Best-selling author and tomato expert Craig LeHoullier and I are gearing up for our second year co-instructing Growing Epic Tomatoes, our joegardener Online Gardening Academy course. In this episode, we look back on year one and talk about new changes ahead for the current growing season, and we’re excited to tell you about what we have planned.
Craig, who is also known as NC Tomatoman, is a retired chemist and the author of two books on gardening, “Epic Tomatoes” and “Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales.” He’s also the tomato adviser to the Seed Savers Exchange and a co-leader of the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project. Craig’s been gardening since 1981, and in 1990 he named one of the most beloved heirloom tomatoes, Cherokee Purple. His seed collection includes more than 1,000 heirloom tomato varieties, including many old commercial releases previously thought to be extinct.
There was no one better to partner with than Craig for a course all about tomatoes. We launched Growing Epic Tomatoes in 2021 and presented dozens of lessons plus weekly virtual office hours. As we enter the 2022 seed-starting period and growing season, we’re adding even more lessons to this already robust course for the benefit of both the inaugural students and newcomers to the course.
One of Craig’s favorite parts about the course is the ability to dip in and work at your own pace. All the material is there when you have time to view it and absorb it, and you can rewatch it whenever you want.
Enrollment is open now through February 28, 2022, for $247 (normal price $397) at joegardener.com/GrowingEpicTomatoes.
Craig and I are also offering a free live webinar, Five Keys to Growing Your Own Epic Tomatoes. We will explain how to think beyond the big box nursery and branch out with an amazing variety of tomatoes in all sizes, shapes, colors, and tastes. We’ll also discuss whether or not to remove suckers from tomato plants, the ideal moment to pick tomatoes, the importance of patience when planting and the one rule in every gardening book and on every plant tag that you may actually want to start breaking right now. Even if you plan on growing just one tomato plant this year, why not make it epic?
There are two sessions left: Thursday, February 24, at 3 p.m. Eastern and Friday, February 25, at 10 a.m. Eastern. Register at joegardener.com/tomatowebinar.
Before proceeding any further, I also want to let you know about a wonderful interview that Craig and I recently did with Margaret Roach for her New York Times column, In the Garden. The article is titled “Are Your Tomatoes ‘Epic’? If Not, Here’s What You Should Be Doing,” and it includes valuable advice for tomato gardeners of any experience level.
Gearing Up for the Season
This is the time that we are thinking about seed-starting and cranking up for another season, Craig says.
Compared to where I am outside of Atlanta, Georgie, Craig lives in a much friendlier climate when it comes to growing tomatoes. In 2020, he moved to a new home near Asheville, North Carolina, and started a new tomato garden. There, it’s cool and dry in the summer. Where I am, it’s hot and humid in summer.
In 2022, Craig is experiencing a real winter. The previous year, winter was interspersed with early spring weather. He’s looking forward to easing into spring this year so he can enjoy the blooms of early-flowering shrubs. It will also give him the opportunity to get his seeds going, ease the seedlings outdoors and get his straw bales in place for straw bale gardening.
One lesson Craig took away from last year is that, with care and discipline, he can grow fewer plants but have an even bigger harvest. The plants will be happier, better pruned and better spaced.
Craig raised 109 plants last year and at times was harvesting between 50 and 70 pounds of fruit per day. He doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with fruit this year, so he is cutting back on the number of plants he raises, but still putting the same level of discipline into their care.
That discipline includes staying on top of removing tomato leaves and stems that show signs of foliar disease. It also means giving each tomato variety a thorough assessment: What does the fruit look like sliced? What does it taste like?
“I want to spread out that chaos to be able to be a little more disciplined, not only about how I grow them, but how I assess them,” Craig says. “And that, to me, would make for a more successful total season for me.”
When picking 70 pounds of fruit in a day, it’s easy to miss some tomatoes that are ready for harvest. When those tomatoes are eventually picked, they may be fully ripe and starting to crack, which greatly reduces their shelf-life. Then Craig has to hunt for stinky and leaking tomatoes in his garage that are attracting flies.
When Craig has more tomatoes than he can possibly use, he gives some away to his neighbors — but only the good ones. He doesn’t want to give his neighbors tomatoes that are overripe, a little off or bad tasting. “If you’re going to give away beautiful heirloom tomatoes, you have to really just bite the bullet and give them some of your best,” he says. “Because after all, you’re trying to share the joy with people. You’re trying to teach people how wonderful these things are.”
Last year, Craig brought a dozen different types of his tomatoes to a farmers market for a tasting and enjoyed watching the amazement on people’s faces.
To further simplify his life, Craig will refrain from selling tomato seedlings this year, as much as that will disappoint some people. He sold seedlings for 25 years and made a lot of gardening friends that way, but he only has so much time on his hands. He will focus that energy instead on growing well, documenting his work and preparing for this third book.
Craig has gotten involved in a local seed exchange where he shared his knowledge once a month. This new activity keeps things fresh but he also knows he can’t keep doing everything and take more on.
Sharing the Good, the Bad & the Ugly
The inaugural season of the course offered lessons in all the steps to grow epic tomatoes, from picking out and starting seeds all the way through harvest and preservation. As we enter our second growing season since launching the course, we are going to push the envelope again, adding even more content and lessons. Existing students have lifetime access, so they will receive all of these updates at no added cost. New students will have the benefits of everything we shared last year and everything we add this year and beyond.
Craig says he was overwhelmed by the interest level and the positive feedback from the students last year. “I was elated. I was overjoyed,” he says.
In preparing the course last year, Craig and I discovered ways that we could do things slightly differently, slightly better, and we are excited to implement those ideas in 2022 and share them with the course enrollees.
There are always new varieties of tomatoes to try, new skills to learn and new ideas to explore, Craig notes. And no matter how long you have been gardening, the weather will also be different, requiring you to react in real-time to elicit similar success. There are no guarantees in gardening, he points out, but at least when we are not successful we have learned something.
Because we are growing tomatoes right alongside enrollees, we share the good, the bad and the ugly of what happens in our gardens. Craig believes that by sharing our challenges during office hours and other interactions with students, we eased their anxiety. They try many of the same things that we do, with different results. We help them diagnose the issue: different weather, different temperature, different light exposure, etc.
Craig imagines that when people saw my slightly frosted plants and my mole problem, they were comforted, because even though I didn’t foresee these problems, I reacted appropriately and ended up with a successful season. Likewise, Craig’s plants had some fertilizer burns, but he pampered them and got them through it.
“It’s more valuable to share the challenges than it is to share all the pretty pictures and the pretty fruit,” Craig says. “Everybody wants to know how to get there. You have to show them all of the pitfalls on the way to getting there so that we can all get there together.”
I agree. I don’t think we’re doing anybody favors when all we share is success, success, success. Airing the dirty laundry leads to teachable moments.
“Tomato growing shouldn’t be: ‘Here’s a bunch of seeds, here’s a bunch of packets, here’s a bunch of potting mix. Oh, look, we now have 25 pounds of beautiful tomatoes sitting in the bowl,’” Craig says. He explains that though tomato growing is great, the interest, the intrigue, the work and the learning is what happens in between. “Don’t get so hung up at the destination,” he advises. “Really groove on the journey because the journey is what’s gonna make you a lifetime gardener.”
When I hosted “Fresh From the Garden” on the DIY Network, I was told that failure is not an option. That meant that in 52 episodes, each demonstrating how to grow a different crop, there could be no diseases, pests or duds. I did not agree with that logic, because failures (or learning opportunities, as I like to think of them) are inevitable in gardening. Well, when watermelon wasn’t producing and was getting Septoria, my producer did get approval from the corporate office to show the reality. We got more positive feedback on that episode than anything else we did in those three years because we finally showed what growing is really like.
Craig gets positive feedback for the photos in his books because he shows what tomatoes really look like: there are cracks, there is catfacing, there is blossom-end rot. “What they show on the cover of seed catalogs is not attainable in my garden,” he says. Photo perfection doesn’t happen that often with tomatoes, he notes — perfection happens when you eat them.
Gardening should reflect what all of us are going to find in our backyards, Craig says: “Real stuff, that’s great to eat and fun to grow.”
Tomatoes Can Take a Lot of Abuse
These days, Craig does all of his growing in straw bales and grow bags, but when he started out he practiced traditional in-ground gardening. Though he had good results when he started out, his garden conditions changed as the years passed. The surrounding trees grew larger and began to cast shade over his garden. Soil-borne diseases built up in the ground where he raised his crops. Out of desperation, Craig found container gardening, and later, he learned everything there is to know about straw-bale gardening when he prepared to write his book on the subject.
Craig sometimes grows tomatoes in 2-gallon grow bags that appear to be much too small for the plants. Still, he gets quite the harvest as long as he meets the needs of the roots in those small bags. He says tomatoes are resilient and can take a lot of abuse as long as you keep them fed and watered — but they can’t take a dire disease such as fusarium wilt. Other diseases, such as early blight and Septoria leaf spot can be managed by removing the foliage.
As long as you don’t throw in the towel, tomato plants that suffered from manageable diseases can later recover and put out clean new foliage.
“The tomato just wants to produce fruit,” Craig says. “It just wants to make seed, really, really badly, and we just have to help it along.”
Being a Mindful Gardener
“The most enjoyable, fulfilling type of gardening is being mindful and present in looking at your plants and thinking about what could be happening,” Craig says.
He calls this being a “mindful gardener.” It means paying a lot of attention to what you are doing and what your plants are telling you.
Rather than just following a chart that tells him to fertilize on Monday and water on Tuesday, etc., he checks the weather and inspects his plants before he decided whether or not to water them. He pays attention to signs of pest damage and disease, and he responds accordingly.
Are the plants wilting or vigorous? Did the plants have a lot of flowers that suddenly dropped? Wilting plants and flowers dropping could be a sign that your timing was off and that you need to plant sooner or later the following year to avoid 95° days clumping the pollen in your plants’ flowers.
“We all start with a checklist of some sort, and I invariably chuck that really, really quickly,” Craig says. “And then gardening becomes part of what I do every day. That becomes part of what I’m reacting to every day based on what I’m seeing.”
“Observation” became the operative word of the Growing Epic Tomatoes course in 2021.
“We would walk through your garden, we would walk through my garden, would look at the foliage, we’d look at the fruit,” Craig recalls. “We’d look at the flowers and we would observe, observe, observe. And we would talk about what we saw and what it means — what it means to the health of the plant, what it means to the future of the plant, what it means to what we have to do with that plant from now on. There’s no substitute for it.”
Taking pictures is one thing, but taking your time to really see what you’re looking at is imperative.
Memories Made While Growing Epic Tomatoes
We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs making the inaugural Growing Epic Tomatoes course.
A blind tasting of tomato varieties was particularly memorable for Craig. “The blind tasting was just outrageously informative and surprising and fun, and I can’t wait to do it again with a different set of tomatoes,” he says.
Neither of us could forget when an out-of-control drone came right for us during a walk-and-talk. I went face down on the ground to avoid being hit by the drone.
Then there was a 27° morning that could have been a disaster. At that point, my many trays of tomato seedlings had all been moved outdoors, and the freezing temperature was cold enough to do in all of those plants. However, the trays were covered with Reemay, or floating row cover, and I was ecstatic to find that the cover provided adequate protection from the cold. It happened to be the first morning of Craig’s three-day stay in Georgia, so he was right there beside me to react on camera during the big reveal.
Another memorable moment came at Craig’s house when for the first time in his life someone was filming him cooking. “I got a real appreciation for how hard it is to actually pull a recipe together when it’s being taped,” he says.
Looking Forward to 2022’s Growing Season
Last year, Craig grew out seeds that were the product of crossing heirlooms. For example, he crossed Cherokee Purple and Lillian’s Yellow, and he said the resulting hybrid was the best tomato in his garden. In 2022, he’s looking forward to seeing what happens when he grows out the seeds he saves from those Cherokee Purple x Lillian’s Yellow hybrid tomatoes. He’s looking forward to demonstrating the real-life plant genetics and how they affect fruit size, color and shape. “We’re taking people through this multiyear genetic process,” he says.
Craig anticipates growing favorites while also experimenting and making new crosses. His plans also include reserving some straw bales for peppers and eggplants. “The production of peppers and eggplant straw bales can be astronomical,” he says. The plants will look like Christmas trees decorated with pepper ornaments.
Trialing Seed-Starting Mediums
I am trying to reduce my use of peat moss and peat-based products this year. That means finding new seed-starting mediums that can produce the same or better results.
Coir, a coconut byproduct, is a popular alternative to peat moss, but as much as I am trying to make it work, it’s not there for me yet. A more promising peat alternative for seed starting is called PittMoss, which is a paper fiber product made from ground-up newspapers. My seedlings in PittMoss are large, beautiful, deep-green and fully leafed out.
Craig’s long-time go-to for seed-starting is Metro-Mix 360, but it’s no longer on the market. Metro-Mix 360 contains peat moss, bark, vermiculite, dolomite lime and a wetting agent. Craig anticipates using Metro-Mix 830 instead, but he is concerned that the mix is too chunky and course for seed starting. Another difference between the two products is that 830 contains perlite rather than vermiculite.
A product I have used successfully for years is Pro-Mix BK25-V, which is 35 to 40% peat moss plus ground pine bark, lime, a wetting agent and vermiculite. To get the chunkyness out of the mix and make it more suitable for seed starting, I pour it through a 3/8-inch sieve.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Craig LeHoullier. If you haven’t listened to our conversation yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
What tomato varieties or tomato growing techniques are you excited to try out this year? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. Enroll by February 28, 2022, for $247! (Normal price $397)
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Epic Tomatoes; How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” by Craig LeHoullier
“Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales: Easy Planting, Less Weeding, Early Harvests” by Craig LeHoullier
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.