But that's getting ahead of things. The "seed" of the project started when two of my ideas came together and then were shared with Patrina, who turned out to be really good at crossing tomatoes. Idea #1 - repeating the type of work that the Isbell seed company carried out in 1915 when they created a new variety called New Big Dwarf. Idea #2 - developing new, interesting tomatoes for people who were space challenged to grow - essentially bringing the variety of heirlooms to easier to grow, shorter, more compact plants.
First, a little background is needed. Most heirloom varieties with superb flavor and interesting colors are what are called indeterminate varieties - the vines grow until killed by disease or frost, which makes for monsters of plants. I've grown indeterminate tomatoes that exceed 15-20 feet tall. Sure, they are wonderful, but if someone wants to grow them on a deck or patio or driveway, dealing with the long vines are a real challenge.
A very few varieties came to prominence in the late 1800s that are very different - the so-called "dwarf" tomato varieties. They are clearly different looking from the very start, being much more compact and having dark green, crinkly (so called "rugose") foliage. The central stem is very stout and thick. The plants tend to top out at 3-4 feet tall, yet grow and bear fruit until frost, so only need a short stake or cage for control. But, unfortunately, the fruit size tends to be small, though the flavor is quite good. There were three varieties in existence back then - Golden Dwarf Champion (2-4 ounce yellow fruit), Dwarf Stone (4-8 ounce red fruit), and Dwarf Champion (2-4 ounce pink fruit), which had limited popularity due to the small fruit size.
Then, in 1915, Isbell did some work to get a better sized dwarf. They crossed Dwarf Champion with the largest indeterminate tomato known at the time, Ponderosa. Subsequent growing out of the cross, then selecting to get a stable non-hybrid variety led to New Big Dwarf - which I found located in the USDA seed collection. I requested a seed sample, grew it out, and was delighted to find that the fruit size approached 12 ounces, and the pink fruits were quite delicious.
So - what if we repeated that sort of project using some of the other large fruited indeterminates of various colors - thus hopefully finding a way to produce (eventually!) new varieties of good size and interesting colors and great flavor on nice, tidy short dwarf plants. This, then, was our goal - short plants that bear all season yet can be easily grown in medium sized containers with short stakes or cages, on patios or driveways or decks - in a variety of colors, sizes and shapes - but with great flavor an essential trait.
That's the back story of the project. In Part 2, I will tell you about the first set of crosses - how Patrina named them, what I found when I grew them out, and how we managed to involve so many people in the effort.