Grow your own cherry tomatoes – the ‘little but mighty’ member of the summer veggie garden
Story and Photos by Natalie Bumgarner
Over the past few decades, the smaller members of the tomato tribe (most are Solanum lycopersicum) have become a part of nearly every garden and salad (and garden salad). However, this comes after a century or so of domination by the traditional slicing tomato. In terms of garden lore and heartwarming nostalgia, the beefsteak tomato has dominated, but don’t overlook those tiny tomatoes. Glancing back through U.S. tomato history reveals that some of the important leaps forward in production were due to the breeding of smooth, large tomato fruit with visual appeal. These efforts, though, resulted in the loss of the diversity found in the wider tomato gene pool. Breeding efforts now include some of the native tomatoes (such as Solanum pimpinellifolium) to add disease resistance and other benefits into current lines. So, in many ways, the cherry tomato has come full circle in both the field and laboratory, playing a role in the past and likely the future of America’s favorite garden crop.
A quick survey of grocery store shelves or seed catalogs will convince any gardener than the term “cherry tomato” is rather insufficient to describe the vast array of small-fruited possibilities. From the marble-sized currant (which are actually S. pimpinellifolium), to the golf-ball sized ‘Campari’ and across the spectrum of grape and pear shapes, small-fruited tomatoes can fill a host of roles. In addition to size and shape, color varies from red to pink, yellow to orange, and even several purple and chocolate varieties. Visually, these small fruit are beautiful, but it is the range and quality of flavor that keeps gardeners and chefs coming back. And gardeners now have more options in plant size and growth habits, as well as disease resistance, to fit their site and needs.
Most of the well-known small-fruited tomatoes are indeterminate. So, it is common for gardeners to be victims of their own success, with plants that keep producing flowers (and fruit) as well as stems and leaves from the primary growing point throughout the season. Cherry and grape tomatoes often have longer internodes than larger-fruited tomatoes, which lead to a gangly plant loaded with tiny fruit. There is a fine line between bounty and burden when it comes to picking. However, there are several newer cultivars that are more compact in their habit or are determinate (they will terminate primary growth with a flower cluster). I must admit that over the last few years of conducting cultivar trials that require several replications in the field, I often shudder at the thought of rows of indeterminate, small-fruited plants because of the time required to collect good data. Certainly, home gardeners don’t need to count and weigh everything, but determinate plants can fit raised beds or containers well and make picking efficient.
Tomatoes are definitely a warm-season crop, so take into account their tenderness to frost as well as conditions for their early growth when selecting planting dates. For instance, much of middle Tennessee might have a traditional 50 percent frost-free date around mid-April, but transplants planted on April 15 may not yield significantly earlier than those planted on April 25 if soil temperatures are still cool (above 60 or 65 F is best). If your preferences are for novel or hard-to find seeds or if you save your own, then growing transplants is likely required. We are often tempted to start seedlings in late January and then try and hold them until planting. It might be a better option to start later to produce a younger transplant that is 6 to 8 weeks at transplanting. Small greenhouses are quite helpful in providing optimal light and temperatures (around 65 F at night and 70 to 75 F during the day) for compact healthy transplants.
One of the challenges for home garden tomatoes is managing nutrition – especially nitrogen. A pre-plant fertilizer is often recommended to provide phosphorus and potassium and some N. After this initial fertilization, be careful not to overfertilize with nitrogen. Many soluble fertilizers have higher N than P and K. For tomatoes, and especially cherry tomatoes that tend toward legginess, high N can result in a plant that is pushed toward vegetative (leaf, stem) growth rather than reproductive growth. Don’t use more fertilizer than recommend by the soil test and select a fruiting crop fertilizer for in-season use that has more K than N.
Irrigation can be quite useful during Tennessee summers, but it should be used judiciously and consistently. Uneven irrigation or rainfall (especially when the soil is dry) can contribute to cracking these small-fruited tomatoes. A final suggestion for cherry tomato gardeners is to plan for plant support early in the season. Indeterminate cherry plants can be some of the tallest and/or most challenging to manage plants in the garden. So, choose tall stakes for a stake and weave or trellis system (and be prepared to twine plants more often than your beefsteaks). Also, consider a large cage with easy access for picking through the season. Careful selection of cultivars, in addition to judicious plant support and fertilization, can provide a bounty of small, tasty morsels throughout the season.
In terms of common indeterminate hybrid cultivars for the Tennessee garden, it is hard to go wrong with ‘Sun Gold’ for sweetness and color. ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘Sun Sugar’ both performed well in Tennessee taste trails last year. ‘Jasper’, a small cherry with late blight resistance as well as the grape cultivars ‘Juliet’ and ‘Valentine’ are all AAS winners to keep in mind. For resistance to both early and late blight, ‘Mountain Magic’ is a larger-fruited (2 oz.) cultivar that yielded prolifically in recent Knoxville trials. Determinate hybrids recently introduced that might be of interest are ‘Little Bing’, ‘Tidy Treats’, and the recent AAS winner ‘Patio Choice Yellow’. For open-pollinated or heirloom cultivars, many enjoy the yellow pear or ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’, and in my personal opinion, it is hard to beat the complex flavor of a ‘Black Cherry.