Every garden needs a cherry-tomato plant. The sweet, ripe fruit are perfect for summer salads, an important ingredient in some hors d'oeuvres and a great, quick snack off the vine.
The fruit come in a variety of shapes and colors, from yellow and orange to red and purple, and each gardener seems to have that one cherry tomato to rave about.
Last year, the cherry tomato took a big step forward with the introduction of Tomaccio, a cherry tomato bred specifically for drying.
The result of a 12-year breeding project by plant developers of Hishtil Nursery, a vegetable producer in Israel, the dried fruit has the texture and consistency of a large raisin with an exceptionally strong tomato taste.
The variety was in limited release last year, and I had the opportunity to grow four plants as a trial. By summer's end, I had become a Tomaccio fan.
I chose three separate test plots in which to grow the plants, each with a slightly different growing environment, but all in raised beds.
The young plants were potted in 1-gallon containers and kept in a cool greenhouse until planting time arrived, which was late last year because of the unseasonably cool, wet spring — not conducive to growing tomatoes. By late June, the sun finally became a regular visitor, the soil began to warm and the plants took off.
The "scouting report" accompanying the plants mentioned good vigor, which was apparent by late season, when two of them reached 10 to 12 feet.
The other two plants regularly received "haircuts" about a foot above the 5-foot tomato cages.
The two big ones were planted at the corners of two raised beds with a 5-foot aisle between the beds. I attached two long pieces of bamboo to the top of each cage and joined them in the middle, creating the frame for an arbor. As the branches grew over the top of the cages, I carefully tied them down and wove them along the bamboo cross-piece. By late August, the branches from both plants had grown together, producing a Tomaccio arbor.
The fruit are very similar to standard cherry tomatoes, red in color in clusters of eight. Last year's harvest averaged just over 14 pounds of fruit, which could be increased given an earlier growing season. While they taste great fresh off the vine, once you dry a batch of Tomaccios, you realize that is their true purpose in life.
Drying was a pretty simple process, performed in an oven at low heat. The time to dry the fruit was quite different from what the instructions said. Raker Nurseries (www.raker.com), which distributes Tomaccio, advises three hours at 200 degrees, but I found it was more like 12 to 14 hours at that temperature.
Every three to four hours, I turned the tomatoes by hand to ensure more even drying. After 10 hours, I began pulling out individual fruits. When cooled, you should not be able to detect any juice in the fruit, and it should be both chewy and tasty.
My wife, Diane, was the brains of the drying procedure, writing down specific times and temperatures until we finally mastered the process. It is important not to overdry the fruit, which reduces the rich tomato taste.
By our third batch, the quality of the dried fruit was good and uniform.
You won't see Tomaccio seeds on store racks or in catalogs because the plants are cloned. Tomaccio is a patented plant, so its distribution is very limited, and only certified nurseries are allowed to grow the plants and sell them. It will be available locally at Four Seasons Nursery in Central Point.
While it is illegal for a nursery to propagate the plants from cuttings and then sell them, home gardeners can propagate from cuttings for their own personal use without violating the law. You just can't sell the plants.
Tip cuttings of tomatoes root quite easily in perlite with regular misting and shaded under a dome in the home greenhouse.
If you like dried fruit as snacks, Tomaccio is a uniquely different treat. It's a perfect, home-grown food that takes cherry tomatoes to a new level.
To learn more, see www.raker.com/doc/raker.tomaccio.handout.pdf
David James has been writing about gardening in Southern Oregon for 35 years. Contact him at email@example.com.