Grow your own cherry tomatoes in Oklahoma
Story by LeeAnn Barton
Cherry tomatoes get little of the glory when gardeners, in their friendly manner, compete for the earliest, the biggest, or the most flavorful tomato. Little do most know that without that little cherry tomato, modern and heirloom varieties would never have come into existence.
Indigenous to regions of the Andes, the cherry tomato and the currant tomato moved north to Mexico and on to Europe by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Thus began the breeding and crossing of tomatoes that were brought back to North America in the 1700s.
In the wild, this plant is but a straggling bush, but these South American natives have natural resistance to the fusarium and bacterial wilts that plague tomato growers today – that is one of the reasons cherry tomatoes are so easy to grow. In addition, small-fruited varieties rarely see problems with sunscald or blossom-end rot. Some varieties can be prone to cracking if soil moisture is inconsistent; that may be their one downfall.
Cherry tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors: traditional red is joined by yellow, green, orange, white, and black. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between a “two-bite” cherry and a small variety of table tomato. In my mind a “two-bite” is 2 inches in diameter and this and anything smaller falls in the cherry tomato category. There are pear-shaped cherry, oval (sometimes called grape) varieties, currant tomatoes (approximately ¼ inch), and “jelly bean” varieties (a currant/plum cross, perhaps?).
Starting cherry tomatoes from seed is as simple as can be. Begin with fresh seed from a reputable source. (Germination rates fall drastically after two years, so keep your seed supply current.)
Six to eight weeks before nighttime temperatures are consistently 50 F or so, use a seed-starting mix to fill small pots or yogurt containers (make holes for drainage). Position them on a saucer or shallow tray. Using a gentle spray, moisten the soil thoroughly and tap down lightly. (It may take more than one soaking to saturate the soil.)
Make a shallow indentation to drop one or two seeds in. Scrape the soil to cover; seeds should be no more than ¼ inch deep. Tomato seeds germinate best between 70 F and 90 F. Once the seeds have sprouted, place the pots under a bright light (4 inches above the plants) for 12-18 hours a day. Transplant outdoors as weather allows.
With so many varieties from which to choose, I would like to mention a few I see on nursery shelves and a few that tomato hobbyists may like to trial.
My personal all-time favorite is the orange cherry ‘Sun Gold’ it is a hybrid, so saving the seed may not yield the like results, but its sweetness is wonderful. It and ‘Sweet 100’ set the standard for long, heavily fruited clusters of 3/4 -1-inch fruit. Less common, but still readily, available are ‘Red Pear’ and ‘Yellow Pear’ cherry tomatoes. ‘Red Pear’ runs on the large size for cherry tomatoes, often 2 inches with an elongated neck. ‘Yellow Pear’ is slightly smaller but just as prolific; this variety originated in Germany before the 1800s.
In the last few years I have seen some newer varieties in Oklahoma garden centers. ‘Tumbling Tom’ (in red or yellow) is a determinate tomato growing but 2 feet. Marketed to growing in hanging pots, the cascading branches may need daily water in hot summer months. The Indigo series has three cherry-type varieties. From a 1960s breeding program at the University of Oregon, wild tomatoes from Chile and the Galapagos Islands bring a dark coloring to the young fruit in the Indigo series. The dark coloring comes from the same pigment found in blueberries – anthocyanin, a well-known antioxidant. I purchased ‘Indigo Rose’ in a southern Oklahoma nursery two years ago. The fruit was ready to pick when the shoulders were indigo and the bottom of the tomato had turned red.
Varieties I find interesting, but have yet to try, include ‘Gold Nugget’, one of the earliest (55 days) and reported to tolerate warm summer nights without missing a beat. ‘Wapsipinicon Peach’ is named for a river in southern Iowa. Light yellow with a pink blush, this 2-inch fruit is said to have a light peach “fuzz” on the skin and tastes like nectar! For a less-sweet tomato, try either ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ for its strong vines and intense flavor or the heirloom ‘Riesentraube’, an oval cherry that makes a point – in looks and taste! All of these varieties (and more) are available from Pinetree Garden Seeds.
The flavor of most cherry tomatoes is somewhat similar, although the sugar/acid balance can vary as much as slicer tomatoes. While we rarely think of using tomatoes any way other than a garden snack or to color salad greens, here is an idea for incorporating their use into a summertime meal.
It is not unusual to see the large two-bite tomatoes skewered on a vegetable kabob, but bruschetta fans can pierce the ingredients for the grill. Slice 1-2-inch cherry tomatoes in half, gather and rinse and pat dry fresh basil leaves. Cut thin sliced French bread and into 2-inch squares and using sliced or pearled mozzarella, skewer the four ingredients, drizzle with olive oil, and head for the hot grill. Cook 45-60 seconds per side or just until the tomatoes char and the cheese begins to melt.