This week, I’m catching up with Epic Tomatoes author Craig LeHoullier. I’m proud to call him a good friend and happy that he’s a frequent guest on this podcast. But a lot has changed in the Tomato Guy’s world during the past few months, and many of you have wondered what Craig has been up to since the last podcast episode nearly one year ago. We had much to catch up on and talk about, so today we’re learning a lot about what’s been going on in this epic tomato growers life, especially in the last few months, as well as some new lessons learned during his busy life on the road, and at home, for his final epic growing season in his own driveway garden.
One of the many things Craig is known for is his driveway garden. The property on which he and his wife, Susan, have lived during the past 2 decades didn’t offer much sunny space in which to create planting areas. So each season, Craig improvised and filled his sun-drenched driveway with hundreds of plants in containers and straw bales.
Well, that won’t be the case any more. While on a trip last November, Craig and Susan spontaneously decided it was time to relocate. They purchased a home in Hendersonville, NC and in a whirlwind of change, had packed up all their belongings, sold their Raleigh, NC home and settled in their new home by late January.
Their new property includes a sunny, quarter-acre lot that will open up a different world for Craig’s gardening adventures. Although he’s eager to get started, Craig is refraining from spontaneity here and taking the smart approach. He intends to spend the first year observing before developing any big landscape plans.
Craig realizes that he’ll be better off in the long run by taking this time to become familiar with his new surroundings. He’ll observe the pattern of sunlight and watch for areas where water pools or moves across the space. He also knows he’ll be dealing with different pests in this new area, and by taking time to step back and watch, Craig will be better prepared to protect his garden in the years ahead.
This observation year will also allow time to discover the plants that are currently sleeping in his landscape. Craig plans to develop his future garden plans around the life that emerges this season.
He’ll also be able to grow things he has never grown before thanks to different conditions of his new location. So when it comes to learning opportunities, Craig is living the “kid in a candy store” life these days.
If you’re dealing with some big changes in your gardening world, I hope Craig’s approach will inspire you to look ahead with excitement too. Embrace the new prospects for experimentation and learning. Reach out to new neighbors for local insight. The garden of your past was familiar and established, but the garden of your future holds new and extraordinary promises. Grab ahold of those, and enjoy the ride!
One of the reasons I love talking with Craig is that he shares my endless garden curiosity. We also share a love of good beer, but that’s a topic for another day.
Craig is constantly experimenting and paying close attention to plant performance. He noticed that summers in Raleigh were becoming warmer, and since 2019 was especially hot, Craig spent several days researching the weather patterns of the past couple of decades.
Temperature records backed up Craig’s suspicions. Weather in Raleigh tends to be much hotter now than a decade ago, and that type of shift impacts plant performance. For example, extremely hot temperatures prevent the pollination of tomato flowers. Less pollination means lower fruit production.
So if Craig were still living and gardening in Raleigh, he would be making sure to get his tomato plants established outdoors earlier in the spring to give them additional time to mature and set fruit before the hottest weather sets in. In the cooler climate of Hendersonville, Craig will have to make different adjustments.
This is a great example of why you shouldn’t garden on auto-pilot. Do you have a tendency to do certain things at certain times each year without paying attention to shifts in weather or pest or disease pressure? If so, you’re probably missing opportunities to adjust in ways that could boost your garden’s production or give you an advantage over the challenges that come up.
Lessons on the Road
Craig’s year has also involved a lot of travel to various locations across the country for speaking engagements, and he’s learned some interesting things along the way.
He’s noticed that more and more gardeners and small farmers are making strides toward safer gardening – avoiding chemical use altogether. A commitment to buying only organic seed and other products is also trending.
A number of these growers are even taking things a step further by turning their passion for organic gardening and heirloom seeds into a business – selling seeds. There’s also more attention being paid to “seed ethics’ – growing the highest quality possible and preserving the story that accompanies an heirloom origin. That’s certainly good news for those of us who love to purchase and start plants from seed.
Seed libraries are becoming more common as well. If you’ve never checked out a seed library, I encourage you to see what’s available in your area. It’s a free seed exchange. Local gardeners donate seed to the library for other gardeners to pick up for free. The hope is that gardeners who take seed will donate more seed back.
Craig shared a word of caution for garden purists who utilize a seed library. You can’t be completely sure what you’re getting. Gardeners might donate back seeds from hybrid plants or plants which have cross-pollinated in the garden. So, the plant you grow from that seed might have different qualities than you might expect.
Exploring Plant History
Craig has also done some interesting research on the history of plant diversity in America. Hybrid plants offer some great benefits – like disease resistance or heavier production. However, the agricultural world became so enthralled by hybridization for a time that many established plant varieties were lost or nearly lost.
Craig compared 15 different crops and found some interesting figures. In 1850, there were 250 varieties of the crop group available to gardeners and diversity exploded to 570 varieties by 1900. In 1960, hybrids had become popular, and heirlooms had fallen out of favor. As a result, those same crops were once again available in just 250 varieties.
These days, the crops available through a big seed company catalog number around 220 varieties. Fortunately, small seed companies are transforming the industry by offering around 500 varieties. That means lots of opportunities to experiment!
Ornamental diversity is a little bit of a different story. In the 1800s, cottage garden flowers – like hollyhocks and balsams – were popular and available in a wider array than is available to the modern day gardener. Craig found that around 200 varieties of sweet peas could be purchased by the Victorian gardener in 1900, but these days, we can only find a few types or sweet pea seed mixes.
There is no controlling nature. It can impact our lives in dramatic ways, but changes can be so subtle that we may not even be aware of them. Cross-pollination introduces DNA from different plants into the seed of the next generation. So even when efforts are made to maintain the integrity of a plant variety, these natural processes create a bit of a wild card.
Craig was recently approached by a plant breeding researcher from West Virginia State University. She has begun a project to study the impact of those subtle changes of nature. Her team has gathered Cherokee Purple tomato seeds from various companies to determine if the genetics of those seeds are truly the same.
Craig has provided the team with seeds he had saved 20 years ago, and it will be fascinating to learn whether or not the Cherokee Purple tomato we enjoy today is the same Cherokee Purple we enjoyed two decades ago.
I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful for gardeners like Craig and organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange. Their efforts to preserve plant diversity means more bountiful garden experiences for future gardeners in the decades to come. Who knows what might be discovered in a plant which could have been lost if not for the careful attention of conscientious gardeners.
This conversation really does need to be heard to be fully appreciated. Craig offers so many interesting observations, stories and gardening tidbits that our talks are a non-stop carnival ride through the mind of an inquisitive and thoughtful gardener. So, be sure to scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Did you grow any new heirloom varieties last season? I hope you’ll share your story and observations in the Comments section below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy Three popular online courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
Master Seed Starting – My newest online course teaching you how to master the art of starting your own plants from seed and seeding care! Registration closing soon, so don’t miss out!