They may not be big enough for BLTs and burgers, but cherry tomatoes are the ideal size for salads, salsa, appetizers, school lunches, oven-roasting, snacking and sharing. Fortunately for home gardeners, the selection of small-fruited tomatoes available in seed catalogs and garden centers has expanded significantly in the last decade thanks to the work of university researchers and independent breeders. Through collaborations with farmers, seed companies and chefs, breeders have focused on color, nutritional content, disease resistance, production and, of course, flavor. Moving beyond the familiar round cherry and oval grape, these new varieties are bi-color and tri-color, with shimmering stripes and swirls in a rainbow of colors.
A NEW BREED
Two independent breeders specializing in unique and attention-grabbing tomatoes bred from traditional methods are Brad Gates and Fred Hempel. Gates, affectionately referred to as the Willy Wonka of tomato breeders, is dedicated to developing uniquely colored tomatoes with superb flavor. Perhaps you’ve heard of or even grown some of his popular introductions, which include striped ‘Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye’, deep-purple ‘Indigo Apple’ and pale-yellow ‘Pork Chop’. A native Californian and founder of Wild Boar Farms, located in the Napa Valley region, Gates found his calling as a tomato farmer more than two decades ago. Over years of growing thousands of tomato varieties, mostly heirlooms, he began to notice distinct genetics and mutations among his plants during the growing season. This led him into the business of breeding new and unique varieties that he calls “heirlooms of the future.” The unusual colorations of Wild Boar tomatoes may not appeal to all, but Gates’ striped and swirled creations have caused excitement among chefs and gained him a loyal following of tomato fans.
Another small-scale tomato breeder who focuses on the culinary aesthetics attractive to chefs and gourmet cooks is Fred Hempel of Green Bee Farm in Sunol, California. A former geneticist, he is the creator of the Artisan tomato series, a collection of alluring round and oblong cherries with bright flavors and distinctive streaks of color on the skin. Since he partnered with a few select seed companies, his fanciful, multihued tomatoes are increasingly available to the home gardener.
If you now have visions of your own garden overflowing with dazzling, multicolored mini-tomatoes that explode with flavor, you will not be disappointed. Cherry tomatoes are a popular crop because they are vigorous plants and guaranteed to reward you with handfuls — even basketfuls — of fruit. Any gardener who has dedicated time, space and months of hopeful anticipation to a large beefsteak-tomato variety only to be disappointed with a paltry yield at the end of the season will appreciate the abundance of these small-fruited gems. While some of the biggest and most beautiful heirlooms may only produce three or four tomatoes — under constant threat from birds and squirrels — cherries produce so prolifically you might not even notice if some go missing.
Many people equate small fruit with small plants, but this is not the case. The ancestors of cherry tomatoes are wild and rangy plants that originated in South America; the varieties we grow today have been tamed for home production, but most are vigorously indeterminate with sprawling vines that can reach over five feet, requiring a sturdy cage for support. For the best selection, purchase seeds and grow your own transplants over the winter. A few weeks before you anticipate transplanting your tomatoes, prepare your planting holes by loosening the soil and amending with a shovelful of compost and granular garden fertilizer according to package directions. Choose a location with full sun and space plants about three feet apart to provide air circulation and make harvesting easier.
Because tomatoes can be damaged by cold weather, it is recommended to plant them in the garden after danger of frost in your area has passed. But many gardeners gamble by planting earlier and providing plants with protection from cold snaps. Plant tomatoes deeply, up to their lower set of leaves, and water in with a soluble fertilizer diluted to half strength. As plants grow, monitor for pests and water deeply during dry spells but avoid wetting the leaves, which can encourage development of disease. When plants start blooming, get ready to fill your baskets with juicy gems from the garden, warmed by the sun and flavored by nature.
WILD BOAR FARMS
If the thought of crazy-colored, out-of-the-ordinary tomatoes gets you excited about the upcoming season, then these selections are for you. To order these and other Brad Gates creations visit the Wild Boar Farms website (www.wildboarfarms.com).
‘Barry’s Crazy Cherry’. This recent Wild Boar Farms introduction produces large clusters of blooms bearing high yields of pale-yellow, mildly sweet tomatoes. The small fruit is oval with a tiny nipple at the blossom end.
‘Blue Boar Berries’. An eyecatcher in the garden, this striking round cherry ripens to a dark blue blushed with red. Exposure to sunlight intensifies the purple pigmentation, indicating high levels of health-promoting anthocyanins.
‘Brad’s Atomic Grape’. An elongated cherry with iridescent purple stripes splashed with green and yellow, this one has a flavor so good that it has garnered multiple awards for taste.
The following beauties are from Fred Hempel’s Artisan Seeds collection. To order these varieties directly from his website go to Artisan Seeds (www.growartisan.com).
‘Blush’. A luminous yellow tomato with a blush of coral-pink marbling inside and out. This plump, Roma-like tomato is about two inches long, with a tiny point at the blossom end. Flavor is sweet and tropical.
‘Lucky Tiger’. This has an elongated vibrant-green fruit that develops golden-yellow hues and reddish stripes as it reaches maturity. Tangy-sweet flavor.
‘Sunrise Bumblebee’. This sweet-tasting, spherical tomato gets its name from the orange, yellow and pink hues of sunrise. ‘Pink Bumblebee’ and ‘Purple Bumblebee’ are related varieties and just as beautiful.
TRIED AND TRUE
Streaked, speckled and striped tomatoes are not for everyone. If solid unadulterated color is your preference, then these are sure to please.
‘BHN 968’. Designated a Texas Superstar in 2013, this semi-determinate produces high yields of flavorful, thin-skinned, red cherry tomatoes. Developed in Florida, ‘BHN-968’ has resistance to tomato spotted-wilt virus and nematodes, which gives it a definite edge in Texas gardens.
‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’. For a juicy burst of flavor and sheer production, this tiny tomato is one of my favorites. Seemingly unfazed by heat and pests, its one downfall is that fruit left on the vine will fall and reseed like crazy.
‘Sun Gold’. This all-around favorite produces copious yields of brilliant golden-orange cherries with a sweet, fruity flavor that appeals to all.
ALL-AMERICA SELECTION WINNERS
Tomato varieties with the All-America Selection (AAS) designation are widely adapted and often have enhanced disease resistance, a bonus for growing tomatoes in Texas.
‘Jasper’. This is a small, round, bright-red cherry with a sweet flavor. Developed with early blight resistance by the breeding team at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. AAS winner in 2013.
‘Juliet’. A dependable producer of glossy-red, crack-resistant grape tomatoes, ‘Juliet’ has excellent flavor. Plants are vigorous with good disease resistance. AAS winner in 1999 (and still a fave!).
‘Valentine’. Developed by Penn State University breeder Dr. Majid Foohad, this variety produces deep-red grape tomatoes like the ones that are often found in the produce section. Plants exhibit some resistance to early blight and start producing in only 55 days. AAS winner in 2018.
If you are limited on gardening space, try a compact variety that can be grown in a container or perhaps as a focal point in an edible landscape with trailing flowers or low-growing herbs. Though not known for prolific production, a few tomatoes are better than no tomatoes.
‘Micro Tom’. A bit of a novelty, this teeny tomato plant is touted as the world’s shortest, topping out at less than 10 inches. Grow in a basket or container but don’t expect high yields from this dwarf determinate plant.
‘Patio Choice’. This early-maturing variety produces mildly flavored cherry tomatoes, in your choice of red or yellow. Sturdy plants with short vines don’t grow much taller than two feet. ‘Patio Choice Yellow’ was an AAS winner in 2017.
‘Red Racer’. The fruit of this Campari-type variety is deep red and slightly larger than standard cherry tomatoes. A well-behaved compact tomato for small spaces and containers, grows to about three feet. Uniform fruit has good balance of sweetness and acidity. AAS winner from 2018.
THE TINIEST TOMS
Currant tomatoes (Solanum pimpinellifolium), also known as spoon tomatoes, are a wild species related to domestic cultivars. Their natural tolerance to withstand stress from pests, disease and heat make them carefree to grow, and these plants are loaded with clusters of itsy-bitsy but intensely flavored tomatoes. Currants might be considered robust by some, weedy by others — almost anywhere a tiny fruit falls to the ground, one or more plants will emerge — but if it doesn’t bother you to pull out the volunteers, you can count on these vigorous plants to produce all season.
‘Candyland’. A compact growth habit makes this currant tomato a popular selection as well as an All-America Selections winner for 2016. Its dark-red and sweet fruit is a good choice for children — tiny hands easily and eagerly pick tiny fruit.
‘Sweet Pea’. Bright red, pea-sized fruits develop in clusters on vining, spreading plants. Bite-sized tomatoes have sweet-tart flavor. Try it in a hanging basket or cascading over the side of a pretty container. tg
Days to Harvest
Variety (from transplants) Source
BHN 968 60 days 4
Barry’s Crazy Cherry 75 days 1
Blue Boar Berries 75 days 1, 6
Blush 70 days 4, 5
Brad’s Atomic Grape 75 days 1
Candyland 55 days 6
Jasper 60 days 2, 4, 6
Juliet 60 days 2, 4, 5, 6
Lucky Tiger 70 days 1, 4, 5
Matt’s Wild Cherry 55—60 days 2, 3
Micro Tom 50—60 days 1, 5, 6
Patio Choice 60 days 6
Red Racer 57 days 3, 6
Sun Gold 60 days 2, 4, 5, 6
Sunrise Bumblebee 70 days 1, 3, 4, 5
Sweet Pea 65—70 days 5
Valentine 55 days 2, 3, 4, 6
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
- David’s Garden Seeds
- High Mowing
- Tomato Growers Supply
- Totally Tomatoes
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables