What is the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project?
Conceived in 2005, this unique, world-wide, collaborative, all volunteer tomato breeding project is bringing great tomatoes to more and more gardeners. Our 70 (and counting) new varieties are perfect for those who choose or require container gardening, providing the array of colors, sizes and flavors that were formerly limited to those who grew indeterminate (tall growing) heirloom types. Please read on, below, for more information on our varieties, as well as ways to become involved.
A unique aspect of our project work is the complete donation of time and talents - we are delighted that once we produce a new variety, we "give" it to a chosen seed company to make available to their customers. The donate button below leads to PayPal, and anyone who wishes to donate to the cause is encouraged...and appreciated!
First, a bit of history
Back in 2005, Craig LeHoullier of Raleigh, NC, long time heirloom tomato enthusiast and SSE member, discussed an idea with Patrina Nuske Small of Australia on the popular garden site Garden Web. Craig and his wife, Susan, have been selling tomato seedlings at the local farmer’s market for years, and a frequent request was for delicious, unusual tomato varieties that would do well when grown on decks or patios, in reasonably sized containers. Though his customers loved the big fruited, differently colored heirlooms, the tall vines proved to be quite a challenge for many of them.
Craig, through his seed collecting, was aware of a very few so-called dwarf growing varieties, distinct from the determinate types (which were also relatively compact) in that the flavor seemed in general to be better in the dwarfs. These dwarf types are very distinctive in having a thick central stem, stout compact growth, and dark green, crinkly looking (so-called rugose) foliage.
Craig also collects old seed catalogs to satisfy his interest in the historical development of tomatoes in the United States, and noted in his collection a 1915 catalog from the Isbell Seed Company a listing for New Big Dwarf. What caught Craig’s eye was that the creation of New Big Dwarf was clearly described. This involved a cross of a known medium sized pink fruited dwarf, Dwarf Champion (well known from the late 1800s), with the largest tomato known at that time, Ponderosa. Following the cross and a few generations of selection, a new variety was born – New Big Dwarf – which had the compact growth of Dwarf Champion, but the large fruit size of Ponderosa.
Realizing that through their Garden Web chats Patrina (also an avid heirloom tomato grower) was also skillful at carrying out crosses, Craig explained the Isbell Seed Company listing to Patrina. It was clear that the approach Isbell used was successful, yet strangely never further explored to create a range of new dwarf growing varieties with large fruit, in different colors. So Craig and Patrina described a project in which some strategic crosses would be made, the resulting new hybrids grown out, then seeds shared for work on selection of promising new varieties, followed by several generations to reach a stable new non-hybrid variety with the desired characteristics.
Around that same time, a new tomato chat website emerged, Tomatoville, which provided both a structure for tracking the project, as well as a magnet for the kind of extreme tomato enthusiasts who could make up a perfect volunteer team to take this new project forward. Craig set about to gather volunteers in the US and Canada, and Patrina in Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. By working the project across hemispheres, two growing seasons could be achieved in one calendar year, thus reducing the new tomato variety development time by half.
So, armed with more than 100 willing volunteers, the project set off with the first crosses being grown out in 2006. As of this time, over 40 interesting crosses have been made by Patrina and others, resulting in dozens and dozens of possible color, size and shape combinations. Craig and Patrina are quite sure that this is the very first all volunteer world-wide tomato breeding project in documented gardening history. None involved are botanists or horticulturists – just avid gardeners with a keen interest in learning about tomato genetics or discovering interesting new tomatoes.
Craig selected four seed companies (Tomato Growers Supply Company, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Sandhill Preservation, and Victory Seeds) to introduce small quantities of a few of the new dwarf varieties each. Over the years, other companies have joined, including Gleckers, The Sample Seed Shop, Casey's Heirlooms, Tatiana's TOMATObase, Victory Seeds and Heritage Tomato Seeds.
None of those involved with the project receive any payment for the development of these new varieties – it is just the fulfillment of a passion to create what will hopefully end up being considered heirloom tomato varieties many years from now – a donation to the tomato gene pool, and to those space-challenged gardeners the world over. Full descriptions of the varieties used and volunteers involved in the development will be given for each new variety.
About Dwarf Tomatoes
The vast majority of tomato varieties are Indeterminate in growth habit. Think Cherokee Purple or Better Boy or Sungold to get a picture of how indeterminate varieties behave. They are the varieties that need staking, caging, or plenty of room to sprawl. If diseases don’t get to them first, indeterminate varieties grow and bear fruit from planting until they are killed by frost. Though most of the true treasures of the tomato world are indeterminate in growth habit, including most heirloom types, they are a challenge to grow in terms of dealing with the rampant growth of the vines.
Determinate varieties are familiar to tomato growers who have tried Roma, Sophie’s Choice or Taxi. The foliage is indistinguishable from indeterminate types, but the plants (which should never be pruned) reach a particular height and spread, bear loads of fruit (which tend to ripen in a concentrated time period), then die off. With a very high fruit to foliage ratio, determinates, while incredibly productive, for the most part lack the intense, complex flavors of indeterminate varieties. In addition, the choice of colors, sizes and shapes is quite limited when compared with the indeterminate selections.
Dwarf varieties, prior to this project, are relatively rare, unknown and undeveloped as a group. Appearing quite distinct in all growth phases – from seeding to mature plant – they behave as if they are very compact indeterminate varieties in the manner that they fruit, persevere until frost, and exhibit flavors that in many cases can approach the best of the indeterminate varieties, due to similar foliage to fruit ratios. There is some variation in height throughout the new dwarf varieties – some appearing to be more “determinate” than others. As young seedlings they are half the size of indeterminate or determinate seedlings right from the start. The central growing stem is particularly stout, and the foliage, which can be either regular or potato leaf, tends to be a darker bluish green and have a puckered, wrinkled characteristic that is known as “rugose”. Though the yields of dwarfs will never approach that of indeterminate varieties, the ability to plant them much more closely or grow in as little as 5 gallon pots are adequate compensation. What we are producing in this project is a color, size and shape range that will allow those who are space constrained to experience the nature of many of the well known heirloom types, but in a growth habit that is much easier to manage. We are excited about what we are creating, and are anxious, as well as finally ready, to share the very best of these with gardeners. We invite feedback – there is always a chance that you will not get exactly what is described or expected, and all of these, while quite stable, are still in a way works in progress. We hope to have created a set of non-hybrid varieties that will make gardening interesting for you, as well as provide what will be considered valuable heirloom varieties at some point in the distant future!