You might be wondering if a tomato dubbed “dwarf” is really worth staking. If the vines only get a few feet tall, do you really need to worry about trellising it like you’d trellis a full-size indeterminate tomato?
Most dwarf tomatoes will need staking before they reach maturity and start yielding full-size fruit. A tomato cage or plant stake will suffice to keep dwarf tomatoes from breaking or bending and also helps to keep the fruit in the air – away from slugs and other pests.
Read on to learn a little more about dwarf tomatoes and to understand why you shouldn’t forgo staking these container varieties.
Staking dwarf tomatoes is a must
Yes, dwarf tomatoes are smaller and more manageable than standard tomatoes, but even the smallest dwarf tomatoes benefit from staking. You can get away without staking the significantly smaller micro dwarf tomatoes, but you’ll definitely want to stake your dwarf tomatoes. While the name “dwarf” implies miniature plants, the fruits will still be full-size, some of the larger slicers weighing a little shy of a pound!
Steve Piskor, Master Gardener and Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturalist, explains exactly why it is a good idea to stake dwarf tomatoes from the get-go:
“Most of the dwarf tomatoes being bred are indeterminate […] Even though these plants are not overly large at maturity, consideration should be given to staking or caging the plants when they are young. This will provide the necessary support if the plant produces heavy fruit yields as it matures.”¹
Save yourself from having to do one extra garden chore in the busy season and set your dwarf tomatoes up with a trellis from day one. Not only does a tomato trellis system look better and more organized, but lifting the fruit off of the potting soil or ground helps prevent slugs and other pests from getting to the fruit before you do.
The label “dwarf tomato” might imply humble vines and meager fruits, but depending on the variety you might end up with more than a few beefsteaks or slicers on your hands–and you wouldn’t want those going to waste.
Stake your dwarf tomatoes to get the most out of your plants from midsummer to frost. Your trellising system doesn’t have to be anything elaborate–keep it simple with a wire tomato cage or a wooden stake. Luckily, the compact size of most dwarf tomatoes means that gardeners only have to stake their plants once–these varieties won’t outgrow their support system like full-size tomatoes always do.
What makes a dwarf tomato unique?
Dwarf tomato varieties average between two and four feet tall, depending on the variety, so if you stake your plants at the appropriate height, they won’t outgrow their original trellis.
Unique growth habit
You might already understand the difference between determinate and indeterminate growth patterns, but for those who don’t–determinate tomatoes are genetically designed to stop growing once they reach a particular size, while indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow and produce fruit until the vines are killed by frost.
Mature dwarf tomatoes grow about as tall as determinate tomatoes, but they don’t stop growing. Dwarf varieties grow continuously, like indeterminate tomatoes, but the vines grow so slowly that they only ever reach between two and four feet long, with fruit clusters close together, as seen indeterminate varieties.
Dwarf tomatoes tend to have stocky trunks and strong stems from the seedling stage, as the plant needs a strong foundation to hold up full-size fruit on a diminutive vine.
Most dwarf tomatoes got their start as hybrids that were the result of crossing either heirlooms or hybrids with another tomato containing the dwarf gene. Many dwarf varieties have been de-hybridized over the years through open-pollination, and some dwarfs are on their way to becoming recognized as heirlooms in future years!
There’s another subset of dwarf tomatoes with an even smaller stature – the adorable micro dwarfs. By definition, micro dwarfs never grow taller than twelve inches, and some varieties are even smaller. All micro-dwarf varieties produce cherry tomatoes, as that’s all the diminutive plants can stand to support.
The Dwarf Tomato Project
Dwarf tomatoes are a unique garden vegetable that has only become more mainstream in recent years. Like many heirloom cultivars, dwarf tomatoes evolved as the solution to a common problem–a love of fresh tomatoes but no space to grow the wild and unwieldy vines.
Dwarf tomato breeding and cultivation really took off with the launch of a volunteer-based nonprofit, The Dwarf Tomato Project, led by North Carolina-based Craig LeHoullier and Australia-based Patrina Nuske-Small.² Now, the organization has introduced nearly 100 varieties into the world, making dwarf tomato seeds more accessible to everyone.
Caring for dwarf tomatoes
Dwarf tomatoes, other than their obviously smaller size, aren’t all that much different than regular tomatoes. Their compact size makes dwarfs perfect for container gardening, and their diminutive vines are actually easier to care for than standard tomatoes, while still yielding full-size fruit.
Growing dwarf tomatoes in containers
Dwarf varieties can be grown in garden beds or a greenhouse, but most growers prefer to plant dwarf tomatoes in containers–these are varieties that were bred for container gardening, after all.
Five-gallon pots are perfect for growing dwarf tomatoes–plant one seedling in each, and be sure to stake the young plants! Dwarf tomatoes, while compact plants, still produce full-size fruit and benefit from the added support of a tomato cage or stake.
Dwarf tomatoes also thrive in raised beds or planted directly in the garden. Be sure to choose a planting site for your dwarf tomatoes that gets full sun–at least six, preferably eight, hours of direct sunlight per day.
Tomatoes, whether full-size vines or compact dwarf versions, need fertile soil to produce fruit. Prior to planting, enrich your soil or growing medium with compost and a balanced fertilizer to ensure that your dwarf tomatoes will have all the nutrients they need to bear delicious fruit.
If growing dwarfs in containers, add a slow-release fertilizer into the potting soil every time you bump up your tomatoes to a bigger pot. Another option is to apply a water-soluble fertilizer directly to the soil every two or three weeks.
Water deeply, but infrequently. Tomatoes – no matter what size – don’t like to sit in wet soil for too long. Avoid getting the foliage wet when you water dwarfs, as that opens the door for foliar disease and pest infestation.
Harvesting dwarf tomatoes
Dwarf tomatoes come in early and mid-season varieties, with the earliest dwarf tomatoes – the micro-dwarfs–bearing fruit in as little as 50 days. Most midseason dwarf tomatoes mature in 60-75 days, producing full-size fruit around the same time as standard tomatoes.
Dwarf tomatoes are perfect for the gardener who doesn’t have as much space, or for anyone who loves tomatoes but wants to grow varieties that are a little easier to manage than standard indeterminate vines. Whatever your reasons for growing dwarf tomatoes, make it a point to stake them early so that you can enjoy their heavy fruits without worry.
¹ Piskor, Steve. “Dwarf Tomatoes Save Space and Taste Great.” Penn State Extension, Pennsylvania State University, 11 Feb 2020, https://extension.psu.edu/dwarf-tomatoes-save-space-and-taste-great.
² “Our Project’s Story.” Dwarf Tomato Project, GeneratePress, 2018, https://www.dwarftomatoproject.net/about/.