Sunday, 14 June 2015

Saving Micro Tom from extinction


Micro Tom is a miniature dwarf variety of determinate tomato plant, it is the smallest recognised variety of tomato plant in the world.  

Micro Tom does not grow the smallest tomatoes, that record goes to some larger tomato plants, Micro Tom grows the smallest tomato plant.  From everything I have read it grows a reasonable number of good sized cherry tomatoes on a tiny plant that grows to 6 inches tall at most.  Many growers claim that Micro Tom never exceeds 2 inches (about 5cm) tall for them.

Micro Tom tomato starting to flower
Such a tiny plant sounds great to use for children's gardens, or being grown by balcony farmers as well as people who would like to grow some produce on the kitchen window.  Many elderly people who can no longer garden would still be able to tend to micro tomatoes in a window box or similar.  Being so small means that Micro Tom can be grown in a cup of soil on a window and still produce an edible harvest, people who are renting tiny apartments will still be able to grow these beauties.  Even though one will never feed their entire family from micro tomatoes, I think they are still extremely useful.

Having such a unique set of genes also lends itself well to breeding small varieties of tomato or even using as a dwarfing rootstock on which to graft larger varieties.  The days of having a lot of space to allow plants to sprawl are over unfortunately, we need to breed great tasting smaller vegetable plants or graft onto dwarfing rootstock.  Many of the better tasting 'dwarf' tomatoes still reach 4 to 5 feet tall and are simply too large for balconies.  This is where Micro Tom and other micro tomatoes will become increasingly important.

A few years ago, probably about 10 years, tomato seeds stopped being legal to import into Australia due to quarantine restrictions.  This means that whatever varieties we have now (or anything we can breed from them) are the only varieties that we will ever have.  This also means that people may have some old packets of tomato seed in their cupboards that they imported years ago which may be the only seeds of that particular variety in Australia.  It is important that these varieties are not allowed to go extinct in Australia because if they do we will lose them and their unique genes forever.

Micro Tom seedling
I searched for Micro Tom seeds or plants in Australia.  Overseas many seed sellers carry them but nowhere in Australia had them.  I spoke to some seed savers and they had never heard of them.  I started to think perhaps Micro Tom was not here.  After some of the conversations I had with experienced seed savers it started to seem likely that no micro tomatoes were in Australia.

Eventually I found a very generous grower who said he grew them about 10 years ago and could send me the old seeds, but he could not guarantee they would grow.  He used to sell tomato seedlings at markets and would give away Micro Tom plants to kids whose parents bought plants from him.  What a great idea!  They were so small that they can produce fruit even if grown in a plastic cup of soil with drainage holes.  That very generous person actually sent me the entire remains of the seed packet that he had imported years earlier, we can work out how long he has owned the seeds but have no way of knowing how old they were before the seed company sold them to him.

The old Micro Tom seed packet only had about 9 seeds, given the age of the seeds and probable low (or no) germination rates this means I had to make every seed count.  Being so old I did not want to wait another 9 months until Spring while the seeds age even further to sow them in fear that they would then be too old to germinate.  Being the end of Summer it was not the right time to plant tomatoes so I did not want to waste my only chance by sowing them then and having the plant flower when it is too cold to set fruit.

Having such a low number of seeds meant I had to make a difficult decision.  I wanted to ensure my best chances of growing these and bringing them back from the brink of extinction in Australia, so I decided to plant 3 of these precious seeds straight away on January 31 and hope to get them to produce fruit in time, save the rest of the seeds to plant the following Spring and hope they are not too old to grow.  That seems like the most likely way I can have a positive outcome from this endeavor.

I read about growing old seeds and did a few things to help them, out of the 3 old seeds planted 1 germinated about a week later.  I gave them plenty of time (several months) but the other 2 seeds never germinated, but that one seed germinating so fast gives me hope that I may be able to get some of the others to grow in Spring. 
Micro Tom ready for transplant
This one tiny seedling did not grow very fast, but it looked healthy.  I grow everything organically here, but due to the tight time constraints here I decided to buy a small container of fertiliser and have used it on this one plant.  When the seedling got a little larger I planted it into a pot so that I could move it and protect it as best I could.  Then we had some cool nights down to about 2 degrees and I feared an early frost.  Early frost will not kill the plant as it would be under shelter over night, but it may stop flowers from forming fruit and if it does not produce viable seed then there is trouble.

I have read that Micro Tom takes around 50 days to maturity.  Unfortunately this means nothing to me.  The stated days to maturity for tomatoes are generally days from a 30cm tall plant being transplanted until maturity.  Micro Tom never reaches 30cm tall, I transplanted mine at around 1cm or 2cm tall.  An overseas breeder tells me that Micro Tom takes around 120 days to picking the first fruit from planting the seed.  This means if all goes well the first fruit would be ripe around the end of May.  Given the cooler nights and lowering day time temperatures this may be pushed back further.

Micro Tom 3cm tall and starting to flower
I had started to move Micro Tom into the sun during the day and put it under the verandah next to the warmer mud brick for protection at night.  As the days were cooling I think the plant will grow slower, so I left it in sunlight during the day and moved it into the laundry at night.

The laundry is slightly warmer than the verandah and it has access to electricity.  I have a grow light hooked up and this shines on the Micro Tom plant over night which hopefully will help it grow a little faster as it will be getting more light each day.  People often complain about cheap grow lights not having the right spectrum light, but as it is still getting some natural sunlight most days and the grow light were merely supplemental light this should not be too much of an issue.  The grow light emits some heat as well as light, so the plant and its roots should stay slightly warmer over night.

Micro Tom, such a tiny plant with such massive potential
This tiny Micro Tom plant started to flower at around 2cm to 3cm tall, assuming that any of the flowers work and set fruit I plan to save every seed that this plant produces so that I can do a larger grow out in Spring and get enough seed to distribute.  In Spring I also plan on sowing the remaining few seeds in the old packet, hopefully I end up with a decent number of plants and a good number of fresh seeds.
I doubt Micro Tom will grow a great deal taller than this
I don't grow novelty vegetables or ornamental plants very much, I usually prefer productive edible plants.  Some of my favourite plants (such as perennial leeks or yacon) provide massive yields of food throughout the year.  Somehow Micro Tom has captured my heart, I find it to be a delightful little plant and hope that I can bring it back to popularity in Australia.  I grew the plant in the photos using a 7cm pot of soil.

 I also have great breeding plans (once I have saved enough seed that I am not worried about losing this variety) of using it to create new varieties of micro tomatoes that are higher yielding as well as perhaps creating some different coloured micro tomatoes or some with higher sugar contents etc.

I have plans of incorporating the multiflora gene into any new variety of micro tomato, that way balcony farmers should be able to grow exponentially more tomatoes from the same tiny space.  I have a good tasting dwarf multiflora tomato that I want to use as the other parent in this cross.  Incorporating the multiflora gene into micro tomatoes, in my mind, will be the ultimate goal for every micro tomato breeding venture as it will maximise the use of limited space ensuring the largest possible crop from each plant.

I would be keen in the future to breed some parthenocarpic micro tomatoes which will set fruit in cold weather even if the flowers are not pollinated.  I would love to use Micro Tom as a rootstock for a large fruiting tomato such as Giant Siberian Pink and see if I can grow a very small plant with huge tomatoes. Only time will tell if I get around to these projects though.
Micro Tom, getting slightly larger and flowering well
There are many useful possibilities that simply would never happen if we have no micro tomato breeding stock in Australia.  If you have any old packets of vegetable seeds that you have not seen around in a few years please grow them and save seeds as you may be the last in our country to have them.  If this is not possible then please consider donating them to someone else who will grow them and save their seeds.  We don't want to lose too many more vegetable varieties in Australia!

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