Last Sunday I had the good fortune to hear Craig LeHoullier speak about tomatoes at Green Spring Gardens, Alexandria, VA; part of the annual Harry Allen Winter Lecture Series. Armed with a PhD in chemistry, Craig used to work for a pharmaceutical company and always grew vegetables as a hobby. In 1986, bored with nursery-bought tomato plants, he tried starting heirloom tomatoes from seed and developed a passion for growing them.
That same year he joined the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom plants. SSE members receive the annual SSE Yearbook, akin to the toy-filled Sears Wish Book that used to come out every Christmas. The Yearbook has over 13,000 types of seeds, 4,000 of which are tomatoes. Craig started growing these obscure types and corresponding with other gardeners who also shared “hand me down” tomato seeds.
Currently, Craig resides in Raleigh, NC, with his wife Susan who also was at Green Spring Gardens. In addition to growing heirlooms, Craig researches old types, collects old nursery catalogs, and exchanges seeds with other gardeners. For 10 years, he organized the Tomatopalooza, an annual tomato tasting event.
In his talk, Craig explained the history of tomatoes and how there were very few varieties up until the mid-1800s when the process for selecting desirable traits changed. Since then more types have become available so that now there are so many types, it’s hard to choose. He suggested considering two criteria: first, hybrid, heirloom, or open pollinated; and second, indeterminate, determinate, or dwarf.
Hybrids, he explained, are “a cross between two parents” and are bred for a particular characteristic. “Hybrids are good if you want maximum yield or you want to avoid a disease or if there is one that is so good, you can’t live without like ‘Sun Gold.’” Saving seed from a hybrid may not give you the same desired characteristics. With open pollinated types, the saved seed will produce successive generations with the same characteristics. Heirlooms are a type of open pollinated where the plants “have stood the test of time or have a story associated with them.” For him, an heirloom pre dates 1950 which is when Burpee produced the hybrid Big Boy. Thereafter, seed companies focused on selling hybrids. Open pollinated may or may not be heirlooms depending on how long people have grown them.
The second criterion depends on space. Indeterminate tomatoes can grow so tall they need staking but they produce wonderful fruit all season long. The vast majority of heirlooms are indeterminate because the gene for short growth occurred around 1920. Determinate plants are “tomato machines,” they produce crop quickly, can be grown in pots, and may need short stakes or cages. Harvesting time is condensed but yields are great enough for canning or sauces. Dwarfs, his new project, provide the best of both, since they grow at half the rate of an indeterminate but bear fruits gradually with great flavor. Dwarfs are open pollinated but not heirlooms yet, they have not been grown for generations yet. He has been growing his dwarf plants in 5-gallon containers in a soil-less mix and they get as tall as 3 to 4 feet.
Craig described his dwarf tomato breeding project where he wanted to grow a container size plant that produced good tasting fruit. He started to work with Patrina Nuske Small in Australia and between the two hemispheres were able to combine two growing seasons in one calendar year. In 2006, they created a collaboration of more than 100 amateur gardeners across the world to produce new but stable dwarf varieties. To date, about 60 varieties have been produced and are sold through a few, small seed companies.
Craig illustrated how he grows many different types of tomatoes from seed at his home, using only fluorescent lights – he does not have a greenhouse. When the seedlings are ready to be transplanted into the ground, he recommends planting deep into the soil, “any part of the plant that is underground will root,” and mulching to prevent disease. Plant about 3 feet apart: “Spacing is important to increase sun and air circulation to prevent disease.” Watering from the bottom also is important to prevent diseases. He has many containers on his driveway full of fresh, soil-less mix every year – he does not re-use the mix in the containers in order to prevent diseases. He concluded his talk by briefly describing straw bale gardening, common tomato diseases, and saving seeds from fresh tomatoes.
I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. Craig genuinely wants to help people learn how to grow great tasting tomatoes. Afterwards, he spent time answering questions and signing his two books, Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales (both published by Storey Publishing). Check his website, http://www.nctomatoman.com or http://www.epictomatoes.com, for his lecture schedule and information on growing tomatoes.