Saturday, 21 February 2015

Perennial Tomatoes

Everyone loves tomatoes, they are often grown as annuals and may people complain that they wish there were perennial tomatoes.  Well, there are perennial tomatoes.  I have seen seeds of perennial tomatoes for sale on ebay fetching serious money and I ask myself why.  Perhaps it is because people do not know about how to grow perennial tomatoes.  They are far more common than you think.
perennial tomato
Indeterminate tomatoes can be grown as perennial tomatoes
Different types of tomato
There are many thousand different types of tomato, I am not exaggerating here, probably about ten thousand recognised varieties world wide with a lot more being developed (by home growers such as myself as well as Government breeding programs) each year and a lot becoming extinct each year.  In the supermarkets we probably have access to half a dozen or so, by growing heirlooms we have easy access to several hundred varieties of all kinds of shapes/sizes/colours.  By growing heirlooms it is simple to save seed of the best varieties each year.  Of the many varieties of tomato that we have the easiest access to they can be roughly divided into two groups: determinate and indeterminate.

Roprecco Paste, a good determinate variety
Determinate tomatoes fruit pretty much all at once, then they tend to die, they are most easily grown as annuals.  They produce flowers at their terminal bud, after they flower that branch can not produce more leaves and stems.  These are great if you want all of your crop to harvest once, they are great for large scale farmers who only want to harvest once, as well as people who are into home preserving.  If you are planning on making paste or sauce then you probably want a determinate variety, there are several incredibly old and delicious heirloom varieties that are determinate.  I don't grow many of these, but I do grow a few, they serve their purpose well.  Some places claim determinate tomatoes are short and do not require staking, this is not always the case, please ignore anyone who makes such claims and stop buying seeds from them.

Speckled Roman, a good indeterminate variety
Indeterminate tomatoes can fruit over a long period, they keep growing as long as you protect the plant, they can be grown as perennial tomatoes if grown without frost.  They grow flowers from a side bud, not the terminal bud.  These are great if you want a few tomatoes each day or every few days, for many weeks/months on end.  Most varieties of tomato grown at home tend to be indeterminate, most heirlooms tend to be indeterminate (but there are some determinate ones too).  Some of these plants can grow massive while others can be rather compact.  Even though indeterminate tomatoes are perennial tomatoes they still tend to be grown as annuals.  Almost all indeterminate tomatoes are perennial tomatoes, no need to spend ridiculous amounts of money on "perennial tomato" seeds now.  Some places claim that indeterminate tomatoes are tall and require staking, this is not always the case, please ignore anyone who makes such claims and stop buying seeds from them.

Perennial Tomatoes

Many varieties of indeterminate tomato are a short lived perennial if grown in a warm climate, which is great if you happen to live in a warm climate.  Sometimes they can survive for several years but the productivity often drops off after the first year.  I live in a frosty climate and have often wanted to grow the same tomato year after year, not just save seed, but keep the same plant going.  Even if you live in a frosty climate it is possible to over winter plants.  They probably wont produce a lot of fruit over winter, they will continue to flower but often the nights are too cool for fruit set, as soon as the weather is warm enough they will be ready and will ripen some early fruit for you.  This is a great way to get your plants to set fruit a few weeks to a few months earlier than from seed.
Overwintered Reisetomate set fruit 2 months earlier than the seed grown Reisetomate
Each year I overwinter some tomato plants.  Sometimes I do it because I am running low on seed, sometimes I do it because the plant was amazing and I want another season out of it, sometimes I do it because I am developing a new variety and would like to back cross its progeny with it to lock in a certain desirable trait.  Plants that are overwintered tend to crop a lot earlier and be more resilient than seedlings of the same variety.  Sometimes I overwinter a plant to help get an early crop and beat the extreme weather that we often get.
Yellow Pear tomatoes are simple to grow as perennials

How to overwinter an indeterminate tomato

This is one of those things that depends on a lot of different factors, mostly it depends on what you want to do and in which climate you are growing tomatoes.  You may wish to put up a shade cloth structure or something to protect a plant growing in the soil.  You may grow a plant in a pot that can be moved to somewhere safe.  You may live somewhere that the plants can be left as they are or just mulched carefully.  I take cuttings and overwinter these.

I take a cutting late in the season from the plant that I want to overwinter.  I use indeterminate varieties, while it is possible to use a determinate variety it is far more difficult as timing has to be just right and sometimes cuttings have to be taken throughout winter to prevent flowering.  Remember, if a determinate tomato flowers it will not grow any more or be able to produce new leaves or new sets of flowers.

The cutting will be genetically identical to the original plant, it is essentially the same plant.  I remove any flowers, remove the lower leaf or few leaves as they do not cope under water, then put the cutting into a glass of water.  The part I cut needs to be under water, the leaves need to be above the water, very simple.  You could plant the cutting directly into soil at this point instead of using water but I like to see the roots first so I use a glass of water.
Tomato cuttings
Tomato cutting, ready to plant into soil
Normally in 3 days small roots appear, it may take a lot longer in cooler weather, it may be as fast as 8 hours in the right conditions.  The roots grow fast once they have started so I try to plant it into a pot of soil quickly.  Water roots are different from soil roots, so it is best to plant it after the roots are only short rather than wait a few extra days until they are long (like the picture below).  I then put this potted cutting somewhere safe over winter.

During this time it will grow and it should flower, mostly the flowers abort as the night temperatures are too low.  I grow them outside under the verandah against the mud brick where they get sun and warmth but no frost, if you live somewhere colder you could grow them inside near a window for light.  They need sunlight or they will become sick and attacked by insects.
Perennial tomato plants
This is the same cutting on the left, the second cutting was put in the water when the first picture was taken
After the frost has passed I often have a strong 3 foot tall flowering tomato plant ready to be planted out in the garden (or left in the pot and moved into the sun).  Quite often seed grown plants will only be 10cm tall at this time so the overwintered plant gets a significant head start.

This process of taking cuttings to overwinter can be continued indefinitely, each time you take a cutting you are restarting the clock and the plant will not die of old age.  If you have found a good F1 hybrid that you like and can not save seed from you do not need to buy new plants each year as you can simply take a cutting and overwinter the same plant.  You no longer need to waste money on 'perennial tomato' seeds, just look for a good indeterminate variety as they are perennial.

Far too easy, you now have perennial tomato plants even if you live in a frosty climate.  I sell some heirloom tomato seeds on my for sale page.  Many of these are indeterminate and can easily be over wintered, if you are interested please have a look.


  1. You can grow tomatoes as perennials? Cool.

  2. Very informative, Thanks!

  3. I'm confused about one statement. As a very seasons gardener and garden writer, "indeterminate" tomato plants *do* grow tall and *do* require staking. There may be one exception out there, but I have yet to run into it.

    So, I'm wondering why you said, "Some places claim that indeterminate tomatoes are tall and require staking, this is not always the case, please ignore anyone who makes such claims and stop buying seeds from them."

    Thank you!

  4. Hi Suburban Farmer,

    Thanks for dropping by. You are exactly the kind of person who needs to read this post. No need to be confused, let me explain.

    As a seasoned gardener I will assume that you understand the terms ‘determinate’, ‘indeterminate’ ‘dwarf’ etc. which makes answering you much easier. I should write another post describing these terms to people who are newer to gardening.

    While it may be true to say that *many* indeterminate tomatoes are tall and require staking it is incorrect to conclude that they all are. It also may be true to say that you have never seen or heard of anything any indeterminate short internode tomatoes, that is partly because those dodgy seed sellers who feed you incorrect information. In the same way *many* tomatoes have fruit that is red and round, yet it would be absurd to extrapolate that to claim that they *all* are. I remember when I was younger having a seasoned gardener who had grown tomatoes since before I was born try to tell me that ALL tomatoes are red and round simply because he had never seen anything else. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth.

    Back to your question, there are an increasing number of varieties of tomatoes available to home gardeners that are indeterminate as well as being short and bushy. Some indeterminate tomato plants are dwarf, many of them actually grow shorter plants than some of the determinate so called ‘non-staking’ plants. If they are shorter and more sturdy than a ‘non-staking’ tomato then surely they are also considered ‘non-staking’ varieties even though they are indeterminate.

    Being indeterminate dwarves means that they take up little room, do not require staking, yet unlike determinates they fruit over a long season. These indeterminate dwarves can even be grown as perennials if protected from frosts. As I am sure you know, the indeterminate trait has little to do with the height of the plant.

    As I am sure that you can appreciate the ‘determinate dwarf’ and ‘indeterminate dwarf’ are suited to very different applications even though they are smaller plants. Determinate tomato plants tend to fruit over a restricted season, making them well suited to preserving their fruit. An indeterminate dwarf is great for small spaces and extended harvest time. Arbitrarily making the staking vs non-staking division creates more harm than good, it is far better to use the terms indeterminate and determinate.

    Over the years I have grown a bunch of these dwarf indeterminate tomatoes, mostly un-named or un-stable varieties. I don’t know where you are located, but the Dwarf Tomato Project is located in Northern and Southern hemisphere and lists a growing number of indeterminate dwarf tomato seeds for sale. You should grow one.

    So no need to be confused, not all indeterminate tomatoes grow tall and require staking. While many do, many others don’t.


  5. You ask why I claim that you should not buy from dodgy seed sellers who call indeterminate “staking” and determinate “non-staking”. As you can see, these fraudsters are not providing customers with the correct information. Perhaps they do not understand the basics of tomato genetics/biology, or maybe it is something else. Don’t waste your time with them.

    If they can not give you the right information you should take your business to someone who will. When they do not care enough, or are too lazy, to bother looking up anything what assurance does that give you that they will be able to answer anything properly or be able to give you the right advice about anything else? It took me less than a minute to find this non-exhaustive list of indeterminate dwarf tomatoes on the internet:
    Beefy Boy
    Better Bush Improved
    Dwarf Beryl Beauty
    Dwarf Champion
    Dwarf Champion 15
    Dwarf Champion Improved
    Dwarf Emerald Giant
    Dwarf Mr. Snow
    Dwarf Recessive
    Dwarf Stone, Livingston's
    Dwarf Jade Beauty
    Dwarf Wild Fred
    Golden Dwarf Champion
    Husky Cherry Gold
    Husky Cherry Red
    Husky Gold
    Husky Pink
    Husky Red
    Lime Green Salad
    New Big Dwarf
    Orange Tree
    Perth Pride
    Polish Dwarf
    Quarter Century
    Quarter Century, Burpee's
    Red House Free Standing
    Rosella Purple
    Russian Red
    Summertime Gold
    Summertime Green
    Tasmanian Chocolate

    Hope that helps.

  6. After reading your comment I decided to do some internet research. You are quite right, there are some short indeterminate tomatoes. What fun!

  7. Yes, made me sit up and listen too, because I was looking for a perennial plant to grow in a pot -- or at least last a full year, and the dwarf indeterminate is the go. Thanks. I have just retired onto our land at Clunes, Northern Rivers nsw, doing similar to you I guess. I have a Farmers Mart stall and thought a tomato in pots, something that lasts for a while for the customer would be good. The seed supplier just didn't have anything, only hybrid determinates. If you have seeds for one you think would be good, let me know and happy to pay

    1. Hi Ashley,

      I will send you an email later, but for anyone else I have a page of seed sellers

      I could also probably sell you some seeds but many of them are un-named and not overly stable varieites. To be honest you may be better off looking at the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project's page:

      They have a good variety of recently bred dwarf tomatoes, a mix of determinate and indeterminate varieties. I highly recommend them.