Dwarf Tomato Project

Patrina’s story…. 

I started gardening for the first time in 2004, and found gardening forums on the internet while searching for inspiration and suggestions about growing edibles. One forum was just for tomatoes, which intrigued me because “tomato” as a topic for a whole forum seemed rather narrow!  What could they be discussing in such detail?

It wasn’t long before I was engrossed, reading about heirloom tomatoes (there are many thousands of different varieties) and about their wonderful tastes, colours and textures, and learning also about tomato breeding. Some people talked about “crossing” one variety with another to produce new tomatoes with certain characteristics. I always found these discussions fascinating, since I loved biology during high school, and I thought this sounded like fun.  I wanted to see if I could cross-pollinate a flower.  My very first attempt was successful - it was wonderfully rewarding to watch that baby tomato grow!

Around this time Craig LeHoullier mentioned in the forum that one area which lacked variety or great tasting large fruits was the ‘dwarf’ tomato group, those with a stout and sturdy central stem and large crinkly leaves, sometimes referred to as ‘tree tomatoes’.  He commented that it would be good to do some breeding of the better ones with tasty large fruited various coloured heirloom tomatoes.  It was an intriguing thought so I decided that the following season I would grow some dwarf varieties and some large fruited heirloom tomatoes of different colours.  I didn’t know if I could repeat the cross pollination process easily, or if I had just had beginner’s luck, so I said nothing.  If the crosses worked, then I could announce them in the forum.

Sure enough, the next season I had loads of fun making crosses with the dwarf plants as “mothers” and gathering pollen from the large fruited heirloom tomato “fathers” to make 8 new hybrids, which I named after the 7 dwarfs (and invented an extra name for the 8th).  I emailed Craig to let him know that I had successfully made some crosses - Bashful F1, Doc F1, Dopey F1, Sneezy F1, Sleepy F1, Grumpy F1, Happy F1, and Witty F1. I asked whether he thought it would be a good idea to start a Dwarf Tomato Project where volunteers could help grow some of the many plants (segregates) for the several generations that are needed to stabilise new varieties.  He agreed, and we decided to have 2 teams, one in the Southern Hemisphere and one in the Northern Hemisphere, to halve the time required {Please see News & Events announcement dated September 2013} by taking advantage of two growing seasons per year. We then announced the Dwarf Tomato Project in January 2006.  Craig, who was the inspiration for this project, is the Northern Hemisphere manager and I am the Southern Hemisphere manager.

In the Southern Hemisphere 2006/07 season I made some new crosses for the Dwarf Project – Dreamy F1, Cheeky F1, Tipsy F1, Wishful F1 and Stumpy F1 – and in 2007/08 several more – Teary F1, Sneaky F1, Grizzly F1, Nosey F1, Eventful F1 and Pesty F1.  And now Ray has made some crosses too, so the Dwarf Tomato Project keeps on growing and the fun continues!  His crosses (2007/08) are Dizzy F1, Streaky F1, Quirky F1, Plucky F1, Muddy F1, Loopy F1, Jaunty F1 and Dinky F1, and Snowy F1 in 2008/09. Two crosses by Bruce Bradshaw (Northern Hemisphere team) included in the project since the beginning are Sleazy A and B. (Other additions, see *)
Patrina Nuske Small lives in Bemboka, New South Wales, Australia.

*Further Crosses: In 2008 Vince Lavallo of Pasadena California made several crosses to include into the Dwarf Tomato Project.  They are Beauty F1, Frosty F1, Hazy F1, Messy F1, Porky F1 and Tasty F1. In Australian summer 2008/09 Patrina added Lazy F1, Plentiful F1, Rosy F1, Sunny F1 and Tidy F1, and in 2011/12 she added Cheerful F1, Harmony F1 and Dainty F1.  In 2010 Lee Newman of North Carolina added Brawny F1.

Craig’s story….

It is hard for me to think of a time in my life that didn’t involve gardening of some sort.  Some of my earliest memories are with my dad as a very young child, as he showed me the various types of flowers.  He also planted a few small backyard vegetable gardens, which I loved to walk through and watch grow.  My maternal grandfather was an avid gardener as well, and it was his tomatoes, grown in his back yard, that converted me from a tomato hater to a tomato lover, when I was in my early teens. 

One of the first things that my wife and I did after we were married nearly 30 years ago was to plant a vegetable and flower garden in a community plot for the students at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.  We started purchasing seedlings from garden centers but quickly found that starting our own seedlings from seeds ordered from the many seed catalogs received in the mail was much more fun.  

My passion for heirloom gardening really took off once I joined the Seed Savers Exchange in 1986.  Just a taste of Brandywine, Nepal or Persimmon convinced me that it was fine to leave Big Boy and Better Boy behind!  My tomato collection grew at an alarming rate as our gardens grew in size, first in Pennsylvania, later in North Carolina, and now numbers at well over 2000 varieties.  Amongst my favorites are Cherokee Purple (which I was fortunate to have named in 1990 after receiving it as an unnamed variety), Lucky Cross (one of my creations from a bee-produced Brandywine hybrid), and Sungold (a hybrid cherry tomato of unsurpassed flavor). 

Not content with trading seeds with other heirloom enthusiasts, I was very interested in collecting old seed catalogs in hopes of using the information to track down some of the varieties that were offered by American seed companies in the 1800s.  It was surprising and gratifying to find that many were just sitting quietly in the USDA germplasm collection, just waiting to be reintroduced to gardeners.  One of those historic varieties, New Big Dwarf, had a fascinating origin that was described in the 1915 Isbell Seed Company catalog.  The goal of the breeder was to produce large fruit on dwarf type plants by crossing the best known dwarf of its time, Dwarf Champion, with the largest fruited tomato, Ponderosa. 

Always looking for the next project to bite into, the possibility of using the Isbell technique to create a much wider range of Dwarf varieties was intriguing, and a discussion of a possible project ensued on Garden Web.  My wife and I sell tomato seedlings at a local farmers market, and many gardeners are looking for heirloom type fruit (size, color, flavor) on plants that are better behaved, or can be more easily grown in pots on decks or patios.  Prior to our project, only a handful of these compact growing Dwarfs existed, in a very narrow range of colors, sizes and flavours. 

This was when Patrina and I met and decided to take this forward as a unique, cross hemispheric, collaborative project.  That was in late 2005, and now here we are in late 2008 with dozens of promising new varieties that will someday be available to gardeners everywhere.  We have teams of avid growers working with us in the Southern and Northern Hemisphere – we can thus use the opposing seasons to fit two growouts into each calendar year, thus halving the typical research and development time.   {Please see News & Events announcement dated September 2013}

I am just amazed at what we’ve accomplished in so short a time.  We are well on our way to having dwarf versions of varieties with great flavor in colors of green, yellow, ivory, pink, purple and chocolate.  We are getting close with orange and yellow/red bicolors, and will soon see stripes and hearts.  We have great varieties that are potato leaf dwarfs as well, which have been essentially unknown until now.  What fun we are having!
Craig LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.

Ray’s story….

My maternal grandmother, Nan, was an avid gardener and I would follow her round the yard offering a helping hand. She was patient enough to put up with a child’s incessant questions. She passed on when I was 14 and my interest in gardening waned. Many years later when serious illness struck (now completely recovered) I became vitally interested in what I was eating which led me straight back to gardening. It was like going home. 

I think it was a magazine or newspaper article that led me to Eden Seeds, a seller of heritage vegetable varieties, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was hooked and began seeking out other sources. I quickly found the internet forums and suddenly my horizons expanded beyond home. 

It was on one of these forums that I watched the birth and early development of the Dwarf Tomato Project. At that time, I was between houses, as it were, so was unable to participate. Then in mid 2007 I bought a house. I immediately contacted Patrina and told her to count me in. By October of that year I had several plants each of two of the dwarf strains happily sitting in a tray in a window. It was an exciting time. 

I think it was not long after that I read Craig LeHoullier’s musings on the dwarf project where he mentioned not yet having cherries, hearts or stripes. I plunged right in and did several crosses. The cherry and stripe crosses succeeded. I can’t wait to see how they all pan out. 

I was already happily involved in this project but now I am totally engrossed.
Ray South lives in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia.

© Dwarf Tomato Project 2008 - 2016