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173-Starting a New Tomato Garden: Lessons Learned, with Craig LeHoullier

| Grow, Podcast

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. 

 

Craig LeHouillier

I was excited to get to chat with Craig and hear about the garden he built at his new home this year. He had lots to share about his new garden where he grew 133 tomato plants!
(photo: Courtesy Craig LeHoullier)

 

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. 

 

Tomato plants in a row

Craig’s tomato garden in late June looked healthy and lush with not a diseased leaf in sight. (photo: Courtesy Craig LeHoullier)

 

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.

 

Canned tomatoes in jars

Craig and his wife Sue had such a productive year in their new garden, they canned 63 quarts of tomatoes. (photo: Courtesy Craig LeHoullier)

 

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.

 

Straw bales with seedlings

Craig’s straw bales in May were spaced generously and planted with two tomato seedlings each. (photo: Courtesy Craig LeHoullier)

 

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.

 

Tomatoes in straw bales

Craig had to get creative this year when tomato vines outgrew their stakes and toppled over. He had to bring in objects like chairs and a sawhorse to prop them up. (photo: Courtesy Craig LeHoullier)

 

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.

 

Table covered in tomatoes

Craig grew so many tomatoes he ran out of surfaces in his house to place them all on. (photo: Courtesy Craig LeHoullier)

 

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.

 

Tomato plant in straw bale

Even though I grew some tomatoes in straw bales, I still experienced foliage disease. Craig says one reason why could be that chewing insects, which can be disease vectors, may have spread diseases to some of my straw bale plants.

 

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. 

 

Joe Lamp'l holding tomato

Here’s a Mortgage Lifter from my garden. A few different tomato varieties have been given that name. This one I’m holding is the one developed by Radiator Charlie.

 

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. 

 

Kitchen counters full of tomatoes

Craig picks his tomatoes at half-ripeness to finish ripening indoors. While some people insist that tomatoes must be ripened on the vine for the best flavor, Craig says he tried a blindfolded taste test against a tomato that finished ripening indoors. No one can tell the difference. (photo: Courtesy Craig LeHoullier)

 

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.

 

Tomato plants in straw bale

Craig’s garden in July, four days after he harvested his first tomato of the season. (photo: Courtesy Craig LeHoullier)

 

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

Episode 005: What’s Wrong with My Tomato? Mid-Season Care with Craig LeHoullier 

Episode 047: Tomato Seedling Mistakes with Craig LeHoullier

Episode 056: Tomato Care Checklist with Craig LeHoullier

Episode 064: Tomato Growing Season Lookback: Lessons Learned With Craig LeHoullier

Episode 095: Tomato Seed Starting Update: Innovations and Inspiration, with Craig LeHoullier

Episode 115: Understanding Tomato Diseases and How to Deal With Them

Episode 146: Catching Up With ‘Epic Tomatoes’ Author Craig LeHoullier: Big Changes and New Opportunities

Episode 148: Gardening in Straw Bales: An Easy & Inexpensive Solution to Make Growing Food More Accessible for All

Episode 161: Growing Tomatoes: Mid-Season Care With Craig LeHoullier-Encore Edition

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Top Tomato Plants

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Make the Ultimate Tomato Cage

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Save Tomato Seeds

joegardener Blog: Busted – Top Five Tomato Growing Myths

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.

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

Growing a Greener World® 

GGWTV YouTube

GGW Episode 803: Epic Tomatoes with Craig LeHoullier

Craig LeHoullier: Heirloom Gardening for All

Craig LeHoullier Instagram

Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project

“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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Park Seed® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Use code Joe20 for 20% off your next order

*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being 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, Park Seed, and Exmark. 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. 

 

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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