Perennial Tomatoes in the Frozen North

Experimenting in over-wintering annuals for resilience and food security (and perennial tomatoes!)

by Violet Bee

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Photo by Davor Denkovski on Unsplash

I hate starting seeds. Hate it. I direct sow just about everything, including plants that everyone swears must be started early in order to obtain a yield. Here in zone 5, that’s a lot of plants. Even with my late planting, last year I had so many tomatoes I couldn’t pick them all before the first frosts of fall, and given the number that rotted in place, that patch of soil will be producing tomatoes until the end of time.

The only problem with my lazy approach to annuals is that my plants do tend to bear fruit later than those that got an early start. Given my present desire to transition to growing 75%+ of our food (we’re vegan so it’s all fruit and veg around here) I need to take a more disciplined approach to having our plants producing year round.

Enter the indoor tomato. Not a new concept, you’ll find plenty of examples if you search, but I hope to make a decent study of my efforts and results and to even do some starts this spring (gasp!) so I have a control group grown by the more common method. Then next fall, I’ll move tomatoes indoors by rooted cuttings and see if I can obtain a decent crop for the efforts, and keep them alive so that I can take new cuttings the next spring and use those for outdoor growing. If all goes to plan, I won’t have to plant tomato seeds ever again, unless I want new varieties.

Choosing Winter Tomatoes

There are two categories of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. The determinate have a defined growing life and are not good candidates for my intentions. Indeterminate, which will simply grow and grow (and make a mess of tangled tomatoes if you’re not careful — not that I’d know) are a better option. I’ll also be focused on smaller tomatoes, not just cherry and grape sized, but also some on the smaller size among the slicers.

In addition to size, I’m selecting varieties that have a shorter growing season, with the hope that my cuttings will provide tomatoes a bit faster.

The contenders are as follows, chosen based on the above criteria and because they’ve grown well for me in the past.Organic Cherry Tomato, Matt’s Wild Cherry
Since 1976 we’ve supplied organic gardeners & farmers with Organic Fertilizers and Supplies at very competitive

Heirloom. Indeterminate. Grow a wild tomato. A native of Mexico, this robust and sprawling cherry tomato is loved for the rich flavor of its sweet fruits. An early producer, Matt’s is resistant to early blight and has some resistance to late blight. Days to Maturity: 55–60 Days.

Organic Tomato, Sweetie
Since 1976 we’ve supplied organic gardeners & farmers with Organic Fertilizers and Supplies at very competitive

Indeterminate. Sweetie’s large vines produce very sweet, red, round, cherry-type tomatoes up to 1″ in diameter. This variety’s high sugar content makes the fruit a good choice for juice or preserves. Days To Maturity: 50–79 Days.

Organic Tomato, Gardener’s Delight
Since 1976 we’ve supplied organic gardeners & farmers with Organic Fertilizers and Supplies at very competitive

Indeterminate. Heirloom. This German cherry tomato is so sweet it used to be called Sugar Lump, in fact it is said to be the best tasting cherry tomato. Cute cherry-sized, red fruit borne in clusters of 6–12. This variety is container adaptable. Days To Maturity: 50–80 Days.

Organic Tomato, Valencia
Since 1976 we’ve supplied organic gardeners & farmers with Organic Fertilizers and Supplies at very competitive

Indeterminate. Heirloom. Valencia is an Indiana heirloom that bears large orange fruit weighing 8–10 oz. The fruit is firm with few seeds and has a great old-time tomato flavor. Days To Maturity: 55–59 Days.

Organic Tomato, Thai Pink
Since 1976 we’ve supplied organic gardeners & farmers with Organic Fertilizers and Supplies at very competitive

Heirloom. Indeterminate. Plant produces a pink fruit about the size and shape of a small egg. Firm fruit that keeps well. Days to Maturity: 65–70 Days.

Organic Tomato, Green Zebra
Since 1976 we’ve supplied organic gardeners & farmers with Organic Fertilizers and Supplies at very competitive

Indeterminate. Green Zebra’s small, round yellow-green fruits have dark-green vertical stripes and emerald flesh. Vines produce up to 2–1/2″ fruits which are tangy and well balanced. Days To Maturity: 60 Days.

Fall Cuttings

I plan to take fall cuttings in three successions, on or about August 1, September 1 and October 1, if the frost holds. The October cutting will be moved up in the case of a projected frost date, even if I cover my outdoor tomatoes.

August is really still summer up here, but as I want my indoor plants to start producing as the outdoor ones are finished off by the fall frosts, I plan to start early. The August cuttings will also be my trial cuttings, so that I can work out any kinks in the growing plan.

Indoor Growing

Tomatoes are fairly low maintenance, but have some basic requirements to meet.

  • Light: In order to produce fruit, light will need to be supplemented for a few hours per day, even in my south-facing windows.
  • Temperature: As tropical natives (or the descendants there-of) tomatoes do like a warm climate. They will need to be kept above 65-degrees Fahrenheit overnight and prefer another 10–15 degrees above that during the day. My little farm building turned office/craft room isn’t that warm, so an alternative must be arranged. (Yes, I work in a space that is usually 50–55 degrees in winter.)
  • Nutrients: Tomatoes do require feeding. I normally purchase no plant food and use other methods — cover crops, green manure, compost, etc. This will require additional planning, but as a back-up, I could break down and buy some organic vegan fertilizer. I prefer to permaculture my way out of problems, so I have a few ideas about creating a growing community for the tomatoes with some neighbors to help feed the soil.
  • Pollination: Tomatoes are self-fertile, but require pollination assistance when indoors. The pollen must migrate from the male end to the female end of the flower and this is normally done by wind or with the aid of insect pollinators. Alternatively the plants can be shaken lightly or vibrated to aid the pollination. I have an old electric toothbrush, as is often recommended, which I think will be pressed into service as the aid to pollination. It can also be achieved by hand with a cotton swab or soft paintbrush, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Additionally, timing matters and warm mid-day pollination is recommended. Humidity, which plays a role normally, shouldn’t be an issue indoors, unless my temperature solution requires the plants being enclosed. I may also experiment with putting a fan on them for an hour in the middle of the day.

Overall, it’s starting to sound like an awful lot of effort for a fruit that I happen to dislike. Yes, I admit it, I pick the tomatoes off of things. The rest of my household, including the toddler, think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Getting food into a toddler is plenty enough reason to go to some effort. After a summer of fresh, beautiful tomatoes fresh from the vine, including the few weeks of slow-ripening green tomatoes I snatched in before the frost, she’s a bit of a tomato snob. The first grocery store tomatoes after the stock had run out had her eyeing me suspiciously like I played a trick on her with some foreign object that just looked like a cherry tomato.

In terms of food resiliency and reclaiming the perennial nature of tomatoes, this is not but a first small step. With the climate news growing more anxiety-inducing by the day, among the myriad of other forces working against us, it’s time we take these small steps in toward our self-reliance.

Hopefully at this time next year I’ll have a good report of my efforts to share. In the mean-time, I’d love to hear about any successes or failures in growing tomatoes indoors.

Growing Food is Our Greatest Protest
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The Growing Need for Farmers and Gardeners
We each bear responsibility for feeding

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Violet Bee is a mother, writer, farmer and activist. She and her partner practice permaculture and foster cats in all of their free time. Follow her publication Radical Hope for more on living and parenting in a changing climate.

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