Starting a new tomato garden in an unfamiliar location poses a number of challenges and can be intimidating, even for experienced gardeners, but it also provides a clean slate and new opportunities for lessons learned. Tomato growing expert Craig LeHoullier moved in January to Hendersonville, North Carolina, and he has much to share about experimenting in his new garden there.
Craig is a retired chemist and the author of two books on gardening, “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” and “Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales: Easy Planting, Less Weeding, Early Harvests.” 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.
Before the pandemic, I had planned to visit Craig in Hendersonville to film an episode of the 11th season of my public television program, “Growing a Greener World.” In lieu of an in-person visit, I was excited to chat again with Craig to catch up and to benefit from the lessons he learned this year as he tried new things in a climate that’s different than what he’s used to. Hearing from Craig about his experience this year might also encourage you to push the limits in your garden and find out what happens.
New Garden, New Climate
Craig grew 133 tomato plants this season, a number that is all the more impressive when you consider that it was a first-year garden. He also says that he and his wife, Sue, agree that this year’s crop had the best-tasting tomatoes he’s ever grown. If he had to grade his first year growing in Hendersonville, he says he’d give it straight A’s.
Craig says the weather in Hendersonville was very favorable for tomato growing compared to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lived for 28 years, more than 200 miles to the east. The temperature did not get as hot and the humidity remained low. Fruit set was great, disease occurrence was minimal, and he did not spray any pest or disease controls on his plants all year long. The stink bugs and Japanese beetles he was told to expect did not arrive in any great numbers, though he did go out at night with a black-light to locate and remove hornworms on his tomato plants.
Still, it will take him some time to untangle the contrast between the two locations, he says.
Realizing More Benefits of Straw Bale Gardens
Craig harvested his first tomato on July 15th and pulled the garden up on August 25th, which freaked out many of his Instagram followers. But he says having canned 63 quarts of tomatoes — tripling his previous record — he was tired, and it was just when tomato diseases finally began to set in. Having gotten so much of out his tomato plants already, he decided to retire them rather than struggling to keep them alive and producing.
Of the 133 tomato plants in his garden, there were 24 in straw bales treated with blood meal, a few in the ground, and the majority in grow bags with potting mix and manure. He watered daily, as straw bales and grow bags dry out faster than in-ground gardens and raised beds, and he used a general-purpose fertilizer.
His straw bales each contained two indeterminate beefsteak-type tomatoes with fruits averaging a pound each — the kind of plants that may have trouble setting fruit when temperatures get to be in the 90s for extended periods of time. When there is a lot of moisture in the air at those temperatures, the pollen clumps, he explains. So even though the plants will flower, the flowers won’t pollinate and will then drop off without fruiting. He didn’t run into that problem in Hendersonville.
Despite his intention to be disciplined with staking, topping and pruning the plants, Craig said his indeterminate tomato plants became a jungle. His curiosity got the best of him: He wanted to see what the plants would do in this new location.
Craig’s experimentation paid off, as some varieties gave him 30 to 35 pounds of tomatoes per plant. However, he said yields could have been even better if he had staked them more effectively. He resorted to chairs, saw horses and even a ladder to keep his plants off the ground. Despite his best efforts, some plants did touch the ground, but even then, diseases did not jump onto plant foliage. He attributed that to the foliage touching lawn rather than a muddy garden. The turf grass acted as a natural mulch between the plants and soil-borne diseases.
When some of his plants in straw bales toppled over, the stems did not break from the roots because the straw bales have a lot of give. However, some fruits were crushed, while others were lost because Craig did not find them under the plants until they were well past ripe, even though he had crawled around looking.
Based on what happened when he let indeterminate varieties grow wild in straw bales, Craig plans on making changes next year. Instead of two plants per straw bail and a stake each, next year he plans one plant per bale but with four stakes per plant. He intends to lead a tomato sucker to each stake and expects to get as much yield from one plant than he normally does from two.
Dodging Tomato Diseases
So why was Craig able to avoid the disease issues that he was typically confronted with much earlier in the growing season? There are a few factors that may have helped to slow disease transmission.
Craig’s new garden is more spacious than his old Raleigh garden, and he took advantage of that by more generously spacing his plants. Spaced plants have airflow, which allows the wind and sun to dry the foliage after rain. Remember that wet foliage provides ideal conditions for plant diseases to take hold.
Because Craig was the first to grow tomatoes there in many years, he suspects that early blight and septoria leaf spot spores hadn’t built up in the surrounding area.
Examining plants and removing spotted foliage is hard work that no gardener really wants to be doing, and it’s not something Craig always does when he knows he should, he admits. But this season, he says he wasn’t penalized for it.
Craig removed the entire garden following seven days of rain. He says the constantly wet foliage combined with heat finally brought on the disease he had skirted for most of the growing season.
One of the selling points of straw bale gardening is that the bales, which are replaced every year, won’t harbor the pathogens that reused soil does. They are inherently clean and sterile. But I, for one, still experienced plant disease on my tomato plants in bales. Craig offers this explanation: Chewing insects that enjoyed some of the tomato foliage may be vectors for tomato diseases, or the seed themselves could have been carrying diseases.
Is That Tomato Variety Not How You Remember It?
Even though seeds may be sold or shared under the same name, there can be noticeable differences from one heirloom Mortgage Lifter tomato to the next. This is also true of many heirloom and hybrid tomato varieties, such as Sungolds, that are maintained by professional seed companies by always cross-pollinating two specific varieties to produce a consistent hybrid.
Craig expects that between 10 and 15 percent of the seeds he receives in a year will be erroneous varieties, meaning something other than the name they were sold or shared under. In the case of hybrid varieties that are not what they used to be, he says the plant breeders may have lost control of a parent. In the case of heirlooms, someone may not have been careful enough to avoid cross-pollination.
One example is the Abraham Lincoln tomato. Introduced in 1923 by W. H. Buckbee Seed Company of Illinois, the tomato plant had distinctive bronze foliage and large fruit. Today, Abe Lincoln tomatoes don’t get as big and the unique foliage color is lost, Craig says.
Mortgage Lifter is a name historically given to both an heirloom tomato stumbled upon by Bill Estler of Barboursville, West Virginia, in 1922, and an heirloom developed by M.C. “Radiator Charlie” Byles in Logan, West Virginia in the 1930s. They are distinct tomatoes, but both are huge and pink, and both are particularly unhappy in hot, humid weather, Craig says. He’s now working with a West Virginia State University professor Dr. Barbara E. Liedl on genetic testing to determine how these two Mortgage Lifters — one discovered by accident and one developed on purpose — could be related.
Today, Craig has six different named Mortgage Lifters (Halladay’s, McGarity, Rieger, Mullin’s, etc.) and is attempting to determine whether each derives from Estler’s Mortgage Lifter or Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.
Craig and Dr. Liedl are also looking at the genetic footprint of Cherokee Purple to examine how much an heirloom changes over the years once it becomes popular and lots of people start growing it. He already knows that often Black Krim tomatoes and Cherokee Purple tomatoes are confused for one another and distributed under each other’s names. Though, personally, he can tell them apart as soon as they are cut open — the Black Krim has tons of seed distributed around the outside edge while Cherokee Purple has little pockets of seeds spread all around the slice.
Craig’s Seed Saving Advice
Craig prefers to save seeds from the earliest fruit on the plant, including fruit with blossom end rot. The reason is that bees are less likely to have found the first flowers on a tomato plant. If the tomato flowers were never visited by pollinators before producing fruit, then they self-pollinated. If the tomato was also an heirloom, then the seeds will produce fruits that are true to type.
Blossom end rot will not negatively affect the seed, Craig notes. It’s a myth that the best-looking and best-tasting tomato on the plant is the best to save seeds from. All the seeds that were self-pollinated on an heirloom tomato will be the same, even from the worst looking fruit. When you see tomatoes with differences on the same plant, what you’re seeing is the natural diversity of the variety playing out, he says.
Seedsman Alexander Livingston discovered in 1870 that to breed the best tomatoes, pick the plant that produced the best tomatoes overall and save those seeds. Don’t just pick the one best tomato.
Picking Tomatoes Before They Are Ripe
While some people insist that tomatoes must be ripened on the vine for the best flavor, Craig says try a blindfolded taste test against a tomato that finished ripening indoors, and you won’t be able to tell the difference.
Craig picks at half-ripeness and then allows the tomatoes to slowly ripen in the coolness of the indoors, which also gives the tomatoes more shelf-life. He also gets fewer cracked tomatoes and experiences less loss to insects, birds and mammals.
Craig welcomes new gardeners who have taken up growing during the pandemic, and he feels a responsibility to help them avoid disappointment. He says gardening always has new challenges and new ways of sharing information, and notes that new varieties to try are always debuting.
Gardening is very forward-looking, he says, even when gardeners look back to what was being planted 100 years ago to find out if the conditions for growing a variety are better now than they were when people quit growing it originally.
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Craig LeHoullier, you can do so by scrolling up the page and clicking the Play button on the green bar. Craig’s always fascinating to hear from.
What will you try differently when growing tomatoes next year? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.
“Epic Tomatoes; How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” by Craig LeHoullier
“Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales” by Craig LeHoullier
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