specific crosses to create a hybrid, then grew the seeds saved from the hybrid for at least eight generations in order to create a new, stable, open-pollinated variety. (It takes 50 years for a variety that is open-pollinated to be considered an official heirloom variety.) Since the growing seasons of Australia and New Zealand are the opposite of those in the U.S. and Canada, the volunteers used that to their advantage: seeds saved in the fall in the U.S. could be grown immediately on the other side of the world—enabling the project to produce two crops of tomato seeds for selection each year. Nuske Small then crossed each new dwarf candidate for further selection, and those were grown by volunteers.
The Dwarf Tomato Project began releasing their selections to the public in 2010 through select smaller seed companies handpicked by LeHoullier and Nuske Small. While they could have chosen to limit the availability of their selected varieties to make more money, profit was never their goal. They simply wanted to make dwarf, open-pollinated tomatoes available to everyone. For the apartment dweller with a small balcony or patio, it now means the ability to grow delicious, full-size tomatoes in a modest-size container. For the homeowner with only a few feet of garden space, it’s an opportunity to grow a sandwich-size tomato with all the fantastic flavor of heirloom varieties on a plant that only grows three feet tall.