tomato success, from transplant to harvest, with craig lehoullier

tomato success, from transplant to harvest, with craig lehoullier

tomato growing story as part of a garden series I’ve been doing in “The New York Times,” and this week I wanted to continue that tomato theme and talk about them with Mr. Tomato himself, Craig LeHoullier, a.k.a. NC Tomato Man and author of the classic book, “Epic Tomatoes (affiliate link). Comment in the box at the bottom of the page to enter to win a copy.

Craig has gardened and grown tomatoes in areas of the U.S. as different as New England and Seattle, Pennsylvania and Raleigh, North Carolina, and lately in the mountains of Western North Carolina, too. He’s one of the founders of the Dwarf Tomato Project that we’ve talked about on the show before, and generally just an all tomato all the time kind of guy. (That’s Craig below among some of the straw bales he loves planting in.)

Read along as you listen to the May 18, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Margaret Roach: I’m so happy you’re here to talk about you-know what. How are you?

Craig LeHoullier: You’re happy? Imagine my joy in getting a chance to do this with you Margaret. Thank you so much and I hope you’re well. It’s all beautiful in Hendersonville today. How is it there?

Margaret: We’re turning the corner. It’s no longer winter as of yesterday. [Laughter.] Oh my goodness, my goodness. Mid-May and we’re maybe out of winter.

Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds and he was saying they had a 300 percent increase in home-gardener sales this year. And some weeks they were up as much as five times normal week-to-week. And so many new people, gardening, garden centers are having bumper business even with the restrictions and so forth on shopping.

So you’re a little bit of a new gardener, too, because you’re in a new place.

Craig: No, you’re absolutely right. And the perfect timing of our move at a time where there were some really real challenges and difficulties with COVID. However, I get to go through and share an experience of what it’s like to garden in a new zone, and a new area, when confronted with new space and new decisions to make.

So all of us, you and I are both and there was many of us educators and garden coaches and people who are trying to inspire new gardeners to stay gardeners forever. So I’m hoping that opportunity allows me to share what I’m doing, both the things that succeed and the things that go wrong. I’ll be very open about all of it. And then learn what I can about gardening in Hendersonville in my particular yard this year, and we’ll make some adjustments next year. So I am, I’ve been gardening 40 years and to be able to still be as excited about gardening 40 years into a hobby is just to me—it makes it a very unique hobby, don’t you think?

@NCTomatoMan on Instagram. [Above, Craig’s Ask Me Anything invite from Instagram.] And people can ask you questions and you show us how you’re doing things and what stage the plants are at and I mean they can just chime in and say, “What do I do about this? How do I stake that?”

So let’s talk about some of the things. I mean I think in Raleigh, you grew in straw bales and in grow bags that were set on the surface of your very famous driveway [laughter], your driveway garden [below].

straw bale gardening, but we’ll focus mostly on container gardening.

I gardened for years and years and years in a traditional garden and so you never really forget about that experience, but it’s a work in progress because I’ve got, let’s see, 29 plants planted, but another 70 or 80 that need to get in there. And they will probably go into 10-gallon containers, grow bags, maybe some 5-gallon containers. So you’re catching me where it’s a work in progress, and I’m figuring it out day by day as I go along.

Margaret: What’s the worst thing you ever did to a tomato? [Laughter.] What was the worst flop?

Craig: You know even, maybe the worst thing that I ever did to a tomato and it still rewarded me is we do seedling sales in the spring. And all gardeners have pots of things that either don’t sell, don’t get given away, get forgotten and they just sit there. So I had some ‘Sun Gold’ tomatoes that were at least two months past sales time. They were a foot and a half tall of just a stem with maybe a few leaves coming off it, and even they didn’t look very good.

So I’d find those and I’m thinking, “Oh, I’ve got space for another ‘Sun Gold,’” and I’d just bury it is as deep as I can and it leafs out and it produces delicious ‘Sun Gold.’

So I guess the moral of the story is, tomatoes are tough. Gardeners I think in general, especially new gardeners really don’t want to make mistakes and we tend to maybe over-care for and baby our plants and I’ve learned through the years that tomatoes really do respond well to some tough love along the way. There’s very few things that actually will kill them and make them disappear. Some of those things have teeth [laughter].

But yeah, they’re very forgiving, and we’ll probably talk through some tips in this chat we have about what do you do? What are the things to do to help build in quality from the front? And what are the things you do over the course of a season to ward off really sad stories and just put a smile on your face at the end of the season because you’ve succeeded. You’ve got what you want. You’ve got delicious tomatoes on the table, in jars, in the freezer, you know?

Margaret: So you just talked about that stretched-out, spindly, overgrown, overdue transplant of the ‘Sun Gold,’ and how you stuck it in a really deep hole. So up North we haven’t planted because it’s been snowing and stuff. And even in a lot of other places, people quite a bit to the South, halfway between you and me or more, people have had some frosts recently. It’s been really nutty. So not to worry if you haven’t planted yet folks, I have a friend who even here up North one year, he was so busy with work assignments he didn’t plant his tomatoes until July 4th weekend, and he had the best crop we ever had.

But one of the things with an overgrown planner or spindly plant like you said, is plant it really deep because they can make those adventitious roots off the stem, right? They are a plant that can do that. So they can really root in super-deep. You’re not suffocating it, right?

Craig: Absolutely. And I actually also plant eggplant and peppers deeply. I’m, as a few friends have called me, I tend to be a bit of a rule-breaker. And yes I read books, I read blogs, but then I kind of put my thinking cap on and I think, “Why can’t I try this?” and it’s helped me to develop some new variations on techniques through the year, and succeed more often than not.

see the trellising from this story that I did with Tom Stearns at High Mowing. But the staking, do you then prune? Because I want to get onto some of the next steps, do you prune? You tie it up every foot or what’s the, what happens?

this “New York Times” piece that I just did from the fully organic perspective, but also with some other ideas. So there’ll be lots and lots of tomato info and plus, Instagram Live on Fridays. We can send people over to @NCTomatoMan. Thank you, Craig. I’ll talk to you soon, O.K.?

Craig: This was absolutely wonderful. One quickie: Whoever gets the book, if they email me I will be happy to sign a plate that they can stick into that book and then I can mail that to them with a few packets of seeds that are really special, and that will make it a little bit of a, maybe a special thing for whoever wins the book.

Margaret: Thank you. Thank you, thank you. All right, I’ll talk to you soon.

previous chats with craig

how to win ‘epic tomatoes’

epic-tomatoesEpic Tomatoes,” Craig LeHoullier’s book, simply comment below in the box at the very bottom of the page, answering the question:

What’s your tomato secret, and do you stake, cage, trellis–or let them lie?

No answer to the question, or simply feeling shy? No worry; just say “count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but a reply is even better. Winners will be drawn at random after entries close at midnight on Tuesday, May 27, 2020. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


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