Foodstuffs: Solving The Hanging Tomato Enigma

Oct 8, 2015

A lot of people start sentences like this: “ever since I was very small….”  

Few people finish that sentence “… diversity, genetic diversity in plants has been a total driver of my passion.”

That, however, is what Becky Sideman told me, sitting at a lab bench inside of one of University of New Hampshire’s expansive greenhouses. 

It makes a little more sense when you find out Sideman was raised on a farm in Vermont. Once her parents got divorced (she says she was 11 or 12) – after that, she grew up on two farms. Today, Sideman is a researcher with UNH Cooperative Extension and the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station. Her job is - basically - to talk to farmers about their problems, then try to solve them.

Rambling Rose produces pink cherry tomatoes.
Credit University of New Hampshire

  It was six or seven years ago, Sideman says, and she was  visiting her parents on their respective farms in Vermont and Connecticut, when she got wind of the problem.

Those hanging cherry tomato plants people keep on their porches? It was almost impossible to get good seeds. 

Sideman’s parents and other farmers agreed: only one variety that was really good. It was called the Tumbler.  Only it wasn’t carried by many seed catalogues, and it was a hybrid: so farmers couldn’t reproduce it themselves.

There was one substitute people were buying, called the Tumbling Tom. It was inconsistent. Sideman remembers having the same conversation over and over at farm visits.

‘”What’s the deal with Tumbling Tom looking so weird,’” Sideman recalls hearing. “I said ‘yeah, they do look weird,’” Sideman recalls. “They’d say ‘why can’t I find Tumbler?’”

Sideman was intrigued.

She and her students at the UNH greenhouses set out to find a way to get New England farmers and their home gardening customers a reliable, attractive, delicious hanging-basket cherry tomato.

“I didn’t think it would turn into a six year project,” she says.

First, Sideman grew out every variety of hanging basket cherry tomato she could get her hands on.  None was good enough as is. So she found some of those precious hybrid Tumbler seeds – the good variety that’s hard to come by – and harvested the fruit.

“We extracted the seeds, grew up those plants from those seeds, and grew out a whole lot of those plants.”

Of course, the Tumbler is a hybrid – so the tomatoes that grew were inconsistent.  They cracked, or didn’t taste good, or weren’t very productive.

“We then selected and self-pollinated and selected and self-pollinated over several generations,” Sideman says. “We inbred it seven generations total.”

Becky Sideman and her students named their hanging cherry tomatoes the Rambling Rose: a variety even better than the evasive but revered Tumbler tomatoes, because “when you save Rambling Rose seeds you get Rambling Rose back.”

Plus – the new tomatoes are pink: something Sideman says was “a total accident.”

She adds -- she’ll make a red variety, too.

The next step, according to Sideman, is finding a seed company to pick up the Rambling Rose, produce the seeds, and sell them.  Of course, her parents already have theirs. 

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