The appeal of miniature tomatoes in Alabama
Story and Photos by Katharine Musso
The term “cherry tomato” commonly refers to a group of plants bearing fruit from as large as 1½ inches to as small as ¼ inch. Technically, a true cherry tomato is the perfectly round and red fruit of the plant Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme. Gardeners and seed sellers alike, however, use the term interchangeably for all of the miniature tomatoes currently in commerce that are the same size as a cherry or smaller. Varieties are likened to cherries, grapes, currants, and even jelly beans. Americans embraced the perfectly round red orb as a salad and kebab staple only a few decades ago, but cherry tomatoes date back thousands of years. Growers have dramatically expanded the range of varieties in recent years to include zebra striped, chocolate, yellow, and even “white” fruits. The following varieties are well suited to Alabama gardens: ‘Cherry Grande’, ‘Mountain Belle,’ and ‘Sun Gold’. Like all tomato plants, miniatures have either determinate or indeterminate growing habits. Indeterminate plants will grow throughout the season and the fruit harvest will be staggered as the vining plant grows. Determinate plants, on the other hand, reach a predestined height at which they bear fruit over a single month-long period.
In Alabama, we are lucky to have two vegetable planting seasons: spring and fall. I garden in USDA Zone 8a, with an average last frost date of April 2 and average first frost date of November 8. To make sure transplants are large and hardened off, seedlings are started at least eight weeks in advance. Transplants should be planted at least 18 inches apart and placed slightly lower in the soil than originally grown. There is no advantage to burying the transplant up to its proverbial neck.
Tomatoes require full sun for an absolute minimum of six hours but will perform better with more sun exposure. Plants are thirsty and hungry, requiring regular watering, routine fertilization, and good drainage. Considering their demands, it may be tempting to plant tomatoes in the location where they have thrived in the past, but to avoid soil-borne disease, it is important to practice crop rotation. Do not plant tomatoes in the same soil where potatoes, eggplants, peppers, or tomatoes were in the preceding two years. If that makes suitable space an issue, consider container gardening. Look for seed names containing the word “patio” for suitable varieties. ‘Micro-Tom’ is so small it is even marketed as a windowsill plant. For gardeners with heavily shaded yards or no outside access, it is worth considering a tabletop hydroponic system. Commercial kits are available, as well as online instructions for hobbyists. Determinate varieties are ideal for growing in these systems, which combine a light stand and circulating water/nutrient system.
For gardeners who suffer the pain each season of seeing lovely fruit marred by blossom-end rot, cherry tomatoes are a pleasant surprise, as they are largely immune to blossom-end rot. Unfortunately, they are susceptible to most other common tomato fungal diseases. Care must be taken that pants be given adequate space, ample sunlight, and sufficient nutrition as a first line of defense. A weekly spraying routine is also prudent to ward off fungal diseases. Choose seeds with the letters “V” and “F” after their names, which identify these varieties as resistant to verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt, respectively.
Cherry tomatoes are appealing to the usual gang of garden villains, including deer, rabbits, and armadillos. Their small size, however, makes them particularly appealing to thieves of the winged variety. Crows and cardinals will ignore well-stocked feeders in favor of a ripe tomato. Netting is almost a necessity. Other methods of deterring birds include hanging reflective tape or other shiny objects, such as old pie plates or aluminum foil balls. And if a garden full of bakeware doesn’t look odd enough, you might consider an internet favorite: the Christmas ornament bait and switch. The gardener hangs round, red Christmas ornaments at the start of the season. The theory is that the birds will taste the unappealing plastic and then later in the season will confuse ripe fruit for the same. While this method’s effectiveness is unknown, it would make for a festive and interesting experiment.
There are almost as many ways to support plants as there are varieties. While cherry tomato plants bear light fruit, with the exception of cascading and micro-miniature plants, they still require support for fruit clusters to prevent damaging stems and to protect against spoilage. Whether you use stakes, cages, or trellises, make sure to leave room for harvesting. Many plants will drop their fruit simultaneously during harvest so there should be room to maneuver a bowl or bucket to catch the bounty.
Many home gardeners consider tomatoes their favorite crop. Cherry varieties deserve pride of place, if only for their culinary appeal. Some types, such as ‘Sweet Aperitif’, are almost candy-like and therefore a winner with children who won’t otherwise touch a vegetable (and yes, I know, a tomato is technically a fruit). Tomatoes can also be used as a substitute for chips with blue cheese or onion dip. They can even be added raw to pasta and pesto for a punch of color.
Make sure to plant at least one variety of cherry tomatoes for a tasty addition to your home garden.