Compact Tomato Plants Yield Full-Size Flavors

Container-friendly varieties bring a rainbow of colors to small-space gardeners

Tomatoes growing in containers on a driveway

To test for the best varieties, I grew dozens of plants in containers on my driveway.

Craig LeHoullier

Craig LeHoullier Photo: Kip Dawkins Photography

By Craig LeHoullier

HOW do you find tomatoes that thrive in smaller spaces yet still produce abundant, delicious fruit? Most of the great heirloom varieties grow tall and produce a tangle of unruly vines. And to get a worthwhile harvest, you have to use large vessels — at least 10 gallons in capacity.

To find a solution, I began working 10 years ago with an Australian friend, Patrina Nuske Small. The result is the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, a worldwide, open-source, all-volunteer collaboration. I am so excited by the work done by our volunteers, who have created 60 new varieties that are now offered by a handful of small, wonderful seed companies.

I love statistics, so here are some numbers: 260 people have participated in this project, spanning 14 countries and 45 states in the U.S. The phrase "open source" means that we did the project openly, discussing our methods and results on a free gardening website. Once finished, we identified a worthy seed company to make the introduction, and gave them enough seeds to get started. Essentially, we participated in an example of gardening altruism.

 
Tomatoes growing in straw bales

Dwarf tomatoes growing in straw bales

When I use the term "dwarf" to describe our tomatoes, it doesn't refer to fruit size, but rather to plant height. Among the 60 varieties are types that produce tomatoes that weigh up to one pound each. We created heart-shaped varieties, and tomatoes in every color imaginable, including stripes and swirls. In 2015, I grew the first 36 releases in my driveway in straw bales; the results were spectacular, and the tomatoes that I harvested were among the best-flavored in our entire garden. Best of all, these varieties thrive in 5-gallon containers, and need but a short stake or short tomato cage to keep them in control. Plus, no pruning at all is needed.

 
Dwarf Sweet Sue

Dwarf Sweet Sue

For more information about the project — including a full list of varieties and descriptions — visit the project website. Though many of the varieties are sold by additional seed companies, the most up-to-date list of those offering seeds includes Victory Seeds, Tatiana's TOMATObase, the Sample Seed Shop, and the Heritage Seed Market.

 
Rosella Purple

Rosella Purple

As for some of my very favorites, I love the sweet flavor and bright yellow hue of Dwarf Sweet Sue; the near ivory colored, large, sprightly tasting Dwarf Mr. Snow; and Rosella Purple, which looks and tastes like Cherokee Purple.

Craig LeHoullier

Craig LeHoullier, who gardens in Raleigh, NC, is the author of Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales (Storey, 2015). He is the longtime tomato adviser to the Seed Savers Exchange. He welcomes questions about the project via e-mail.

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