best tomatoes: craig lehoullier’s heirloom picks, plus the dwarf tomato project
WHICH HEIRLOOM TOMATOES should you grow? Perhaps nobody is more qualified to curate the list than Craig LeHoullier of North Carolina, author of the hit book “Epic Tomatoes.”
Before I called Craig, I had searched in the Seed Savers Exchange database for tomato, and found more than 12,000 listings, not including the tiniest currant types or the many hybrids that Seed Savers doesn’t even focus on. How to choose–and how to make room for all the tomatoes we simply cannot resist?
Craig is also cofounder of the Dwarf Tomato Project (those are some dwarf types sliced open up top), which gets back to the issue of how many tomatoes can be squeezed in, since small is good.
Craig and I kicked off my annual winter seed series on the December 19, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast, when I virtually shop the catalogs with various expert friends and otherwise talk about seedy stuff. Read along as you listen in using the player below (or at this link), and be sure to enter in the comments box at the bottom of the page to win a copy of ‘Epic Tomatoes.’
tomato q&a with craig lehoullier
Q. I thought tomatoes would be the right way to kick off the seed series, because tomatoes have got to be the favorite thing people grow.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned how where there were maybe 100 or 150 tomatoes in the Seed Savers Exchange collection in 1976, when you joined them, there are like 12,000 now, as I said in the intro. Do you have any idea of how many tomato varieties you have grown, and how many plants do you grow in an average year?
A. It has been just remarkable the explosion of tomato varieties, and there are so many factors for that. There is a restaurant I went to in Florida once, Bern’s Steak House, where they give you a phone book that is a wine list, and there are thousands of wines in it. When I looked at the Seed Savers yearbook, I think trying to choose tomatoes has become as simple or as complex—depending how you see it.
I probably have tested at this point somewhere around 3,000 or more varieties. When you get involved in a breeding project, that makes your numbers explode, because you are trialing different tomatoes, but they may not have a name yet. They are on a journey toward being released, or to the compost bin, because they simply don’t make the grade.
You have to be tough, because with so many great tomatoes out there you have to be willing to say, “I’m sorry, this one will get spit out when somebody’s not looking, because it doesn’t taste very good.” [Laughter.]
In my collection I think I am up to 5,000 or 6,000 varieties. It’s daunting thinking about how the calendar flips so fast, thinking about all the things I want to do, but also about how the sun on my property is starting to decrease…
Q. Oh me, too.
A. …which is going to necessitate smaller gardens and real careful, tactical thinking about what I need my garden to produce. What is my garden going to be for—instead of taking a scattershot approach and trying lots of different things.
Q. People should understand that you have a lot of your plants in grow bags or pots in what was once your driveway before you commandeered it. [Laughter.] In an average year, how many tomatoes would you say you’re growing—how many plants?
A. I’m still doing seed saving [in mid-December]. I did a second planting, and picked a lot of them green before the first frost. So I am up to Lot Number T16-186—I have saved seed from 186 varieties this year, which is a really good year. I’d say on average, 150 to 200.
I was thinking, waiting for your call for our chat, that a gardener’s year really isn’t a straight line with a start and a finish, but it’s a circle—and it’s wherever you are in the circle. We are now in the planning, thinking about what just happened, and what we want to have happen next. Time flies for gardeners, and I would expect time for us maybe goes by faster than for anyone else.
Q. There are always new tomatoes and trends or fads in every crop, but I don’t think you’re the kind of gardener who grows with the fads, are you?
A. I keep an eye on them. I spent some time with catalogs this week, because as we all know one of the greatest energy-inspiring activities for gardeners is the walk out to the mailbox when there may be snow or ice on the ground, and getting our batteries recharged with the arrival of all these catalogs. I’ve noticed that in Tomatodom [laughter] we have some really interesting work.
There are the dwarf tomatoes, which are just now starting to get into some of the smaller, more unique and interesting companies. The Artisan Series, which have lots of stripes. There is a Chef’s Choice and an Heirloom Marriage Series, both of which are hybrids that actually are made by crossing two heirlooms. I have some interesting thoughts about those.
There is the Wild Boar Collection, from Brad Gates out of California, who creates all of these interesting stripes.
So what do I do with these? I take note of them, because when I go around to groups, I want to be able to respond to people’s questions about them.
A. But those that really love heirlooms and view their garden as more than just a food producer—but perhaps a living museum, or a place to take family and friends through and inspire them to garden.
As a way to increase the diversity of sizes and colors and flavors, I would say a gardener like me keeps their eye on the trends but always goes back to basics, because I think fads will come and go and unless you have a core of people around the world who really do love the heirlooms, that’s when things can start verging on extinction: when we forget them. That’s how we’ve lost a lot of our valuable varieties, when they’re not trendy or popular, and they’re replaced by a perception of something better.
I say it that way because often words are used in advertising to make something seem better. But you know, some of these tomatoes that have been around 100 or 120 years really can’t be improved upon.
Q. They’re pretty damn good.
A. [Laughter.] They’re the PDG varieties. Absolutely.
Q. With heirlooms—and they have their great stories attached—it’s important to understand that they vary depending on the source of your seeds, correct? I always say a ‘Brandywine’ is not a ‘Brandywine’ is not a ‘Brandywine’.
A. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t, but it isn’t a perfect world because gardeners save seeds in different regions in different ways and different bees buzz he garden at different times. So there have been a lot of inadvertent slight changes that get worked into some of these varieties through the years.
One of my rules is that if someone raves about a variety and I try it, and it really doesn’t do well for me, I will say, OK, I am going to give it a second try, because somebody really loves this. And maybe a third try. If something shows up in my garden once and I don’t like it, I will give it a second chance if the literature or gardening friends say this is a really superb variety.
At the end of the day, it may not just like your climate, the particular weather you had that year—or your own particular taste buds might not find that it’s one that they resonate with.
But as you said at the beginning, there is no need to bang your head against the wall and try something you don’t like a half-dozen times because you can move on to something you’ll probably like better. [Laughter.]
Q. Would you try a new seed source of that particular heirloom the second time?
A. What’s interesting is—and this is where you will find a different approach recommended for a novice gardener versus someone who a real tomato-obsessed nut like me—I’ve been with the Seed Savers Exchange right from the beginning of their explosion of tomato varieties, and I got a lot of my favorites early on, so I can tend to know if something isn’t as it should be.
That’s one of the ways I try to help other gardeners, and I get lots of questions about that: “I’ve tried variety X; I’ve tried variety Y, and it’s brown.” And I am like, “No, it should be green.” I’ll recommend to them a seed source. I know who I first sent some treasured varieties to, and those companies would have kept those varieties quite pure.
It’s a great thing: so many people saving seed and sharing. And there is also a bit of a caution there: That increases the chances for errors—the stray seed under the fingernail, the stray bit of pollen that the bees spread.
But that’s OK, because the tomato world is becoming almost Wikipedia-like, and enough people are getting involved that we can point to those either seed sources or selections that are not quite what they should be.
That’s where a great resource like Tatiana’s TOMATObase—which is essentially a tomato Wiki, where you can put in thousands of names of varieties and start getting a sense of their history, what they look like. And the Seed Savers Yearbook is also a great source, and people like me and Carolyn Male and Bill Minke, who have been growing tomatoes for years and years.
The information is out there; it’s just how much you like to dig. But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?
Q. Yes. I realize we barely got to dig into the Dwarf Tomato Project last time we spoke. A lot of people tell me they’re out of space, or as you just said have less sun (and I am in an older garden too where the trees have gotten really big). Or maybe people are beginners and don’t want to overdo it. So dwarf sounds interesting.
A. What’s interesting that with dwarf as a class of tomatoes, some people get confused right off the bat and think we are talking about small fruit. What we are talking about really is the stature of the plant. They actually have been around since the early 1860s, and they came over to the U.S. as an unusual variety called ‘Chateau de Laye’ from France.
It was found as a mutation in a garden at a castle there, but it was only one color—red—and it was at the time of the tomato book, where people were just starting to get into all these named varieties. If you look in the old catalogs, it was thought of as very useful for people who didn’t want to put 6-foot stakes on their plants, but it never caught on. They didn’t have the rainbow of colors or the incredible array of sizes back when this first showed up, so no real breeding improvement was done on it.
I almost feel like the fates of the tomato gods decided to tap Patrina [Nuske] in Australia and I, and say, “There is a niche that needs to be filled. Craig you’re kind of a science type, and Patrina you’re good at doing crosses. You’re in two different hemispheres and you can collaborate, and educate people, and have fun.”
So really it was born out of a perfect storm of ideas, and need in 2005. The effort is always get everyone to garden, and if you have a few hours of sun in a particular place, grow a tomato there—but not an indeterminate, because it will get too tall and unwieldy. Let’s create some dwarf varieties that will be perfect—like a gardening palette, and they are just different paints to choose from, different tools in your gardening toolbox.
So between 2005 when it started and now, in 2016 at the end of it, we now have 66 stable, open-pollinated varieties—meaning you can grow them and save seed from them and share them. We’re getting them all pledged to the Open Source Seed Initiative, meaning they cannot be patented or controlled; they will always be there for gardeners to save seeds from and share and enjoy.
The project—we’ve had 300-plus people all over the world involved, from 17 countries and 48 of the United States involved. One of my winter projects is actually making this my third book, because I want to tell the story of this, the story of some of the people. But to be able to replicate a ‘Cherokee Purple’ or a ‘Green Giant’ or a ‘Lillian’s Yellow,’ a big yellow, red, brown or striped tomato on a plant that only grows 4 feet tall or so and doesn’t need to be pruned and has the flavor of the heirlooms—we actually have done really well.
Time will tell how many of these become true heirlooms, because if people love them they will share them—they will share them through the years. And if 50 or 100 years from now someone says, “This ‘Rosella Purple,’ it’s been around since the Dwarf Tomato group created it in 2010; it’s still a great one.” I’m happy to let the court of public opinion decide how many of these make it on through.
It’s just fun to watch; I feel like a very proud father [laughter], watching these babies.
Q. They grow up.
A. And I learned today that a new seed company, Fruition, is starting to carry some, and Commonwealth is starting to carry some—and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We’ve also used this project to get some publicity and some awareness from some of the smaller seed companies doing excellent work, so that they have special varieties that can draw people to them as well, and can compete with some of the bigger companies.
All seed companies have great things to recommend them, but we need to help the smaller companies get through in a very competitive field. I think our dwarf project has helped some of the smaller companies get something special that they can offer.
A. Victory Seeds. There are four companies that want to carry all 66, and they are Sample Seed Shop, Heritage Seed, Victory Seeds, and Tatiana’s. So you have one in the Pacific Northwest, one in Oregon, one in California, and one in New York—so these are spread around the country, with Southern Exposure in the mid-Atlantic, and Commonwealth also in Virginia. Fruition–I’m not sure where they are.
Q. New York State.
A. Matt [from Fruition] and I had an email today where I think they may carry as many as 16 of our 66. What I am waiting for is to see if the Johnny’s or Burpee’s or Totally Tomatoes think, “Hey, who are these guys?” I don’t want to push them at them; I want to see if they’re serious enough.
The thing is, we’re doing this for nothing; not getting paid. We’re doing it because we love it.
Q. You’re doing it because you are crazy; totally crazy.
A. [Laughter.] I’m nuts; I’m insane. But we get the chance to see how this stuff goes down. It’s like an open-source sharing project, where we tell everybody what we do; we tell them how they breed it. We tell everybody exactly what we’re doing if they choose to go to our website. And then we get to plant a little seed and see how that grows around the country and around the world. How many people get a chance to do that? Isn’t it fun?
Q. It is fun, and before we move on to other stature or types of tomatoes. They have beautiful foliage—rugose, I guess you call it. They’re handsome plants, and that’s another reason to grow them. Is it potato-like foliage?
A. It’s crinkly and dark green, and they can come in both the potato version with the smooth edge, and the regular toothy version. We’ve used all kinds of parents to get really good diversity. Whenever people come to my yard and look at the straw bales or grow bags [above], they’re like, “What are those drop-dead gorgeous tomato plants?” And I’m like, “Let me tell you about our dwarf tomato plants.” [Laughter.]
Q. So people can think about them in pots, how they can move them, when they’re in fruit, into a more ornamental spot—I just wanted to add that to all the other reasons to grow them.
Back to all those 12,000-plus others, and how we choose. I thought we could go through shotgun style. The last time we talked we sorted out the cherry tomatoes—we both agreed that though it’s a hybrid, we couldn’t live without ‘Sun Gold.’ Everyone I know believes that. You also mentioned ‘Black Cherry,’ and then a yellow one I forget—‘Egg Yolk.’
A. ‘Egg Yolk’ is really good; ‘Galina’ is another, and ‘Rose Quartz’ is a really nice pink, and “Dr. Carolyn’ is a really nice white cherry tomato. So yes, there are nice cherry tomatoes in different colors.
Q. And you mentioned what you called the “tomato times 10 flavor.” [Laughter.] What are some of the intense-flavored ones—is ‘Lillian’s Yellow’ one?
A. Yes. For a slicer type—and they don’t have to be ‘Beefsteak’ size, but let’s say between 6 and 16 ounces—for a red I really love ‘Akre’s West Virginia’ and ‘Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red.’ They both have histories, and both are big, red ‘’Beefsteak’ types, with the color of a ‘Big Boy’ or a ‘Celebrity’ or a ‘Better Boy,’ which is that scarlet-y color, but they are non-hybrid.
Of course ‘Lillian’s Yellow,’ and another great yellow is ‘Hugh’s’ [above]. A man named Archie Hook in Indiana made people aware of that back in the 1940s. ‘Dester’ is a spectacular pink that has only been known for about the last decade—introduced by Baker Creek and the Seed Savers Exchange.
‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’ or ‘Yellow Brandywine’ or ‘Aunt Gertie’s Gold’ are all really nice orange varieties, and the ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’ tends to be a sweeter tomato, with the other two having a really nice tart bite to them. It will make people a bit amazed, when they look at orange or yellow tomatoes and think they will be candy sweet; I don’t like those. These things attack your palate. Some people really like that; it’s almost an effervescence that just bubbles on your tongue.
Q. I suspect you’re going to be emailing me a little list to post…[see below].
A. I will.
Q. We never have really talked about paste tomatoes—except to semi-malign the classic ‘Roma’ last time, though it’s a very productive canning classic. But if I want to change my palate of paste tomatoes, any other recommended types?
A. The first think I would do is think about how heart-shaped tomatoes actually have the same meatiness of paste types, but often have better flavor. So I would think of a heart-shaped tomato like an ‘Oxheart,’ or a ‘German Red Strawberry,’ or an ‘Anna Russian,’ and use those for sauce.
But for really good paste shape, ‘Opalka,’ for a red, or ‘Yellow Bell,’ which is a really lovely yellow ‘Roma’ type. ‘Purple Russian,’ which is essentially ‘Roma,’ but in the ‘Cherokee Purple’ [below] appearance and flavor. I have a friend who loves the white paste tomato called ‘Cream Sausage,’ and I have to confess I have yet to try it, so I have to. And ‘Speckled Roman’ [above] may be my single favorite paste variety. It’s indeterminate, and has wild productivity—almost the productivity of the bush types, the determinate ‘Roma’ types. It’s red with gold stripes, and just absolutely wonderful.
A. I can fill out my dance card in the garden with so many varieties, and yet you could pick 10 other tomato nuts and get 10 different lists.
Q. And that’s what’s so great.
craig lehoullier’s top flavor tomatoes
I ASKED CRAIG for some short lists of personal favorites, and sources for the Dwarf Tomato Project varieties:
craig’s tastiest tomatoes
Hybrids: Red ‘Big Beef,’ ‘Whopper;’ yellow ‘Lemon Boy;’ orange ‘Sun Gold.
Large slicing type tomatoes: Red ‘Aker’s West Virginia,’ ‘Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red;’ pink ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Dester;’ yellow ‘Hugh’s,’ ‘Azoychka,’ ‘Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom;’ orange ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast,’ ‘Yellow Brandywine,’ ‘Aunt Gertie’s Gold;’ purple ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Carbon,’ ‘Black from Tula;’ brown ‘Cherokee Brown;’ green ‘Cherokee Green,’ ‘Green Giant;’ white ‘Great White;’ striped ‘Pink Berkeley Tie Dye;’ swirled ‘Lucky Cross,’ ‘Little Lucky,’ ‘Regina’s Yellow.’
Cherry tomatoes: red ‘Sweet Million;’ pink ‘Rose Quartz;’ yellow ‘Galina,’ ‘Egg Yolk;’ white ‘Dr. Carolyn.’
Paste types (in which Craig includes heart-shaped due to their meatiness): red ‘German Red Strawberry’ (heart), ‘Opalka’ (paste), ‘Reif’s Red Heart’ (heart); pink ‘Nicky Crain’ (heart), ‘Mikarda Sweet ‘(paste); yellow ‘Yellow Oxheart’ (heart), ‘Yellow Bell’ (paste); orange ‘Orange Strawberry;’ purple ‘Cherokee Purple Heart’ (heart), ‘Purple Russian’ (paste); white ‘Orange Cream’ (paste); striped ‘Speckled Roman’ (paste).
Companies that feature the Dwarf Tomato Project varieties: Victory Seeds, Tatiana’s TOMATObase, Heritage Seed Market, and Sample Seed Shop strive to carry all of the releases (65 different named varieties; all open-pollinated [non-hybrid], and stable, hence OK for seed saving, and all in the process of being OSSI-pledged (Open Source Seed Initiative). Fruition Seeds will be carrying a selection in 2017, and Southern Exposure and Commonwealth seeds both are working with Craig on adding some.
how to win ‘epic tomatoes’
TO ENTER TO WIN a signed copy of “Epic Tomatoes,” Craig LeHoullier’s book, simply comment below, answering the question:
OK, go ahead: Tell us your top tomato (or tomatoes)–the one you always grow–and also whether any in Craig’s list might find a place in your garden this year?
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, December 27, 2016. Good luck to all.
more from craig lehoullier
- Our previous interview, where we even discussed his unique method of growing from seed (video above)
- Craig’s website
- The Dwarf Tomato Project website
- Buy “Epic Tomatoes” on Amazon
prefer the podcast?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the December 19, 2016 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
(Photo credits: All from Craig LeHoullier except ‘Hugh’s’ taken by Kip Dawkins and ‘Speckled Roman’ taken by Stephen Garrett. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links yield a small commission.)