I’VE BEEN RELISHING a harvest of diverse tomatoes, though I only planted two varieties in my own garden this year. My virtual harvest in all colors, shapes, and sizes has been courtesy of Craig LeHoullier on Instagram, and he and I talked top tomatoes and tomato troubles and more.
Craig, a.k.a. the NC Tomato Man, a retired chemist and author of the great book “Epic Tomatoes.” He has been showing his Instagram and Facebook followers each variety and progress from seed to fruit on his social-media streams this year. It’s such fun and so informative, and I wanted to know more.
I learned about his outstanding varieties, both large- and small-fruited, along with lots of tomato history, and also about why things go wrong: blossoms drop off without forming fruit, or no blossoms happen at all, or fruit is cracked or misshapen, and other issues.
Read along as you listen to the Aug. 13, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
top tomatoes and tackling tomato troubles,
with craig lehoullier
Q. Welcome back, Craig.
A. Oh, thanks so much Margaret, as it is such a pleasure to speak with you. I feel like you’re one of those great gardening-
Q. Kooks? [Laughter.]
A. …friends I’ve never gotten to meet in person. We’ll remedy that someday, but thanks for an opportunity to tell some of my stories. This is great.
Q. Ditto, and I guess I have to invite you to come do an event at one of my Garden Open Days or something. A Tomato Fest, right?
A. Oh, I would love it. We’ll talk maybe a bit about that later. It’s been kind of a crazy year, but it tends to be in clumps, and this is kind of my slow time. There is no slow time for a gardener. It’s just different things that we do.
Q. It’s your slow time with lots of tomatoes to eat, so let’s talk about them. Just as sort of background, how long have you been growing tomatoes?
A. Oh, gosh. I guess the first tomato I grew is probably one that my father bought me as a plant when I was probably 6 or 7, and I remember nothing about it, except there is a picture of me in that tiny little garden so I know that it happened.
A. As far as growing for keeps, probably that very first garden after my wife and I got married. I was at Dartmouth and she was a nurse. We got married and then we had our first community-garden plot that Dartmouth College gave … well, we had to pay a little bit for it, but wonderful, rich dirt. The farmers would come in and plow it up and put in manure. I think five ‘Better Boy’ and one ‘Roma’ back in 1981.
Q. [Laughter.] I remember that era. Your rise to tomato stardom kind of had something to do with what became ‘Cherokee Purple,’ a really beloved tomato now. You were the person. [Laughter.]
A. Yes. Anyone who knows me, and we may have talked about this … I really get bored with just the same old thing, even if the same old thing isn’t ordinary. It’s just I like variety and I love change and I love new things.
It was probably the discovery and joining of Seed Savers Exchange in 1986 that opened the door to this world of heirlooms to me. But it was really the good fortune of having Mr. John Green of Sevierville, Tennessee, decide out of all people in the country to send me a small packet of an unnamed purple variety with a little history. Actually the letter—the Xerox of the letter he sent me—is in the back of the book “Epic Tomatoes,” if anybody wants to look at it.
Essentially it just said: “The Cherokee Indians passed it on in my area to friends who passed it on to me, and I’m passing it on to you.”
You know, in preparation for this show, I actually dug out a 1993 Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog because this is the 25-year anniversary of ‘‘Cherokee Purple’’ appearing in a catalog for the first time ever. [Above photo, left to right: the purple, chocolate and green Cherokee tomatoes.]
Q. One of my favorite catalogs sentimentally. Even though I’m not a Southerner, I’ve always loved and admired the ethic of that collection of seeds.
A. Jeff McCormack [founder of Southern Exposure] wrote this tiny little paragraph. Essentially it said: “Pre-1890 Tennessee heirloom, reportedly of Cherokee Indian origin, introduced 1993 by Southern Exposure. Large fruits, 10 to 12 ounces. Smooth with slightly ridged shoulders ripens to a unique dark, dusky pink. Sometimes called a black tomato; the color carries through. For the more adventurous. $2.25 a packet, limit one per order.” [Above, ‘Cherokee Purple’ from the SESE catalog.]
That was its debut, and it blows the mind. It blows my mind to think that in those 25 years the tentacles of ‘Cherokee Purple’ have probably reached any significantly sized farmers’ market all around the country. And to see that, how serendipitous is that to have happened? [Laughter.]
Q. It’s pretty great stuff. So here we are dot dot dot 25 years later. First of all, back then there was no Instagram, so here I am this year, and I’ve been at it as long or longer, like you, gardening and so forth, and watching things evolve and watching things like Seed Savers happen and all that in the years since.
There was no Instagram, but here I am this summer watching you post a green, a potentially ‘Cherokee Green’ tomato on your Instagram [below] and giving us up-to-the-minute, how it’s going, and is this going to be a really good tomato, etcetera. Tell us about that, the sort of Cherokee line.
A. Out of ‘Cherokee Purple’ … and this is really why I think that the big kahuna of tomatoes who lives out there in the spirit world decided that he just wanted to tap me on the shoulder and be one of the guys or girls or people who has the strange things happening in my garden that I get to share.
So 1995 growing a bunch of ‘Cherokee Purple’, and a chocolate-colored variant comes out. That’s ‘Cherokee Chocolate.’ Save seeds, stable, ‘Cherokee Chocolate’ is born in my Raleigh garden, 1995.
A few years later, growing out a whole slew of ‘Cherokee Chocolate,’ one of the plants gave these incredibly delicious, large, green-when-ripe tomatoes. ‘Cherokee Green’ was born. ‘Cherokee Green’ now is celebrating really it’s 21st year of being around.
A. ‘Cherokee Chocolate’ had its 19-year birthday, but what’s fascinating about these is if you grow the plants together, the plant habit is the same. They all tend to tolerate foliage diseases better than many of the other varieties I’m growing.
They chuckled at the Raleigh heat and humidity and set tons of fruit when many of my other varieties were not.
And I hope that we get to talk about this in a minute, but when you grow let’s say your 25 favorite indeterminate varieties in the type of weather we have, you really do get a sense of which varieties can tolerate particular conditions better than others. I’ve had a fascinating ability to compare.
Some plants there’s no tomatoes on it. They dropped all their blossoms. ‘Red Brandywine,’ there are no gaps; those tomatoes set all the way up the plant. Same with ‘Nepal’ before it met its untimely demise.
Q. Demise! [Laughter.]
A. The Cherokees are all setting fruit all the way up. ‘Dester,’ all the way up the plant.
Valuable information, because then I can share with people and say, “Yes. It may be hot and muggy where you are, but here’s a few varieties that will be able to excel for you even in those conditions, and you’ll get a good fruit set out of it.”
Q. Yes. Generally, I want to talk more about ‘Cherokee Green’ a little bit, but just to say for people who don’t know with weather, mechanical failure can happen with pollination and therefore fruit set. Or even if it gets pollinated if sometimes the fruit doesn’t develop—too hot, too violent weather, too cold. Lots of things can affect it, and this isn’t just tomatoes. This is fruiting plants in general. Yes?
A. Yes, and what I’ve started to do, Margaret, is look at each variety of plants. People like to group. They’ll say, “White tomatoes taste like X. Yellow tomatoes taste like Y.”
What I’ve learned through the years, and like you say it’s not just tomatoes. It’s pretty much everything. It’s like people. We have blond hair or brown hair or blue eyes and brown eyes. We have a genetic makeup.
Each variety has a unique genetic makeup that will make it either happy or unhappy with the conditions in your garden either this year or every year, or maybe just the weather or maybe what you’re feeding it or maybe the way that you’re growing it.
It’s very tough, I know, to generalize, and those gardeners who really want specificity, this may be one of the frustration points with gardening. But for those of us who love the adventure and maybe the fact that you don’t know all the answers. Even after gardening 37 years I feel like a dummy out there because it’s like, “Oh. That’s why that happens,” or “Jeez, I thought this would work, but it didn’t.” A hobby where there’s infinite discovery you can never become bored of.
Q. Yes. I agree. Well, with ‘Cherokee Green’ I loved what you said on Instagram:
“This tomato blows many reds out of the water.”
Q. In other words, it’s green-fruited but it tastes as good or better than a lot of red tomatoes.
You said, “I don’t know why anyone bothers growing ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green,’ ‘Malachite Box’ or even ‘Green Zebra,’” and then you said in parentheses, “Oh yeah, the stripes.” [Laughter.]
A. Yes, and apologies to Tom Wagner and apologies to those who love ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ because … this is just my opinion. One of the things I’ve learned about social media is I’m going to be O.K. sharing my views, but I’m going to have no expectations whatsoever that anyone out there will agree with me all the time or even some of the time, and that’s half of the fun.
You get into this kind of … And I’m having one on Twitter right now where a fellow gardener has had very poor luck with ‘Cherokee Purple.’ But what they describe I suspect they don’t have the authentic strain. We could do a whole show about-
Q. Right. Exactly.
A. …the prevalence of seed-saving has been wonderful on one hand, and really proliferated the availability of mistakes and mis-namings and crosses and all kinds of stuff. You’ve got to be careful what you complain about, because you may not be growing what you think you’re growing.
Q. Well and what I always say is a ‘Brandywine’ isn’t a ‘Brandywine’ isn’t a ‘Brandywine,’ meaning-
A. No. Not at all. [Below, a red Brandywine.]
Q. Depending on where the seed for various generations that you got, where that came from, how it was selected, cared for, etcetera, and grown out over the generations. And what climate and what conditions and da da da da, all this adaptation happens, or drift, genetic drift happens and it degrades and it ain’t what it used to be. [More about how and why that happens.]
A. Yes, and I think what’s happening is a lot of gardeners don’t realize it but they’re doing their own selecting. I’ve had friends that-
Q. Yes. They’re saving seed and they’re inadvertently shifting a little bit away from the true type.
A. Yes. They may be planting 15 ‘Cherokee Purple’ plants and they know that their CSA customers want larger fruit, so the bees have got in there and polluted their genetics a little bit, but all of a sudden lo and behold a ‘Cherokee Purple’ comes out that’s got these big, perfect fruit. Now, you cut that and taste it, I could look inside and say, “That’s not the right arrangement of seed cavities,” or taste it and go-
Q. ‘Cause you’re Mr. Tomato! [Laughter.]
A. Well, if you’ve been there from the beginning on some of these, then you know. And actually sometimes people will select for an appearance because they’re trying to sell a product. They forget the very same thing that a lot of our commercial tomato producers do.
You can make a perfect-looking tomato that will sit in a store for a while, but don’t we after all want to eat these? Don’t we want to crave them? Don’t forget the flavor as you’re actually …
And I think you may mention it, but ‘Lillian’s Yellow’ [above], which I think is sublime, is really ugly this year, and I was so proud to put a picture of this ugly heirloom, and describing the fact that I cut around the cracks. Because I love the flavor so much that its ugliness and cracks and having to carve around the bad spots doesn’t bother me in the least, because that’s my seed-saving area, where all the cracks are. [Laughter.]
Q. You know a lot of tomatoes, but nevertheless there are always some, and this year on your Instagram and so forth and Facebook, I see some that are sort of newish to you. You mentioned kind of one of them, ‘Dester’ [above]. Tell us just quickly a little bit about ‘Dester,’ because it’s catching your attention.
A. Well, where it first caught my attention is I was delighted to be invited to the Seed Savers’ tomato tasting some years ago. I think it might have been 2013-2014. They had just received ‘Dester’ from someone who received it from a housekeeper for a German doctor whose family brought it over from Germany. Again, it’s got one of these kind of convoluted, Ellis Island-type stories where it’s making the trip and it gets here.
They had it in their tasting. They had only had it for that year and they grew it in their test garden. There were 100 tomatoes that day, and ‘Dester’ pretty much wiped the floor.
So I said, “Pretty please.” I’ve got some friends at the Seed Savers Exchange. “I would love a sample of ‘Dester’ to try.” They sent me some seed, and its excellence just knocked me over. It’s one of the large, oblate-shaped–which means it’s kind of flattened–the pink tomatoes, a lookalike for ‘Brandywine’ or ‘Polish’ or ‘Stump of the World’ or German Johnson,’ but the flavor is incredible.
A. And again, I know that ‘German Johnson’ is the beloved North Carolina heirloom. I would not let a ‘German Johnson’ on the same table that ‘Dester’ was sliced upon-
A. …because to me, maybe ‘Dester’ is ranked in my top 10 for flavor. ‘German Johnson’ doesn’t even make my top 250.
Q. Oh boy.
A. That’s Craig LeHoullier’s tastebuds speaking, but the ‘German Johnson’ has what I call a musky, funky flavor. And ‘Dester’ just tastes like a drive with your grandparents in the country to pick up a tomato when you’re really young.
You get home. You have the cookout. You slice it. The juice drops down your chin. And you’re in tomato and cookout heaven that day. Right? [Laughter.]
Q. Yes. You’ve mentioned a few big ones that have gotten high ratings for you so far this year. What about little guys? Cherries. Are you still a ‘Sun Gold’ worshiper, because I know we’ve talked about ‘Sun Gold,’ which I love as well.
A. I worship ‘Sun Gold’ and I’ve now had two years where growing in straw bales it has just not done well. I don’t know if I’m picking up bad luck—in other words, the bale that I’ve decided to grow ‘Sun Gold’ in, it just has had some issues with it. Or its roots don’t like the heat of North Carolina and the plant just doesn’t do well. Or I’ve got an issue with the seed that I’m growing. It is a hybrid. I got it from a reputable coming. [Above, larger ‘Egg Yolk’ and smaller ‘Sun Gold.’]
Q. Me, too.
A. The ‘Sun Gold’ that I’m picking, I’m really enjoying, but I’ve got a cherry called ‘Egg Yolk’ that it’s one of tomorrow’s heirlooms. It’s one that emerged at the scene again, at Seed Savers’ tomato tasting; they had it as a test variety.
I believe the same person who was involved with bringing ‘Dester’ to the attention of the Seed Savers was also responsible for identifying ‘Egg Yolk’ growing as a sport in his garden. An unexpected result growing amongst a collection of green-fruited, large-fruited varieties, so the tomato gods again said, “We need to get this little yellow cherry tomato down there somewhere. We’re not going to tell you how it was made, whether it was a bee or mutation.” It’s larger than ‘Sun Gold,’ maybe by a quarter-inch. It’s meatier. The flavor is really, really good, and it has become our main snacking tomato.
Q. Oh, good. O.K. ‘Egg Yolk,’ we’ll be on the lookout.
A. Yes, and I actually used it to make a Trapenese sauce, which is essentially a cherry tomato pesto using toasted almonds and basil that Lydia from “Lydia’s Italian Cooking” on PBS, she popularized it in one of her shows, and it’s become my favorite pesto actually.
Q. Lydia Bastianich, yes?
A. Yes. It’s called Anna’s Spaghetti Recipe, as she calls it, but it’s a pesto called Trapenese. It’s wonderful.
Q. We’ve talked a little bit about some tomato troubles along the way, things that happen and maybe it’s the seed or maybe it’s the straw bale wasn’t good or whatever whatever.
We talked about pollination maybe not happening or fruit set not happening. What about blossom drop [below, blossoms about to drop without setting fruit]? Let’s talk about a few tomato troubles. Just give us your sort of quick 101 on some of the things that people can experience.
A. Sure. The first is going to be absolutely early in the season when you want your tomatoes to blossom and set fruit. The emails come in in the spring saying, “My plants look healthy but I don’t have a single tomato on ’em.”
I’ll often say as a response, “Have you seen flowers and they’re just not there anymore?” If they say “No,” I’ll typically ask, “How much sun is your plant getting?”
They’ll say, “Well, three hours,” and then I’ll say, “Well, what kind of fruit size are you expecting?” and they’ll say, “Well, a pound,” and I say, “O.K.. Well, you have planted a great variety in the wrong location for it to succeed, because big-fruited tomatoes really need that six to eight hours of direct sun or else they’re just not going to blossom very much.”
But if you’ve got a variety and it is blossoming and they’re losing those blossoms, then that particular variety is experiencing conditions that are not good for it to pollinate, whether it’s too cool, whether it’s as you said earlier too hot, too humid.
What I’m suggesting to people is don’t prune off all your suckers. Be patient, because eventually that plant will flower at a time when it’s better for it, or gently flick those open flower clusters with your fingers, not to knock the flowers off-
Q. Say that 10 times fast without stopping. [Laughter.]
A. Flick your blossoms, if you dare. If you’ve got an electric toothbrush, go and buzz your blossom clusters, because what you’re trying to do, since tomato flowers are perfect—meaning the anthers have the pollen and as they open the anthers brush against the style, which is the tip of the pistil, pollination happens. And the fruit of the tomato is the tiny little ovary at the base of the pistil that then swells if pollination happens successfully.
A lot of times if you buzz those blossoms, I’ll get the question where people will say, “I’m really concerned about my tomatoes, because I don’t see any bees anywhere.”
I’ll say, “Well, you’ve got perfect conditions for tomatoes for seed saving, because lack of bees means you’re not going to get crossing.”
However, you may find issues with your cucumbers and your squash and your melons, or any of those crops where bees are a necessary part of the equation to bring the pollen from the male flower to the female flower, separate areas on the plant.
It’s patience. It’s flicking your blossoms, and it’s making sure that you’re growing varieties that are appropriate for your climate.
Q. [Laughter.] You heard it here first, folks. You gotta blossom-flick.
A. That’s right. That’s the famous LeHoullier Blossom Flick. It will not be an Olympic sport. No concern.
Q. Cracked fruit is something else people ask me, and then also the rings that go around the top on the shoulders kind of. Catfacing I guess. Is that catfacing? Is that what I mean to say? I make up things sometimes.
A. Well, you’ve got a whole list of fruit imperfections. There’s two types of cracking. When they essentially are concentric with the stem of the plant it’s called concentric cracking, and when they radiate out from the stem, they’re radial cracking. [Common types of cracking, above, from IPM Images database.]
There is a genetic predisposition to one type or the other. Some of the Rutgers types or the ‘Marglobe’ type, so the commercial, medium-size reds that were used in the canning industry, tend to do the concentric cracking, and the big heirlooms of course do those big gashes that radiate out. It’s uneven watering, and usually that tomato is trying to grow and all of a sudden we get a dry period and the skin division slows down and the fruit expansion slows down, and then you get a 2-inch thunderstorm or you go out with your hose and you give that thing a big gulp.
The tomato swells. The skin can’t divide in time. Pop goes the little split. Early splits tend to heal over. One of the reasons I tell people, “Get fruit off the plant when a tomato is half-ripe or maybe a little bit more,” is it won’t be as attractive to critters, because if you put a dead-ripe tomato on the vine out in the garden, the deer will smell it. The squirrels will smell it. Things will go after it.
I find if you pick a tomato that’s half-ripe, because tomatoes do essentially start ripening from the inside, and what you see on the outside happens last of all, just leave them in the house for a few extra days. You’ll minimize your cracking. Pick fruit … particularly if you’ve got a big thunderstorm coming and you’ve got those half-ripe tomatoes out there, get them in the house and you’ll be able to minimize that cracking.
Now, catfacing is more you have a large-fruited variety where the temperature is a little bit cool. Something’s not quite going right. You get a really funny cell division happening and the bottom of the tomato at best will look like it’s got an innie bellybutton, and at worst will look like Jackson Pollock decided to take out and do wicked artwork on the bottom of your tomato.
Q. [Laughter.] I don’t have any of those thankfully this year so far.
I want to just ask you what the last couple of things that you’ve eaten tomato-wise. I know you have these events, and you do these dinners and all kinds of things, but what’s your tomato sandwich? Mayonnaise, salt, piece of white bread?
A. No, no, no no no no no. It’s sharp cheddar, a really good crusty whole wheat bread, and a big slab of one of my favorite tomatoes grilled until it’s crusty on the outside and the inside is kind of melting, the cheddar is melting into the tomato. Grilled tomato and cheese. That was our lunch two days ago.
Well, last night our dinner—on Instagram I put a 2-pound ‘Dester’ the other day. I took a picture of it.
Q. I saw that. Yes.
A. We sacrificed it. I sliced it, I layered it with a ‘Red Brandywine’ and slices of fresh mozzarella, some shreds of basil, a little olive oil, Parmesan Rseggiano, salt, pepper. That was dinner. When you have great tomatoes, do the least to it, because what you really want to taste is the tomato.
Q. Celebrate the tomato. Really.
A. If you’ve got mediocre tomatoes, that’s when you make your sauce. That’s when you make your salsa. That’s when it doesn’t matter if you’re going to have the best tomato in the world in there. You just want a tomato.
Q. Well, Craig LeHoullier, I love talking and I am inviting you up here. Next year you’re comin’ up here, so watch out. [Laughter.] I’ll be on the phone to you later about that. But thank you so much for telling us about what’s been going on in your tomato garden this year.
A. Always a pleasure. You’re one of my gardening heroes, and we will meet someday.
Q. We will.
A. Thank you so much for all that you do for this wonderful hobby.
Q. Oh, you’re welcome. Ditto.
more from craig lehoullier
- Craig on growing vegetables in straw bales
- Craig on the Dwarf Tomato Project and his breeding efforts
- Craig’s seed-starting method, plus other growing tips
- Craig’s website
- “Epic Tomatoes” on Amazon
- Craig on Instagram (NCTomatoMan) and Facebook
enter to win a copy of ‘epic tomatoes’
I’LL BUY a copy of “Epic Tomatoes” by Craig LeHoullier for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
What’s your top tomato, and what’s your most nagging tomato trouble?
No answer, or feeling shy. Just say something like, “Count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. (Tell us where you garden, too, for context.)
I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, August 21, 2018. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. 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 Aug. 13, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).