tomato success, from transplant to harvest, with craig lehoullier
EVERY GARDENER has his or her own tomato secrets, tips, and tricks they’re sure will bring earliest fruit or the biggest harvest. Some of us swear by staking others by caging, some let their plants sprawl and then there’s to feed or not to feed and what about preventing tomato troubles like blossom end rot or hornworm damage or yellowing leaves.
And last week I wrote a 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).
tomatoes from transplant to harvest, with craig lehoullier
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.
Craig: I just finished watering and I noticed that there was a coleus we had planted that I forgot that I had planted and it really did not appreciate getting down to about 33 degrees. So it’s in the hospital [above], which is my garage, seeing if it will live.
Margaret: I have a hospital, too. [Laughter.] So before we begin, I wanted to say, well let’s have a book giveaway of the “Epic Tomatoes” book, which is so wonderful. People can enter to win it. So we’ll do that for a little extra tomato fun, because anyone who doesn’t have it, it’s such a good read and it’s so helpful for all things.
So you’ve recently moved to a whole new zone, from what zone to what zone? How does that work in North Carolina?
Craig: Well Raleigh, when we moved in 28 years ago, it was definitely in the the 7s and we’d average maybe five to 10 days of 90 or above in the summertime. And 28 years later, it’s a Zone 8 and we had 70 days of 90 or above last year including at least a half a dozen heat waves, four days in a row at 90 to 95 or more. So we are now in a 7a and we’ll have maybe five or six days at 90 and above. So I’m so happy that we’re going to be cooler.
Margaret: And you’re also, like a lot of people this year though, you’re sort of exploring new territory. Literally you are. But I mean a lot of people there’s been this enormous… I mean I was talking again for that story in the Times. I talked to 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?
Margaret: Oh yeah, and we’ll also give people the heads up that you’ve been doing these really fun, which I’ve been coming to, Instagram Lives on Fridays and sometimes at other times, Friday afternoons. And you’re @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].
Craig: The driveway of all driveways, right?
Margaret: Yes, and where are you growing your tomatoes and other things now? Are you growing in bags and bales or are you growing in the ground? What are you doing now?
Craig: So we have about a quarter of an acre of backyard that is quite sunny, but we have our septic field back there. So one of the things I did not rush into is getting a shovel and digging up the soil. I’ve learned a lot about container gardening and 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.
Margaret: So we’re going to plant deep. I plant even a normal 6-inch kind of a seedling, stout small seedling that’s maybe six weeks or so growing, that I might’ve grown myself, I plant them deep. Do you take off the lower leaves? Do you create a splash barrier to prevent fungal spores from the soil from getting up onto that plant? What’s your sort of… how do I put it in the ground and what am I thinking about when I’m transplanting?
Craig: So great question, and it’s a really wonderful thing for beginners to consider as well, because you may be looking at a garden area that’s been gardened a long time. You may be looking at something that you’re just digging for the first time yourself. You may have a container.
I think it’s really good right from the start to understand what kind of soil you’ve got. So does it drain? If you dig a hole and it rains, is that rain still there the next day? Or do you dig a hole and it rains and the water is gone in five seconds? That tells you if you’re too sandy. It drains too quickly, you’re not retaining water so those roots are always going to be searching, or if you’ve just got so much of a barrier to drainage that your roots are literally going to drown. The plant is going to look like it’s dry because it’s wilting, but it’s actually drowning because it’s not getting oxygen.
So working organic matter into your soil and maybe sending a sample off to an extension service just to get an idea if your three main nutrients, NPK, nitrogen phosphorus potassium, are in good balance.
At that point on, you just dig a nice deep hole like you said. Bury as much of the stem as you can or if you can’t dig deep, you can dig diagonal and kind of bend the plant in, bury that stem. Because of phototropism, the plant will grow upright. It may stick out of the ground and bent, but it will go right up towards the sun, won’t it?
Margaret: It’s almost like a trench and the two-thirds of the stem is below—the root ball is at one end, say at the left, and then most of the stems in the trench and then you sort of bend the upper part and the upper couple sets of leaves up. And then you fill in that trench and your tomato will, and again you say it will grow up vertically, not sideways along-
Craig: I’ve had issues with my garden in Raleigh where some areas didn’t drain well at all, and I actually brought soil on either side of the row that I wanted to plant. It was about a foot tall, and I planted the tomatoes deeply in that top part of the soil that I moved in. That meant the roots weren’t getting near the zone where the water was collecting, and the plants did absolutely great and then any of the excess drained out the side.
Now you mentioned something critically important. Eventually, it may be right from the start, but certainly eventually, garden soil will pick up all kinds of disease spores. Many are fungal in nature, some are bacterial, some are viral. So I actually do mulch a plant right from the start. Once it’s planted right around the stem end, I would actually put a cutworm collar on the plant because you don’t want the little cutworm to sidle up to your plant and circle it and then chew the plant off at the soil line.
So just the lid of a paper cup or the top of a paper cup, a couple of inches out from the stem, just to encircle your stem—to prevent the cutworm getting to it. But then mulch it and use… I like to use a water- and air-soluble mulch that will allow water to absorb through such as untreated grass clippings, shredded leaves, shredded bark. You could use landscape fabric or plastic as long as slits are cut in and you have an area for the water to reach.
That will help you; that’s one of those things about building quality end in the front, so those spores are not splashing up on the leaves and within a few weeks you’re starting to see the effects of early blight or septoria already hitting your lower leaves. Mulching will prevent that.
Margaret: And so people know in a lot of areas of the country, the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, etc., these diseases live in the soil. These are living organisms. They reside in the soil community. So you can’t get rid of some of these diseases that you just mentioned. Some of them are present in your environment, so you have to manage around them, prevent them, do your best, right? And so this barrier-
Craig: And the good news is, things like early blight or septoria really don’t kill a plant as long as—and this is part of your during-season maintenance that we’ll talk about in a moment—but don’t let those spores infect so much of your foliage that the foliage itself then control the spores. On a calm night they’re just going to float around your garden and stick to the foliage of your neighboring plant.
So it’s funny, I have kind of a mental checklist each day of what I do in the garden and I’m actually going to talk about it tomorrow on my Instagram Live. I’m going to show a picture of my checklist and take people through it, but the first thing I have is “walk the garden.”
Look at the plants, familiarize yourself with them. What do they look like when they’re happy? What do they look like when they need something? And then you can react to it immediately and to me, it makes gardening more than just something you do for an hour a week. It’s that fulfilling journey that you’re on that lasts you the whole season, and you get to know your plants. And I think more frequently observed and understood and cared for plants do do better in the long run by the end of the season.
Margaret: So we’ve put our baby in a deep hole, lying down or straight up. We’ve put a barrier depending on where we live. A lot of us Northerners like to use those black materials [to heat the soil], which by the way I know people don’t want to use plastic and I totally understand that. I have plastic that I’ve used because I got the really, really thick stuff, these sheets that fit over one of my beds. And I’ve used it for 10 years and landscape fabric the same thing, is don’t throw it away. You roll it up and use it next year, right?
Craig: Yes, yes.
Margaret: So we’re not encouraging being wasteful of fossil-fuel products.
Craig: No, I’m still using the plastic 10-gallon pots that I’ve had for 28 years.
Craig: They’re great. They last literally forever, and a lot of times I’ve found them rolling around on highway medians. Shrubs come in them, so you just go and collect them and you’re cleaning up the environment and you’re bringing home and you’re putting plants in them and it’s all good.
One thing I probably should have mentioned is you’re going to learn something about your soil and you can amend it and it’s interesting that if it drains too fast or if it drains too slow, the answer seems to always be organic materials. Leaf mold, worm castings, or kitchen scraps that you’ve composted.
Craig: Anything that helps the structure that soil naturally builds in the nutritional elements and helps the drainage, helps either to retain moisture nicely or drain well. You can’t go wrong with working organic matter into your planting hole for your tomato plant.
Margaret: So we have the baby in the ground, and do you stake, cage, trellis or nothing [laughter]—what are you doing? And I know again, maybe give us the guidelines for either in big containers or in the ground, not for the straw bales so much, because that has its own architecture, right?
Craig: Right, right, right, yeah. So we’ve got the plant in the ground. You need to water it in because often you’ve got a plant that it may not have been hardened off as well, particularly if you get it from someone that you haven’t grown it yourself and you don’t know the hardening-off process. Water it in.
I don’t feed my plants for a couple of weeks. So they have everything they need just through their own photosynthesis in the sun and in the water that you give it and what’s in the ground. So I don’t feed right away. The strategy of what I use to support my plant definitely depends on the type of plant it is, meaning for three general types of tomatoes: Indeterminate—so the ones, the unruly stepchildren, they grow up, they grow out, they sucker, they drive people crazy. They’re also 95 percent of the tomatoes we know of and they also are the ‘Cherokee Purple’ and the ‘Sun Gold’ and the ‘Brandywine’ and the ones that make you drool when you think about them. So there is a strategy for indeterminate varieties.
The dwarfs and determinates. And when you think determinate think ‘Roma,’ something that grows about 3 or 4 feet tall. It’s a tomato factory for about two weeks, and then you can say goodbye to it.
Dwarfs behave like indeterminates, only they grow half of the rate. So if you got an 8-foot-tall ‘Cherokee Purple’ at the end of the year, your dwarf will be a nice, tidy 4 feet.
Determinates and dwarfs should not be pruned, and they actually are perfect candidates for what I like to call the useless tomato cage. [Laughter.] The metal cones that people who are just starting off will buy them, put them over their tomato. It’s an indeterminate tomato. Within two weeks, it’s still June and they wonder what’s going to happen for the rest of the year as the tomato is just pouring out the top of this thing. Determinates and dwarfs will stay right in there.
I am a staker. The reason is down South, we have so many diseases and critters down low that if I were to allow my plants to sprawl, hungry critters would come take bites, slugs would get to them, diseases would hit that foliage. You can let plants sprawl if you put a nice thick layer of some sort of a mulch,, like a straw down and if you’ve got the room to let them do it because an indeterminate will take up what? Five square feet or more. I mean it will just, it will be massive.
Margaret: So for like the other thing that you and I don’t do is trellising, and I’m going to refer people over from the transcript and they can 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?
Craig: So I’ll use the 8-foot metal core plastic coated stakes that you could buy at the big box stores, hammer it in near the base of the plant. The difference in pruning strategy is that there is an ideal. I would like to think that I’m really disciplined at pruning and at topping, and the reality—which is gardeners have a tough time removing living tissue that’s growing well in looking happy.
So let’s do Ideal Craig: He would probably let two or three suckers develop. So let’s say by 2 or 3 feet off the ground your tomato plant has four main stems, and then you’re suckering all four of those stems as they grow upward. And then I tie that, make a topiary out of it. I use special twine and I make a tie about every foot or so, and so the plant will be about maybe a foot and a half wide.
This allows you to plant your indeterminates, maybe within 2 feet apart, and for me who’s a real variety nerd, I want to grow as many different things each year. So I tend to plant my plants a little closer than is recommended, but what I use is leaf removal, foliage removal, pruning, tying, to keep the plants a little bit separate from each other as they grow up. And it’s hard to do that.
And then if they get, once they get to the top of that 8-foot stake, Ideal Craig would say, “This is enough. If I let these grow further, they’re going to get too heavy. The fruit that’s going to form on that extra that’s hanging over may not ripen anyway, so I’m just going to remove it.” And I usually don’t do it, because I hate to remove living tissue at the end of the year. So I’m going to be better. My New Year’s resolution as a gardener is going to be, “I’m going to top my plants when they get to the top of my stake.”
Margaret: So that we don’t run out of time, I want to just sort of race ahead to the… So we’re tying this up. When you say take out the suckers. Between a main stem and the side branches, sometimes there’s in the crotch there, there’s a third little piece that happens and that’s a sucker, right?
Craig: Yep. You’ve got up and down and then you’ve got roughly 90 degrees where the leaf comes up, and at 45 degrees out comes the sucker, and every joint between the leaves and the main stem. So you really need to be on top of it.
Margaret: And so then you said earlier, so here we have the plant in the ground, we’re supporting it along the way and we’ve planted it deep. You said earlier real quick about how you don’t feed right away. You do feed at some point down the road?
Craig: Yep, at about two weeks in I will start using a fertilizer of choice—and this is where what people use to feed their plants with, they’ll need to let that fit into their own personal gardening philosophy, the two major categories being conventional and organic. So I am not yet strictly organic. I’m kind of slowly moving in that direction, but I will use an all-purpose 10-10-10 granular and sprinkle that around the base of the plant, maybe about 6 inches from the stem, but in a ring and work that in. And I’ll do that every two or three weeks.
If I’m in a container, sometimes I’ll just use one of the water soluble, all-purpose, mix it up a tablespoon per gallon. And I’ll give each of my plants a cup and a half or so each week. Now the rationale between frequent feeding and watering in a container is the roots of the container are limited in what they can get to. The nutrients in the water are within the bounds of that container unlike garden-grown plants that they can reach down and deep and get their roots some water.
Margaret: They can go like four feet away from the plant, right?
Craig: Yes. So I do daily watering of my containers. Don’t forget, we’re pretty hot down here, but I let the plants tell me.
Blossom end rot, the entry-level method into blossom end rot [above] is withholding water from your tomato plants and stressing them out in the heat of the summer to the point where they start visibly wilting in the middle of the afternoon when they’re developing little small fruits. Now the plant is doing so much work. It wants food. It wants water. You take a few days and go on a trip and you forget to tell your neighbors to water. The plant wilts. It doesn’t die, but that stress induces a calcium-transport issue, and that will lead to the beginnings of blossom end rot.
You’ll come home, you’ll water the plant, the plant recovers, you’re like “Good, I’ve saved the plant. Uh-oh, my tomatoes have blossom end rot on them.”
So drip irrigation, regular watering, and making it a set thing of walking through the garden. My plants happy. It’s never really wilting. You will not ever see an incidence of blossom end rot. As long as you’re in good-quality soil where all of the micronutrients are balanced and there’s sufficient calcium for the plant to use, unless you stress it. And if you stress it, the plant will tell you that.
Margaret: Well guess what? We’ve used up all our time and I haven’t even asked you if you have any hornworms? [Laughter.] [Above, at Margaret’s a tobacco hornworn; the cousin of the tomato hornworm’s likes tomatoes, too, not just Nicotiana.]
Craig: My gosh.
Margaret: I know it’s terrible, but as I said, we have two really great conversations that we’ve had before that we’ll include with the transcript, which were about some of your other tomato adventures, plus 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’
TO ENTER TO WIN a signed copy of “Epic 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?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. 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 May 18, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).