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357-Tomato Talk and Big Gardening and Life Changes, with Craig LeHoullier

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It’s time once again for my annual check-in with Craig LeHoullier, also known as NC Tomatoman, an heirloom tomato and straw bale gardening expert as well as a dwarf tomato breeder. I always look forward to catching up with Craig and finding out what new and exciting things he has going on in his garden and beyond.

Craig is now in his fifth year living in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and before that, he lived for 28 years in Raleigh, which is also in North Carolina but offers a much different gardening environment. I’ve been fortunate to visit him and his gardens in both places. He has been gardening since 1981 and  literally wrote the book on growing tomatoes, “Epic Tomatoes; How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time.” He also authored “Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales: Easy Planting, Less Weeding, Early Harvests,” and he’s the tomato adviser to the Seed Savers Exchange and a co-leader of the Dwarf Tomato Project. Together, Craig and I co-lead the Online Gardening Academy course Growing Epic Tomatoes.

 

Craig LeHoullier, the best-selling author, tomato expert and co-leader of the Online Gardening Academy course Growing Epic Tomatoes.

Craig LeHoullier, the best-selling author, tomato expert and co-leader of the Online Gardening Academy course Growing Epic Tomatoes.
(photo: Craig LeHoullier)

 

Craig is making big changes in his garden and in his life this year. He says this is the first year that he didn’t have the childlike zest to get up in the morning and check on his seedlings. “That’s when I know it’s time to cut things down and do things a little bit differently, get a little bit more introspective and reserve my energy,” he says. “And I’m perfectly okay with that evolution because I have been gardening for 40 years now.” 

As Craig’s hands-on gardening work is being cut back, his work sharing gardening knowledge and teaching is growing. He’s hard at work on his next gardening book, he’s giving talks in person and is scheduled for many Zoom talks and podcast recordings. Not to mention the 25 gardening question emails he reads every night. 

Before continuing with my conversation with Craig LeHoullier, I want to let you know about my Organic Vegetable Gardening Summit from March 26 to 29. This free series includes four information-packed days of comprehensive workshops and live Q&As. You can sign up now to receive all the details and links to all sessions.

Experiencing Hendersonville

Craig notes that he recently turned 68 and these days he’s feeling more like the “wise teacher of gardening” rather than the hands-on gardener. 

Over his nearly three decades in Raleigh, Craig says a “sameness” set in — the same dog walk routes, the same places to kayak — but there were also changes, such as the increase in development and traffic. What was most striking was the changing weather. When he first arrived there, it was typical to have just two or three days a summer when the temperature exceeded 90°F. But in 2019, his last summer gardening there, there were 70 days of 90° and above.

“As a tomato lover and as a concrete driveway grower, gardening just became a very, very uncomfortable experience as the years started ticking down,” he says.

Hendersonville offered Craig and his wife, Sue, a fresh start in a place that reminded them of where they grew up in New England. They live at a 2,100-foot elevation among mountains and have learned to garden under new growing conditions.

“Moving in essentially two months before COVID hit made it extremely weird,” Craig says. Now that all of the bans and restrictions are lifted, they are getting to experience the area. He said it’s been a contemplative time for him and Sue. They spend a lot of time around their fire circle or in a hammock thinking about where they were and what comes next in terms of the garden, the yard, the flowers, the hikes and the kayak.

“I feel lucky to have great friends, great gardening friends like you, but also a big change at this point in our lives to give us another kick and to make us feel alive,” he says.

Downsizing a Garden

When Craig got to Hendersonville, he went haywire with his straw bale garden. He had a backyard full of straw bales and massive tomato plants that, understandably, got away with him. By the next year, when I came out to film at his garden for the Growing Epic Tomatoes course, he had tamed things and everything looked spectacular.

In 2023, Craig and Sue had 70 tomato plants in their yard plus green beans, melons, potatoes, squash and cucumbers, and he managed the Veterans Healing Farm garden. He said being the custodian of two big gardens, with 185 tomato plants between them and a crew of gardeners tending the Veterans Healing Farm garden, felt like the apex of his gardening experience.

“When we garden, we tend to move either backwards or forwards,” Craig says. “We either get smaller or we get bigger. And from the time I started gardening back in 1981, every year has represented a step bigger. More plants. More gardens. And last year was the point where I realized, okay, I’ve done a lot, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve shared a lot. It’s time to come down the other side of the mountain.  What I didn’t realize is the ascent was going to be so steep.”

His plan for 2024 is to have 12 straw bales with one tomato plant each, representing all of his favorite varieties. He says that every year, he wants his garden to include an experiment, and this year, that experiment is to determine what the yield of an indeterminate tomato plant is when it has a whole straw bale to itself to stretch out in.  

He’s learned that in Hendersonville rains come in mid-August that drive in disease. He experiences an eight-week-long growing season and great yields, but the plants are not healthy for those whole eight weeks. He had to learn to adjust to keep up with disease pressure.

Over the past few years, I have grown tomatoes in an area outside of my garden. The plants go in grow bags, and with four main branches from each plant, I grow them espalier style on livestock panels that stretch 60 feet or more.

Last year, I added a perimeter of flower beds where many of those grow bags once sat. So I grew 16 tomato plants in my raised bed garden rather than the 70 tomato plants I usually grow. Like Craig, I’m realizing that at some point, you have to draw the line. It gets to a place where it’s enough, or too much. It’s more work and maintenance. As much as I enjoy the work, it is time-consuming, and that takes me away from the other things on my plate.

Craig expects that even though he is downsizing to 12 plants, the garden’s productivity will not drop off proportionately. Because he’ll have more time to dedicate to the care of each plant — removing suckers, minding the foliage, etc. — those fewer plants will be more productive individually.

This was my experience last year. Going from 70 plants to 16, I had healthier, more productive plants. In fact, I believe I yielded as many tomatoes from 16 plants as I did from 70.

When a garden has an abundance of tomato plants, it’s easy to lose track of them. Some will be shaded, and pest and disease issues will take hold. Fewer plants equals better care.

When I went down to 16 plants, I needed to be more selective about what varieties I would grow. I grew multiples of Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Pineapple and Sungold. This year, I am looking forward to growing tomato seeds that Craig sent me and other seeds that I have received from friends. I give these seeds extra special attention because they have a story attached to them. They didn’t just come out of a seed pack from a big seed company, and that’s fun.

As a renowned seed collector, Craig receives family heirloom seed varieties that have been raised in one family or one region for generations. Some are now available in the Victory Seed Company Catalog, such as the Earl tomato, which he says blew him away.

 

Craig LeHoullier with tomato plants

Can you spot Craig among his tomato plants? He is downsizing this year to a number of plants that is much more manageable and less overwhelming. (Photo Credit: Craig LeHoullier)

 

Seeds with a Story

Craig notes that the Seed Savers Exchange, founded by Diane and Kent Whealy, turns 50 next year and, still today, gardeners are deciding to share the seeds that they have saved for decades.

Diane and Kent saved many varieties that otherwise would have been lost. To some degree, heirlooms are on the backburner again, Craig says, but he believes the wheel will turn and people will come back to heirlooms once they get tired of the weird-looking antho tomatoes, striped tomatoes and other hybrids that they can’t save seeds from.

In 2022, I did a podcast interview with Adam Alexander, aka the Seed Detective, and he sent me a pepper seed variety that I grew last year. This seed variety is red, ribbed and the size of a tennis ball — and it has heat. In exchange, I fulfilled Adam’s dream to grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes. It helped that I know Craig, who gave Cherokee Purples their name.

After growing out the Ukraine peppers from Adam, I saved the seeds. Now I have a few hundred seedlings I’ve started for my annual seedling sale. I am also growing 55 varieties of tomatoes for the sale. Almost all of them are heirlooms. The hybrids are dwarf tomato varieties that Craig has sent me. 

Every seed exchange, like the one between Adam and me, adds to the story of an heirloom seed. 

“People love stories,” Craig says, and when he has visitors to his garden or delivers talks and people come up to him after, they always share the stories about what they like to grow or what their grandmother or grandfather liked to grow.

“Gardening has maintained an ability to be a very pleasant space to be in,” Craig says. “While outside of that gardening world there’s a lot of anger and fighting and nastiness, gardening is really becoming even more uniquely wonderful to me in terms of a place to just reside in that feels great.”

In this world that we’re in today, how nice it is to get away into your garden world with your friends and colleagues and talk about gardening.

 

Handful of bean seeds

When seeds come with a story, they are more meaningful and exciting to grow.

 

Veterans Healing Farm Displaced

The Veterans Healing Farm is a nonprofit organization with a mission to “enhance the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our nation’s Veterans and their families.” The nonprofit organization is searching for a new home after the landlord decided not to renew the group’s lease. It needs to move from its current 8-acre site in Hendersonville by August.

Craig has raised tomatoes with the organization in the landlord’s greenhouse.

“The organization is in a mad scramble to find a suitable piece of land,” Craig says. “But there is a garden behind the creek owned by a different owner called the Flag Memorial Garden. We will get to plant tomatoes there. Instead of the greenhouse, we’ll be outside. Thirty straw bales, 60 plants caged, 10 each of six different varieties. And these are to give away.”

He says they will focus on tomato varieties that are “not too weird because not everybody loves bizarre-looking tomatoes.”

“It’s more important to feed the community and provide them things that they’re comfortable with,” he says.  

 

Vet Farm tomatoes team

Craig and team members at the Veterans Healing Farm. (Photo Courtesy of Craig LeHoullier)

 

The Greenhouse Learning Curve

Just like me, Craig grew tomatoes in a greenhouse for the first time last year. He experienced tomato plants that grew tall, fast, and too bunched together to prune them properly. Diseases that he and the crew didn’t see outside occurred inside the greenhouse and spread rapidly.

Craig grades his greenhouse growing experience a B or B-. “We got a heavy yield, but I thought we would’ve gotten about twice as much,” he says. “And the problem was how quickly disease spread plant to plant when they were close in that enclosed area.”  

Downy mildew was the biggest issue in the greenhouse, which Craig attributes to there being less circulation and direct sun on the leaves of plants inside the greenhouse.

This year, I’ve been in my greenhouse since January 1 starting pepper seeds, experimenting and trialing. A greenhouse is a great place to spend a cold day, I’ve learned. 

I also learned, as Craig did, that tomato plants grow tall at a fast rate in a greenhouse. I was preparing seedlings for sale, as I have done for many years, and for the first time I had to order 30-inch bamboo stakes for supports.

I thought the problem was overcrowding and competition for light, but what I learned was this was due to DIF, which is related to the temperature differential between the greenhouse during the day and the ambient temperature. Plants respond to the difference between the day and night temperature, and excessive difference promotes growth. 

Dr. Charles Bethke from PittMoss enlightened me about DIF. On the podcast last month, he explained that DIF influences auxins and gibberellins — plant hormones that regulate growth. 

With this new information, I started my tomato seeds three weeks later than I normally do, and I just finished potting them up for sale in three weeks.

My farm manager, Tobi McDaniel, noticed aphids in the greenhouse a few weeks ago. There weren’t many then, but they don’t need a mate to reproduce and, boy, are they prolific. Now I have an outbreak. I used botanical oil, which is an organic solution for soft-bodied insects. It dries out their tissue and they become desiccated. However, though the botanical oil knocked them back, they came back with a vengeance. 

I learned that when mixing botanical oil with water, a 1x solution is for maintenance, but to treat an outbreak, a 4x solution is needed. Had I known that going in, I wouldn’t have a problem now.

Instead of spraying again with botanical oil at a higher concentration, I wanted to experiment with biological controls — with ladybugs.

The first thing that released ladybugs do is drink water — they are thirsty after their journey in shipping — and then they go after aphids.

Craig recalls seeing aphids on his rose of Sharon and wondering if it would be necessary to cut all the growing tips off the plants. However, ladybugs showed up and cleaned the aphids off the plants. He says he thinks of Jessica Walliser when he sees the power of nature solve an issue. Jessica, a horticulturist and author, is an advocate of promoting beneficial insects for pest control. 

 “Sometimes you just need to have a little trust that the system works pretty well,” Craig says.

 

Vet Farm tomatoes

Tomatoes growing in the Veterans Healing Farm greenhouse one June 1 last year. (Photo Courtesy of Craig LeHoullier)

 

The Gardening World in 2024

There have always been diehard gardeners. As others have discovered gardening but dropped off, the diehards have staying power and have been doing it for years now. During COVID, there were countless new gardeners, and a lot of them stuck to it. I’m not surprised, because what’s not to love about gardening? It is a unique passion and pastime, and a lot of people who discovered it because of the state of the world that we were in realized this is a safe place. 

Gardening offers benefits to mental health and physical well-being. I’m optimistic about the future of gardening. You can see on social media that the gardening seed has been planted with so many people, and gardeners are talking about what they do and sharing best practices and innovative hacks. What people once thought of as something their grandmother did, they are doing themselves.

“You can’t deny that if one of the big gardening influencers talks about a particular tomato or pepper or eggplant, everybody wants to grow it,” Craig says. “So gardening is being buffeted by different energies than it used to when it was just a seed catalog going out there. And that must be impacting the choices of what’s being developed and what seed companies are offering and what they’re putting on their cover. We’ve not been in a place like this before, and we’re right in the midst of it.”

Social media has changed the way information is transferred and how we consume it versus how Craig and I grew up, and we’ve adapted and adjusted in how we communicate. For some people, it’s the only thing they’ve ever known, and that’s okay.  

Because of this shift, my team is in the process of uploading all 200 episodes of my public television show “Growing a Greener World” onto YouTube, and the new episodes will be YouTube exclusives. We recognize that linear television is not how upcoming generations will learn about gardening, and we’re leaning into it out of necessity. 

 

Craig LeHoullier's Garden

Craig’s straw bale garden on June 14 last year. (Photo Courtesy of Craig LeHoullier)

 

Dwarf Tomatoes Are Catching On

Forty of the 176 dwarf tomato varieties offered by Victory Seed Company are currently out of stock. Craig says this is a testament to the proof of concept. 

Craig was among the volunteers and amateurs who participated in the Dwarf Tomato Project. They developed compact tomato varieties like Tasmanian Chocolate and Dwarf Sweet Sue and gave them out to seed companies. Now 30 or 40 companies are selling dwarf varieties. “That’s probably one of the more gratifying things,” Craig says. 

 

Colorful canning jars

Craig cans tomatoes so he can continue to enjoy his harvest after the growing season. (Photo Courtesy of Craig LeHoullier)

 

I hope you enjoyed my tomato talk with Craig LeHoullier and our discussion of changes to our gardening practices. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

What changes are you making in your garden this year? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 003: Growing Epic Tomatoes with Craig LeHoullier

Episode 004: Heirloom Tomatoes: Past, Present and Future 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 066: Tomatoland: The Dirty Truth of the Tasteless Tomato, with Barry Estabrook

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

Episode 099: Understanding Crop Rotation: The Basics and Beyond, with Jack Algiere

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

Episode 208: Growing Epic Tomatoes: Our Just-Released Online Course Preview, with Craig LeHoullier

Episode 216: Tomato Disease Prevention & Control: Tried and True and What’s New

Episode 249: Growing Epic Tomatoes Course: A Look Back on Year One and New Changes Ahead, with Craig LeHoullier and Joe Lamp’l

Episode 252: The Underappreciated Value of Predatory Beneficial Insects in the Garden

Episode 266: How Heat Affects Tomato Plants and How to Protect Them, with Craig LeHoullier

Episode 278: The Seed Detective: Preserving Diversity & Uncovering the History of Remarkable Vegetables, with Adam Alexander

Episode 301: Seed Starting Updates This Year vs. Last Year and More, with Craig LeHoullier

Episode 352: Greenhouse Hacks and Tips: Lessons Learned In My First Year

joegardener Tomato Care Checklist free resource

joegardener blog: Busted – Top Five Tomato Growing Myths

joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Tomatoes

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Top Tomatoes – What to Do When Tomato Plants Get Too Tall

joegardenerTV YouTube: Sunscald – What Happens when Tomatoes Are Overexposed

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Save Tomato Seeds

joegardenerTV YouTube: The Ultimate Tomato Cage in 5 Simple Steps

Organic Vegetable Gardening Summit – A free four-day summit with workshops and live Q&As, March 26 to 29.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

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 Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

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.

Earthbound Expeditions: Discover South Africa with Joe Lamp’l

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joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

joegardenerTV YouTube

Growing a Greener World®   

GGW Episode 1201: Epic Tomatoes with Craig LeHoullier

Craig LeHoullier: Heirloom Gardening for All

Craig LeHoullier Instagram

Dwarf Tomato Project

“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

Veterans Healing Farm

Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Territorial Seed Company – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JOE2024 for 10% off your order

Soil3Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com  Enter code JOEGARDENER24 for $5 off

Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JG10 for 10% off your first order

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 was 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: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. 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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