Gardening in winter hardly seems ideal to those of us in cold climates, but for Craig LeHoullier, the season of snow brings the first opportunity to plan his summer tomato crop. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of the recently published book “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.
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Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.
LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.
I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.
Winter gardening: prime time for research
LeHoullier says he gets about a monthlong break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.
Determine your gardening goals
LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.
LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.
Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.
Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat
Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.
Get to know your gardening climate
Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.
Seeds vs. seedlings
LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.
Hybrids vs. heirlooms
Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”
Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)
After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.
Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.
One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”
Disappointment is an opportunity for learning
A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”
The bottom line
LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”
Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”
Main photo: Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz
While I was traveling and writing “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato,” I ended up on the southernmost tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula one April morning. For the past 25 years, a couple named Larry Jacobs and Sandra Belin have run a business that employs thousands of peasant farmers growing small cherry, pear and plum tomatoes, which are sold under the brand Del Cabo in plastic clam shells that go for $4 a pop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other U.S. markets.
So we’re driving down a dirt road toward the coast through the desert in bloom and suddenly we come upon a two-acre plot planted up against a sandstone cliff, a beautiful sight to behold. The pale green tomato vines are roped luxuriantly around what seem like miles of training twine, and there are thousands, tens of thousands, of these beautiful spherical yellow berries — cherry tomatoes of the variety Golden Honey Bunch.
I’ve tried to describe the flavor of these tomatoes, but I can’t really recapture it. They were the best tomatoes I’d ever eaten, I know that much. In my notebook, I described overtones of cantaloupe and mango and honey. The skins were fairly thick, so when you bit through them they popped open, showering the back of your tongue with a tangy surprise (why is it that food writing always ends up sounding pornographic?).
But they weren’t authentic, and politically incorrect at that. First, they were grown far, far away from the locavore-minded foodies expected to buy them back in the States. Second, though they were organic — fertilized with fish meal and fumigated with sulfur, rather than petrochemicals — they were not heirlooms. That is, they were not tomato varieties that had been lovingly handed down from generation to generation. Instead, these yellow gems were hybrids, developed by a scientist named Kanti Rawal, a guy with a doctorate in genetics who earlier in his career had worked on the notorious Flavr Savr tomato for the California company Calgene, and before that for Del Monte, where he’d precociously developed the idea of a yellow canning tomato.
I guess I should have felt bad about enjoying these tomatoes that were so globalized and non-authentic. But you know what? I really liked them. I also liked the people who produced them, Larry and Sandy and Kanti and the farmers I met, some of whom had been uprooted from their own lands and were happy to be back on a farm earning enough to support their families.
Producing hybrid tomatoes is a remarkably globalized business. To make hybrid seed, each individual tomato flower has to be fertilized by hand, which means that to produce, say, a million seeds, something like 15,000 individual acts of pollination must be performed by hand (check out this video to see how it’s done). Each time a flower is successfully pollinated, it produces a tomato fruit, which yields about 75 hybrid seeds. Naturally, tomato-seed developers get this done in low-wage countries like Thailand, China, India and Vietnam.
The best tomatoes grow best in hot places with little rain, probably because their ancestors originated in the deserts of western South America. But these tomatoes I was enjoying in the middle of the Mexican desert came from seed produced in Southeast Asia. The result was a hybrid that was tough enough — and tasty enough — to be palatable enough to be sold to a discerning shopper in Boston 10 days after being picked.
An heirloom variety of any kind is a food crop that has evolved under conditions of soil, humidity, sunlight and so on that are specific to a small geographic area. It is also designed to be eaten in that area. A few hours after you pick an heirloom, it starts to rot. And that’s entirely appropriate. Like any other organism, the tomato’s “natural” objective is to reproduce itself. It does this best by starting to fall apart as soon as it’s ripe. There on the ground, as the molds and bacteria and insects begin their work of deconstructing the tomato fruit, birds and other animals attracted to the scent of high ripeness, which also happen to be the scents that attract us to a genuine, “authentic” tomato, come to snap it up, flesh and seeds together, aiding in the work of its propagation by moving along to another site where they deposit it in a pile of stool, a very convenient germination site for a tomato seed.
Eventually, heirlooms tend to get wiped out by blights or droughts or depleted soils. All those famines in history, the ones that drove people in Ireland and India and China into starvation, those came about in populations of people who had become reliant on heirloom crops that failed. And when the heirloom peoples of the Americas met the highly citified Europeans, who had gained hybrid vigor by undergoing generations of war, rape, conquest and epidemics, guess whose civilization prevailed? The indigenous peoples ate better than the Europeans — they gave them corn, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and chocolate. The European contribution to the Columbian exchange featured smallpox and measles. OK, and horses and livestock.
Hybrids are and will continue to be the most productive commercial tomato crops just as they are the most important crops of almost any kind. In recent years a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded group has been helping to provide hybrid grain and tuber seeds to millions of poor farmers in Africa, in many cases enabling them to double or triple their yields. Try telling one of these Ugandan or Malawian or Ghanaian farmers that it would be wiser to return to the timeless practices of the ancestors.
Arthur Allen eats heirloom and hybrid tomatoes in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato”(Counterpoint Press, 2010).
Photos, from top:
Arthur Allen portrait. Credit: Nick Allen
“Ripe” book jacket. Credit: Silverander Communcations