IT’S TIME: time for the A Way to Garden annual winter seed series kickoff, when I virtually shop the catalogs with various expert friends and otherwise talk about seedy stuff, like what to grow and how to grow it, and how in the world we can each resist ordering one packet of everything. With Craig LeHoullier, author of the hit book “Epic Tomatoes,” and a co-founder of the Dwarf Tomato Project—and also the guy who named the beloved ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato in 1990—I talked about a couple of the tomato’s Solanaceous cousins, eggplants and peppers. And I basically learned what tomato-mad Craig grows when he’s not growing tomatoes.
Craig is known to many as the NC Tomato Man and to others as the straw-bale gardening guy. But besides his expertise in both breeding tomatoes and writing a book about them—enter to win a copy of “Epic Tomatoes” in the comment box below—Craig also has an epic collection of seeds of heirloom eggplants and peppers. Shop the catalogs with us, from some new developments in greens, plus learn to grow beets unexpectedly from indoor sowings, and to succeed with eggplants and peppers, too. Craig shares his over-the-top dense planting method for seeds, and other tricks.
Note about the audio: An undetected electrical short in the studio computer system caused background noise to be recorded along with our conversation, as if a radio was on in the distant background in places, and we apologize.
Read along as you listen to the Jan. 8, 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).
seed shopping, plus growing eggplants and peppers,
with craig lehoullier
Q. Welcome back, Craig.
A. It’s chilly here in Raleigh North Carolina today—it’s in the 20s. The bird bath is frozen, but the feeder is full, and I’ve got a cat on my lap so it’s all good.
Q. What could be bad? And you’ve got a pile of catalogs.
A. I have a pile of catalogs. Catalogs and cats, so yes.
Q. So confession time: After all the decades we’ve each been paging through seeds catalogs this time of year, is there that same excitement as there was early on—the sort of excitement of the chase for you? Because I don’t feel it quite the same way.
A. Yes, Margaret, I would give anything, anything, to get that sense of wonder, let’s say some time around 1970s, late 1970s, where I was just discovering gardening, and the seed catalogs became the highlight. Checking the mail to see what was in there because I’d experienced so little. It was opening a whole world; it was trying things for the first time.
So yes, there’s a bit of being jaded. However, gardening is wonderful and a 12-month-a-year activity no matter what. It’s just an adjustment from excitement to checking it out, seeing what’s there, what’s new, and then just trying to form a strategy because you know the gardens, when you’ve grown a lot and have a lot, get almost infinitely more complex because you really don’t know what to put in there at this point.
Q. So you said what’s new, and have you noticed sort of any fads or trends? One thing I’ve definitely noticed, and I’m kind of intrigued by, is one-cut lettuces. I don’t know if you’ve seen those. Like Salanova was the one that we saw, I guess the last couple of years, and now I’m seeing other breeders like Vitalis, one of the organic breeders, and other people put them out into different catalogs.
And if people don’t know about those, they’re kind of … it yields a high count of leaves that are uniform size and shape, so even if you cut the whole head, it’s not like you have some big leaves and some little leaves. It’s almost like making baby salad greens in one head, which is kind of cool. And you can use them as mini full heads, or you can use them as individual leaves, but they’re interesting. So, I’ve noticed that, and I’m seeing it in more catalogs. [Above, ‘Red Butter’ from the Salanova line.]
A. There’s actually a whole lot of activity in the greens category in general. And if I pick, for example, a Johnny’s catalog up, it’s got pages and pages on all of these different things you can grow as micro-greens and ones you can sprout. And things that they call “Kalettes” that are like little Brussels sprouts-kale things growing on a stalk, so—
Q. Wait a minute, is that like the Rockettes? [Laughter.]
A. No. I don’t know; I guess—except green. Maybe they’re from Mars.
Q. The “Kalettes.” I didn’t know about that. Good.
A. They’re a hybrid, a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale, that the Johnny’s catalog says they’ve worked for years on. But they’re like these super-cute little mini edible florets. So a lot of people know about the real sexy gardening stuff—tomatoes because of all the colors, shapes, and sizes, and peppers because of the heat.
It’s pretty exciting to see innovation moving into some of those other crops like greens and carrots. I mean, my God, you can grow a rainbow. You can go to Trader Joe’s now and buy a bag of carrots, five or six different colors. So we have come a long way, don’t you think?
Q. We have. So just a quick carrot thing I saw, in I think the Southern Exposure Exchange catalog, one of the oldtime ones that I’ve been using forever even though I’m in the North. I saw this crazy carrot that can get up to a pound called ‘Oxheart,’ but that’s like really tiny and stumpy like the shape of an oxen’s heart. I’ve never grown that, but that, you know, it spoke to me. [Laughter.] [Photo above from Southern Exposure.]
A. And it’s making something old, new again. I like to peruse the old seed catalogs, and in a way, looking through a Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog is like going through catalogs from the 1880s, 1890s, 1900s—not that you and I know what it would be like. [Laughter.]
Q. We’re not that old.
A. No, we’re not that old, but we can have the experience that our grandparents and great-grandparents may have experienced—the joy of that—by looking through some of these companies that have really used a laser-beam focus on keeping some of these old varieties going that otherwise would go extinct.
Q. Are there a couple things that you always grow? Certain varieties like, I love ‘Provider’ beans for instance, because they really, like their name implies, they just give you picking, after picking, after picking. And I have a pole bean, ‘Aunt Ada’s Italian’ [above], an heirloom that I get from Turtle Tree Seed, the biodynamic company up by me. With that, the pods are still tender, the green pods, even when the beans fill them out. So it’s great because you can put it into your soups and so forth, and it’s sort of like putting in a green as well as a rich, starchy element, all at once.
And I love Romano-type flat Italian beans, and I was excited to see a number of places offering ‘Roma II,’ a bush form of that, an improved bush form. So things like that. I have certain beans that I love and I love flat-leafed parsley, not curly. Do you have things that you always grow?
A. Yes there are actually, and a lot of them focus back to when I discovered gardening, when I discovered the Seed Savers Exchange. My very first Seed Savers Exchange transaction was a bush bean named ‘Fowler,’ that a fellow named Don Fowler brought from decades ago, it was an original Indian bean. And it was unusual because the immature beans are dark brown, but you can watch them go through a beautiful aqua phase as they’re going from a white, to a green, to a bean, to dry. And it is the most delicious bush bean. It’s prolific as heck, and bean beetles seem to ignore it. So my friend Jeff, who gardens out in Michigan, and I both have essentially taken ‘Fowler’ under our wing and from 1986, here we are in 2017-2018, I’ll probably grow it again.
The ‘Nepal’ tomato—
Q. Never heard of it.
A. ‘Nepal,’ I acquired it from Johnny Selected Seeds in 1986, and it was one of their very first featured tomatoes, open-pollinated, non-hybrid types, and it was the tomato that converted me from ‘Better Boy’ and ‘Whopper’ to the world of heirlooms, and because of that I will grow it every year. It’s special. you know?
And so I think if you were to poll gardeners and ask them a lot of what they grow every year, it would go back to those very, very first things that they discovered. The first yellow tomato they grew; the first bell pepper that they grew that wasn’t red when it ripened. I have one called ‘Orange Bell’ that I got from the Seed Savers back in the late 1980s, and it is the best orange-when-ripe bell pepper I’ve ever eaten. So yes, those are the things that make your garden familiar to you.
Q. So it’s not just me, O.K.
A. You look forward to them like old friends, right?
Q. So you’re Mr. Tomato Man and N.C. Tomato Man, you know, which I first wanted to recall for everyone. But because you have, for years, sold open-pollinated tomato seedlings at the Raleigh Farmers Market, you have this distinctive way of growing tons of tomatoes even through you don’t have a greenhouse—this sort of mass, highly dense mass planting.
Now, does that apply to these other Solanaceous cousins, or are you growing these more tenderly and individually? Let’s get into eggplants and how you grow them, from the start.
A. It is all about tough love. So I use that same dense planting technique for eggplant, for tomatoes, ground cherries, peppers (both hot and sweet), lettuce, beets, and maybe we can touch on that a moment.
I found that I love beets, but I do not like that fact that when you plant a beet seed, which is actually a cluster of seeds, you have to thin them, or you get many of them. I’ll put 10 of those clusters in a one-and-a-half by one-and-a-half inch square, let them germinate, thin them out, and then save every plant, and put them in plug flats. So in a 50-cell plug flat I will have 50 beet seedlings all ready to go into the ground and I can put them in well-weeded soil 2 to 3 inches apart, and I will have a spectacular harvest of uniform, smooth, round beets at exactly the spacing that I planted them at.
So I use that dense planting technique [below and in video above] for everything. I’m not sure you could come up with a crop that I haven’t used that successfully on.
Q. And you know, in the old days in greenhouses, like a botanical garden’s, if they were sowing seeds for alpines, or some perennial that they wanted more of, they sowed them in community pots. You’d have a 3- or 4-inch pot, you’d sow a lot of seed and then you would do what you’re saying. I mean you’re doing it in flats, but you know. And then you’d sort of drop that rootball, that community rootball onto the potting bench and separate them all, and prick them all off, and put them in individual containers, and there you go. Yes.
A. It takes a gentle hand, but it also takes that love of spending a couple of hours an evening in a nice warm garage with the grow lights. You know the mosquitoes are buzzing, you can feel spring in the air, and it’s very, very therapeutic to do that.
And some crops like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, you can manhandle them a little bit. A few roots will break, but once they get nestled into their individual containers and planted deeply, they just absolutely thrive.
Now my move from tomatoes into, what I can minoring in eggplant, peppers, came about because I found that by growing peppers and eggplants in containers where that container is absorbing all of the sun’s rays and heating the roots, my yields sky rocketed. So instead of putting eggplants or peppers in my garden in Raleigh that’s heavy clay, maybe picking three or four eggplants, if I was lucky, and three or four bell peppers, I’m getting 15-20 eggplants a plant.
I’m getting 15-20 bell peppers a plant, in 5-gallon containers, just by keeping that rootball elevated above the ground where the sun rays can hit it. And that made me a complete eggplant and pepper nut after I discovered that.
Q. So let’s back up then to the babies. Bottom heat and how many weeks of a transplant—how many weeks old transplant do you like for your tomatoes, just as a measuring stick to compare it to?
A. Well I use the one-month, one-month rule. So I will seed and then within a month I will have transplantable seedlings, and then within a month I will have seedlings ready to go into the garden. So if I do a February 15 seed planting, actually now for everything, except for the really, really slowly germinating, slowly growing hot peppers. Those tend to be the super-hots, for some reason there’s something really slow about the Habanero types, but every other pepper, all eggplant, all tomatoes, get planted February 15.
They’re all ready for transplanting March 15 or so, they’re all ready to go out April 15 to May 1, and that’s been a very, very good rule of thumb for me. Now tomatoes germinate in three to four days with a little bottom heat. Peppers and eggplant take 8 to 10 days. That’s the main difference, is that you do have to be a little more patient.
Q. O.K., still with the bottom heat. Now do you have problems there—like do you cover your transplants, do you need to do that or is it warm enough out? Because we sometimes cover some of these things with a fabric like Agribon, or Remay, or something, in the North, I mean.
A. Oh sure. I use 32 degrees roughly, and I start getting nervous is the forecast says 34 and we have things called microclimates, of course. But I will actually, once things are hardened off, allow things to be out without cover down to 34 degrees, and if we’re going to 29-30 I will double cover with … I always remember calling it Remay, floating row cover, Agribon, it’s all pretty much the same stuff. But I will use a double layer of that.
I’ve had the transplants in my driveway survive just fine down to air temperature of 29 as long as it’s got that double coating and I cover earlier in the day because the sun is shining on that surface soil, warming it up, then I’ll cover it. And then that heat is slowly being released. So as long as you get that covering on it, it makes a nice little warm blanket under that Agribon. [Above, eggplants and more in grow bags in Craig’s driveway in July.]
Q. Next I want to talk about some varieties, and types, and so forth of eggplants. But one thing that I do as a Northern gardener that you probably don’t have to do as much, is that I really read the fine print to see—because these are heat lovers—I read the fine print and I look for a Northern-adapted, to Northern-bred and selected variety. I love when I see that, because I want to have that extra sort of adaptation, you know, in the genetics. You know what I mean? Built in. So, at any rate, that’s just one thing to say.
And there’s such range, I mean, just even among the eggplants. There are ornamental ones, edible ones, there are giant things and tiny things. What do you like? What are you excited about?
A. With tomatoes I find I use the culinary types. You’ve got this incredible variety of flavors and nuances when I select—and of course, color, sizes. Eggplant and peppers, I’m going to lump them together, because really what you’ve got is color, size, shape, and with peppers you’ve got heat or no heat. With eggplant, really it’s what is going to delight your eye growing in the garden, because often, whether you peel them before you cook them or whether you cook them unpeeled, you’re going to lose the color.
So it’s really about what shape and what size is going to fit your culinary needs. One of the things about homegrown eggplant, is they’re astronomically better than any store-bought, because they’re one of those vegetables that do start to lose quality as soon as you pick them. So when you can go out and pick a nice firm, glossy eggplant from your garden, I could relate all kinds of recipes that would turn those avowed eggplant haters into, maybe not right away, but eggplant lovers. I used to put my hand up—I used to be an eggplant hater because it was the slimy, bitter stuff.
Oh, but fresh eggplant ratatouille, baking them into rounds, making them into Parmesans, all kinds of Indian-spiced dishes—
Q. Grilled, don’t forget grilled. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, grilled. I think they’re yet to be fully discovered, I find by most gardeners, and I think part of it is because there’s this perception they’re hard to grow, and a competing perception, that they’re just not very good to eat, which I wish we could dash completely.
Q. I mean there’s white ones like ‘White Casper,’ there’s, you know, violet versus the dark purple, there’s elongated ones, green ones. Again, there are some little crazy ornamental things, like orange with green stripes and variegated white and green that are almost like tiny things.
And I think it’s also important to sort of read the fine print about the productivity, like how early they are meant to, days to harvest and so forth. Like some of them are more productive sooner than others. Yes?
A. Yes they are, and I think the container growing and getting the heat, the roots heated will mediate some of that. Some of those small, round, interesting, ornamental ones with the stripes tend to be on the bitter side or on the seedy side, so the other fine print to read is any recommended cuisines for particular types.
So the beautiful round ‘Listada de Gandia’ [above], which looks like somebody put a white eggplant on a pedestal, took out lavender paint and painted stipes and marbling all over it, that’s actually an Italian heirloom that is well worth growing. There are hybrid versions of that, like ‘Zebra.’ Whether to grow a hybrid or an heirloom eggplant, to me, really is more about: Are you seeing the color that you’re seeking, the shape that you’re seeking in either candidate, because I found very little difference in productivity and vigor, vigor between heirlooms, or hybrids. Or do you want to be a seed saver and pass them on?
So if you grow the heirloom eggplant you can save the seed and share them. Now you can save seed from hybrid eggplant as well, but that is the beginning of a lot of fun because you can find all kinds of interesting colors and shapes and sizes in the hybrids. You can go back to find that what the breeders use as parents and some of the cousins in between. So what I like to do with hybrid peppers and eggplant is grow them, enjoy them, save seeds from them. and then use them as starting material for a little mini breeding projects, where I can grow some out, find something I like—
Q. There he goes folks, there he goes. [Laughter.]
A. … and then within three of four years, I can name it. I’ve got myself a new eggplant. So yes, there’s so much fun in the garden. I mean we could take days rather than just the time allotted just to get into this.
Q. One I wanted to shout out from adaptive seeds, is ‘Astrakom,’ a smaller-fruited one for people who struggle to get the standard size to bulk up, right? So I thought that was great, and I’m seeing the one called ‘Diamond’ also, which is a larger a 9-inch or so fruit that Adaptive and Seed Savers and elsewhere offer as a recommended one. So again, we want to have people look around and read all that fine print.
I can’t have Tomato Man on the phone without asking you to help us with, I know you know every last place to get tomato seeds. [Laughter.] So can I ask you that? Where do you buy—where do you go? [Below, tomatoes at the Raleigh Farmers Markaet.]
A. Oh boy. Tomatoes, I mean, you can look at eBay and Amazon and anywhere and find thousands and thousands of tomatoes.
Q. It’s crazy.
A. I think it’s always good to use trusted sources because, you know, there’s so many different varieties and so many different people seed saving and tomatoes do cross-pollinate, so you can’t beat becoming a Seed Savers Exchange member and plowing through the yearbook and choosing among 9,000 or 10,000 different varieties.
Q. So the yearbook is different from the catalog?
A. Oh yes, the yearbook is where the members actually trade all of the things that they collect, whereas the catalog is their commercial part where they help fund the company. But they’ve got a slice of what they consider maybe some of their greatest heirlooms to sell in the catalog.
But also Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, the Tomato Growers Supply Company, Victory Seeds. Now Pinetree is a company that people don’t talk about quite as much, but what’s great about them is smaller packets and lower prices. And you know, there’s some fine companies out there, but what I’ve seen, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Margaret, is prices are really creeping up for packets of seed. But sometimes distinctly, and it could be the production of hybrids, or packaging, or mail. But for people who are on a budget and want really high-quality seeds and a great selection, check out Pinetree. And they’re up in Maine and you can buy ‘Sungold’ from them, most people’s favorite cherry tomato.
Q. Smaller packets, right?
A. You know, Fruition Seeds from up in your neck of the woods, and they started carrying some of our dwarf varieties. Oh gosh…
Q. What about Tatiana’s Tomato Base? What’s that?
A. Tatiana’s Tomato Base is—anybody who knows how Wikipedia works, thinks of Wikipedia, only all about tomatoes. So if you can think of a tomato variety, go to Tatiana’s Tomato Base, put in the name in the search box and you can find out everything that’s known about the history of the variety, pictures of it being grown and gardeners can go in and join it and fill in information in the cells, and Tatiana, who lives up in the Pacific Northwest, loves it when other gardeners go in and help build that site. So it is a true Wiki.
Q. Interesting. I didn’t know if it was a catalog or … in my head I was confused.
A. It’s both. She actually sells a lot of seeds, but she also maintains this Wiki database as an educational tool.
Q. Oh. Are you growing anything new to you for the first time this year? Do you know yet? Have you bought anything that you haven’t tried before?
A. I have not, and one of the reasons, is that we are now free to travel, so we probably are going to take two months in the spring and drive across country and see our three daughters. So I think I’ll be managing what I think is going to be the last official year of the Dwarf Tomato Project, because by the end of 2018, we will have put out 100 new varieties. And I think that’s a really nice time to say, “I think we’ve done what we set out to do.” And then embark on a different project. [Above, sliced fruits from the dwarf project.]
So I’ll be writing the dwarf book this year, running the dwarf project, fitting in maybe a little bit of a straw bale or container gardening in between our trips. And taking stock of what’s the heck’s gone on the last three or four years because my head is spinning a bit, Margaret. I need to think about what’s next.
Q. I know. It’s hard to believe, but “Epic Tomatoes” is what, three years old now? Is that possible?
A. That’s three years old. I do really want to get a webinar series out this year. I’d love to get a podcast up and running, but you know there’s, my daughter is Seattle is helping me with some of these things. I just want to do what I think is going to be of the greatest value to gardeners to help people get as excited about this as we are, and to teach, and to share. If I can do that, that will be “mission accomplished,” no matter how much or how little I get accomplished on my to-do list.
Q. So maybe there won’t be 2,000 or 3,000 tomato plants being sown in your garage this year?
A. Not this year.
Q. Keep it a little simpler right?
A. Well you know, I’m one of these people that likes change, and I’m terrible at saying no, but I do like occasionally to stop things when the times seems right so that I can free up space to start other things, because you can’t just keep adding on. We all have like finite amounts of energy and time, and 100 sounds like a fantastic number for this little Dwarf Tomato Project that started in 2005 from a Garden Web discussion. We have so far exceeded our expectations, I can’t even imagine it. And we’ll see what’s next.
more from craig lehoullier
- Our conversation on straw-bale gardening
- Our “Epic Tomatoes” conversation
- Craig’s website
- Craig’s “Epic Tomato” book on Amazon
- Craig’s “Straw Bale Gardening” book on Amazon
- Craig and I discuss his top tomatoes, and the Dwarf Tomato Project
- My entire list of seed catalogs and other garden resources and suppliers
enter to win ‘epic tomatoes’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Craig LeHoullier’s “Epic Tomatoes” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
Do you have a favorite variety of something edible that you could not garden without, like Craig’s ‘Fowler’ beans and ‘Nepal’ tomatoes, and my flat-leaf parsley and ‘Aunt Ada’s Italian’ pole bean for soup (and both of our ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes)?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday January 16, 2018. US and Canada only. Good luck to all.
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 seventh year in March 2016. 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 the Jan. 8, 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).
(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission. Some catalog sources mentioned may also be occasional sponsors on A Way to Garden.)