The Big Idea Behind Dwarf Tomatoes

Get involved in the growing community creating half-sized plants that deliver full-sized tomatoes bursting with heirloom flavor.

Patrina Nuske Small, co-leader of the Dwarf Tomato Project, holds some of the fruits of her labor. Photo by Patrina Nuske Small.

In 2005, the Dwarf Tomato Project was catalyzed by a long-distance friendship, curiosity, a gaping need, and an idea from an old seed catalog. Now, 90 newly created, stable, open-pollinated tomatoes are available from an ever-increasing array of forward-thinking seed companies, and the Dwarf Tomato Project — representing hundreds of volunteer gardeners the world over — can take a deep breath and be satisfied with its accomplishments.

Defining a Dwarf Tomato

Prior to 2010, when the first cultivars from our project were released, dwarf tomatoes were the most obscure members of the tomato family. Representing a third major growth habit, they combine the most useful qualities of their better-known relatives: indeterminate and determinate types. It’s important to realize that the term “dwarf” describes the relative height of the mature plant, not the size of the tomatoes on the plants.

This is fruit from the dwarf tomato cultivar 'Uluru Ochre.' Photo by

Indeterminate tomatoes are the unruly characters in the tomato world that grow up and out (if unpruned), requiring a strategy of caging and staking to keep them under control. The vast majority of tomatoes are indeterminate in growth habit, and virtually all of the popular, colorful, flavorful heirlooms reside in this category. The main benefits of growing indeterminate plants include incredible diversity (several thousand named cultivars); supreme flavor potential; and a long fruiting season that lasts until frost, disease, or a marauding critter kills the plant. Such popular cultivars as ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’ are indeterminate in growth habit.

Determinate tomatoes look identical to indeterminate types until they reach a height of 3 to 4 feet, when they explode in a mass of flowers. The tomatoes appear and ripen in vast quantity over a short period of time. The plant is then pretty well finished. Determinate tomatoes are perfect for smaller containers (a 5-gallon pot is the smallest I would use) and short cages. Because the gene for determinate growth didn’t arise until the early 1920s, far fewer determinate heirlooms exist (a few being ‘Southern Night’ and ‘Sophie’s Choice’). Many of the newer hybrids created for large-scale commercial tomato production are determinate, because they’re easier to manage in the field and appropriate for machine harvest. ‘Roma’ is a perfect example of a determinate tomato — high yielding, ripening over a short period of time, and more useful for making sauces than fresh eating. Determinate tomatoes generally don’t have the flavor intensity of indeterminate cultivars.

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