Winter tomatoes: the gardener's Holy Grail?

If you had told me a few weeks ago that you were trying to grow tomatoes outside during the winter, I would probably have looked at you incredulously and wished you luck. It just can't be done, because tomatoes are a tropical crop that we grow during our summers like an annual. But perhaps I have been wrong.

Yet again our first tomatoes ripened in early January, and the plants were all but done at the end of March. That's only three months of tomato production in a climate that is reliably frost-free for nine months of the year! So in a quest to conquer tomato production  I went on a global research quest (courtesy of Google of course) to discover varieties that might significantly lengthen our tomato season. And the result of this was a crash course in tomatology, and some glimmers of hope for tomatoes in the cooler months.

The tomato is native to western South America and belongs to the genus Lycopersicon, which has around 10 species. Tomatoes are thought to have been first domesticated by the Aztecs over 2000 years ago, and tomatoes were widely cultivated in Mexico by the 1500s. Following the Spanish invasion of Central America, the tomato was then spread to Europe and the Phillipines, and subsequently, to the remainder of the world.

The existence of 10 species in the genus Lycopersicon is the critical factor that  allowed the development of the phenomenal number of tomato varieties that exist today. All species in the genus can interbreed, with new varieties arising from crossings and chance mutations. Wild tomato varieties are still being used  as a genetic resource to impart traits such as salt and drought tolerance (from a species native to the Galapagos Islands) and disease resistance. Specific varieties have also been developed to best fit the climate where they are grown, from localities as widely spread as Siberia, southern Canada, China, Ukraine,  Ethiopia, and New Zealand. Seed catalogues in New Zealand  list up to 166 tomato varieties (e.g. but globally, estimates range from at least 10,000 varieties, to a mind-numbing 25,000 (US Department of Agriculture). So surely, somewhere out there, is a variety that will extend our fruiting season.

Tomatoes can be red, green, yellow, orange, purple, white, or green, and round, oblong, turban-shaped, or pleated. Size can range from the size of a currant, to a whopping 3.5 kg (a variety called "Delicious"). The variety of names is extraordinary, reflecting the wide geographic  spread of tomato cultivation, and I suspect to some degree, breeder fanaticism. So step aside Beefsteak and Russian Red. Here's my pick for the best or most bizarre variety names (well, the ones that are for general audiences anyway...)

Stupice (maybe this tomato lacks intelligence?)
Stump of the World (absolutely no idea what was being aimed for here!)
Silvery Fir Tree (multi-use for timber?)
Amazon Chocolate (now that sounds good)
Green Sausage (sausage-shaped, and striped yellow and green)
Hawaiian Pineapple (massive tomato, yellowy green)
Missouri Love Apple
Heritage #624 ex Bob Lord (now there's a marketable name....)
Dancing with Smurfs (red with a blue cap)
Geza's Strawberry Potato (hey everyone, this year I'm growing Geza's Strawberry Potato Tomatoes....)

The most exhaustive list I have found so far, with links to further details of each variety, is on the website linked below:

For me though, selecting tomato varieties is not just about length of season, but also taste, colour, size, and disease tolerance. I want naturally-healthy tomato plants that produce lots of good tasting fruit over a long season. After pouring through a multitude of websites, and learning about everything from tomato festivals to online tomato forums, I came up with a short-list. I will be trialing these and with a bit of luck, I might be able to grow tomatoes in the winter too.

My top picks are as follows:

Subarctic Plenty
Oregon Spring
Paul Robeson
Sunsets Red Horizon
Red Currant 
Japanese Black Trifele (which hails from the Ukraine, of course)

So its now mid-autumn, and I'm sowing tomato seeds. Madness? I'll keep you posted.



Current tasks in the garden (early-mid Autumn)

Harvesting now:
Swiss Chard
White Welsh Onions

Sowing now:
Spring Onion

Transplanting now:
Brussels Sprouts