Tomatoes come in a great range of sizes, shapes and colors — from blueberry-sized miniatures to softball-sized giants, from round to oblong to pear-shaped, and from red to yellow to orange to purple. The little tomatoes are some of the most fun to grow and are perhaps the most rewarding with their bounty.
Little tomatoes are referred to as plum, cherry, grape and/or currant tomatoes. The classifications lack clear definition but most commonly refer to differences in size. Plum tomatoes are the largest of the groups listed, and currant tomatoes are the smallest. There are also some differences in color, flavor and skin thickness, but these differences are more relative to specific varieties than to type. Flavor and skin thickness are also influenced by growing conditions.
Plum, cherry and other small tomato types are fun to grow because they almost always produce abundant crops of flavorful fruit and are more tolerant of neglect than some of the larger tomatoes. They are fun to snack on while working in the garden or while daydreaming about working in the garden. Small tomatoes are also good additions to salads and to cooked dishes. They are typically sweeter than large slicing-type tomatoes, and little tomatoes contain less juice and fewer seeds than large tomatoes.
To grow little tomatoes, select a site that receives at least six to eight hours of full sun per day. Use a large container set in a sunny spot if a sunny planting site is otherwise unavailable. If planting in the ground, mix compost into the soil prior to planting to improve drainage and nutrient availability.
Select plants (see suggestions below) from your favorite local garden center, farmers’ market vendor, etc. You could plant seeds, but already-started plants will provide fruit much more quickly and are more practical for small-quantity plantings.
Transplant the plants into the site or container according to instructions on the tag. If using a container, use the largest available to ensure adequate root space for plants.
Water plants thoroughly. Use straw, prairie hay or other mulch around the base to reduce temperature and moisture fluctuations in the soil surface.
Protect plants if temperatures will drop to freezing by covering them with a blanket or bucket, or wait until all chance of frost has passed to transplant plants into the garden.
Water deeply and infrequently to help plants grow deep roots and get established before the heat of summer arrives.
Many tomato varieties (even small-fruiting types) benefit from being staked or caged. Use a simple stake and soft ties to support the plant, or place a cage around the plant and work the branches up through the basket as the plant grows. Stakes and cages work with containers as well as in-ground plantings.
Check plants regularly for signs of pests. Tomato hornworms (large bright green caterpillars) can devour a plant in a few days, but are easily controlled by picking them off.
Harvest fruits when they are ripe. They will generally slip from the stem at this point but should still feel firm in your hand. Store harvested fruit indoors and unrefrigerated as cool temperatures change the flavor compounds.
A few recommended varieties:
• Plum tomatoes:
Roma VF — red, pear-shaped, 3 inches long, disease-resistant, hybrid, recommended by Kansas State University.
• Grape tomatoes:
Juliet — deep red, oval, 2 inches long, 1.5 to 2 ounces, hybrid, recommended by KSU, All-America Selections winner.
• Cherry tomatoes:
Chocolate Cherry — purplish-red, round, 1 inch diameter, heirloom variety.
Lemon Drop — translucent yellow, round to oval, 1/2-inch diameter, heirloom variety, heavy producer, sweet to tart flavor.
Sun Gold — orange, round, 3/4-inch diameter, heavy producer, super sweet flavor, hybrid, recommended by KSU.
Sun Sugar — very similar to Sun Gold.
Supersweet 100 — red, round, 1/2-inch diameter, heavy producer, high Vitamin C content, disease-resistant, hybrid, recommended by KSU.
Tumbling Tom — red, round, 1/2-inch diameter, hybrid; recommended by KSU, trailing plant habit excellent for containers.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show.”