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Craig LeHoullier is a bonafide tomato expert, having grown over 1,000 varieties of heirlooms (and a few hybrids) in the past few decades. His first book, Epic Tomatoes (Storey Publishing) quickly became a best-seller, and won the 2016 Gold Award from the Garden Writers Association. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Craig and ask him to share some of his experiences, tips and musings on growing tomatoes, the most popular garden vegetable in North America. Here are my five questions with tomato expert Craig LeHoullier:
Five Questions with Craig LeHoullier:
1. What drives your passion for heirloom tomatoes?
I have a passion for tomatoes in general (as an edible), and the opportunity to grow and eat heirloom varieties only enhances the experience. There are great tomatoes in all categories – hybrid (such as Sungold, truly a desert island variety!), open-pollinated but not considered heirloom (including Lucky Cross, Cherokee Chocolate) and heirloom (as exemplified by Cherokee Purple, Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, and Brandywine). The passion comes from a combination of harvests with exquisite flavours, the wide variety of colors, shapes, sizes and flavor nuances, the wonderful stories associated with many of the heirloom types, and the opportunity to save and share seeds from those that are not hybrids.
Just to clarify, a hybrid variety is one whose seed originates from a cross between two parents; seed saved from hybrids won’t replicate the hybrid, instead providing tomatoes that look like either parent or possibilities in between. Tomatoes that are genetically stable, and do “come true” from saved seed, are called non-hybrid, or open pollinated. In my view, open-pollinated varieties whose origins pre-date 1949 can also be considered to be heirloom varieties. I choose that date because it was when Burpee introduced the Big Boy tomato; after that, seed companies tended to focused on creating new hybrid varieties at the expense of new, open-pollinated varieties. It gets very confusing; we’ve all been to restaurants featuring an “heirloom tomato salad” that features a variety such as Green Zebra. The only problem is that Green Zebra is a fine open-pollinated tomato that was created in the mid 1970s by Tom Wagner – so I wouldn’t call it an heirloom variety, though if in fifty years, it is still available and popular, it may well have earned that title.
2. You’ve been working on a dwarf tomato project – what is the goal of this project and how is it coming along?
The project grew from our tomato seedling customer requests for the “heirloom tomato experience – large, colorful, flavorful fruit – without the trouble of the eight-foot vines.” Since 2006, we’ve engaged over 250 avid amateur gardeners the world over to participate in a form of “open source” tomato breeding project; the work begins with some creative crosses between known dwarf varieties (of which there are – or at least, were prior to our project! – very few) and delicious indeterminate heirloom types. Our team grows, observes, saves seed and sends to me, and I redistribute it, with promising new varieties named and grown for sufficient numbers of generations to produce a new stable open-pollinated dwarf variety.
Once we get great new stable varieties, we grow enough seed to provide a start to a small seed company of our choice. Starting in 2010, we’ve been completing new varieties, and as of a few months ago, we have 25 new varieties in various seed companies that people can try. Dwarfs are perfect for container or square foot gardening, and work well in containers as small as five gallons. We have varieties that produce tomatoes in red, pink, purple, brown, green, white, orange, yellow and yellow/red bicolors, with stripes on the way. More info on the project, as well as the list of releases, can be found on my Dwarf Tomato Project website.
3. What is the best way to stake tomatoes?
Because indeterminate tomatoes (which the vast majority of tomatoes are) have such lengthy and sprawling vines, they can take up a lot of room. Vertical growing helps to raise the tomato yield of a particular garden space because it allows for closer planting; a bonus is cleaner fruit with less rot, because it is not touching the soil. There are many ways to go vertical, ranging from the simplest (banging a six- to eight-foot stake in the soil adjacent to the tomato main stem and using sisal twine to tie the plant to the stake as the vines lengthen, every foot or so) to the more creative (Florida Weave type techniques, which are combinations of stakes and support running down a row – a form of trellising). Easier still is to fashion six-foot-tall cages from concrete reinforcing wire and growing a plant in the center of the cage, with a central stake to start the training – by the end of the season, the cage becomes a cylinder of tomato plant filled with tomatoes. Staking raises the famous tomato growing question, “to prune or not to prune?” And that is a very personal decision for tomato enthusiasts, because there is no right or wrong answer….we can leave that one for another Q and A session!
4. Tomatoes have a reputation as being disease prone – what do home gardeners need to do to keep their plants healthy and productive?
In some areas of the country, tomato growing is pretty straightforward. When I gardened in Pennsylvania, I had few critters or disease issues and it seemed that no matter which variety I grew, it did at least moderately well, with most spectacular successes. Gardening in Raleigh has been quite different, and tomatoes here are like roses – every critter, disease and weather change seems to make quite a few special varieties quite miserable. It is a good thing that there are now so many tomato varieties for us to try, because for many gardeners, it will end up being trial and error to see which ones thrive in their own particular conditions.
Given the many variables around the country that impact tomato success, there are some standard things that can be done to help facilitate success. Planting in good, rich soil at the proper pH, providing a location with sufficient sun, ensuring mulch is applied early to keep soil from splashing on the lower foliage, and adequately spacing the plants so that there is good sun exposure and air circulation will all work to minimize problems from starting (most of which are various bacterial and fungal diseases that tend to worsen in warm, humid or wet conditions). Think of the garden as your laboratory – observe your plants, and watch for problems so you can address them early, particularly when critters in the form of insects, worms, or mammals and birds are attacking plants and fruit. Often, when disease strikes, it isn’t about what you can do that season to save a plant (it is typically a goner and must be pulled and destroyed), but knowing what specific disease caused the issue – that knowledge can be applied to ensure that things go better the following season. This is when your extension agent is your friend; bring along some of your diseased plant tissue so that you can be provided with an identification of what is causing you gardening grief.
5. What five varieties would you recommend to home gardeners who want to experience heirloom tomato bliss?
Having grown well over 1,000 varieties of tomatoes over the years, the effort to generate the “desert island list” becomes more challenging each year. Those that rise to the top of the list tend to have it all; an interesting history, unusual color, incredible flavor, and ability to do well in a variety of areas. Five tomatoes that have long histories on my lists are Cherokee Purple, Green Giant, Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Brandywine and Lucky Cross. All are large tomatoes, ranging from 12 ounces to well over one pound. All are at least a nine on my 10-point tomato flavor scale, possessing depth, intensity, complexity and balance, along with a wonderful smooth, succulent texture. They are not uniformly consistent with respect to reliable annual performance; Cherokee Purple and Green Giant seem to always do well and possess some natural tomato disease tolerance. Lillian’s Yellow tends to be quite late, but well worth growing for the incredible flavor. Brandywine and Lucky Cross (which can be considered a yellow/red bicolor “version” of Brandywine) can be temperamental, excelling one season while finding the weather not to their liking the next. But if a gardener is looking for flavor bliss, for tomato flavor standards, each of these must find their way into a garden…eventually, and at least once!
More on Craig…
Craig LeHoullier resides in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, Susan, two dogs and three cats. A native Rhode Islander, he has a BA in biology and PhD in chemistry, which led to his 25-year career in pharmaceuticals, first as a chemist, later as a business process change manager. His parallel love of gardening finally overtook his science-oriented career and the transition to garden writer was completed when Storey Publishing approached him to write a book on tomatoes, an area of passion for Craig since the mid 1980s, catalyzed by joining the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) and diving into the wonderful world of heirloom varieties. Serving as the SSE tomato adviser, Craig provides frequent lectures on a variety of tomato and general gardening-related topics, most notably for the SSE at their Iowa summer campout, and for the annual Harvest Festival at Monticello. Craig’s first book is Epic Tomatoes. He is also the author of Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales. He blogs regularly at nctomatoman.com, and can be found as Craig LeHoullier on both Twitter and Facebook.
Photographs reprinted with permission from Craig LeHoullier, author of Epic Tomatoes (Storey Publishing, Dec 2014) © 2014. The top photo was taken by Stephen Garrett, the photographer for Epic Tomatoes.