Hear from NC Tomatoman Craig LeHoullier

Craig LeHoullier is a gardener known as NC Tomatoman, and the author of Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varities of All Time. He shared his thoughts on diverse tomato varieties just in time for the fruit’s peak season. “For me, tomatoes—or gardening techniques, or heirlooms—are vehicles that I utilize to excite my readers with the ultimate goal of simply growing gardeners. Writing about tomatoes puts me in such an energized mood, hopeful of the harvests, teachings and meals to come. Having grown so many different varieties of tomatoes, I just hope that my piece will inspire gardeners to try something new and different.”

Oh, how we crave tomatoes—anticipating that first sun-warmed, home-grown orb of delight. Whether we find plants at garden centers or go through the angst of starting from seed, we tomato-growers endure threats of frost, poor soil, inconsistent weather, heat, humidity and stealthy critter attacks to arrive, finally, victorious at the finish line come summer.

Unlike other crops that can be overwhelming (the plethora of cucumbers and squash covertly left at neighbors’ back doors), it’s rare to hear someone complain about their abundant supply of home-grown tomatoes. So using the old English wedding paean for good luck, let’s explore the world of tomatoes:

Something old

To me, this means “heirloom,” a cherished tomato variety passed down by family or between gardeners for decades. These are the tomatoes with their own stories; relating them to your visitors can be a way to entice and create new gardeners. It is easy to grow “something old” in your garden, thanks to the preservation efforts of the Seed Savers Exchange and many other companies that focus on heirlooms. Can there be a more charmingly-named tomato than Mortgage Lifter, a variety developed in West Virginia in the early 1930s? (Sale of the large-fruited tomato did indeed lead to pay-off a home mortgage.) Cherokee Purple—a variety dear to me, as it was my pleasure
to name it—Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Kellogg’s Breakfast… the choices are limitless, colors diverse and flavors memorable.

Something new

Seed companies and amateur plant breeders alike continually seek to fulfill the needs of gardeners with new tomato creations. Red tomato lovers looking for productivity and flavor can seek out the recent hybrid tomato variety Big Beef. Space-challenged gardeners looking for container-friendly plants for patios and decks can seek out some of the more than 100 new types created by the Dwarf Tomato Breeding project, which I’ve co-led since its inception in 2005. Gardeners can also seek out the small-fruited, delightfully colored, striped tomatoes from the Artisan series or the wild striped varieties created by Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms.

Something borrowed

Here, I am being liberal with the term “borrowed;” let’s call it “shared.” I mean joining a seed sharing exchange or visiting a seed library (Durham’s libraries provide excellent variety). Borrow a tomato variety that sounds exciting, grow the tomatoes, save the seeds and return some to the library to share with other tomato enthusiasts. My own love affair with tomatoes began this way, back in the mid-1980s, through seed swaps in gardening magazines; in fact, much of my 5,000-plus variety seed collection is “borrowed!”

Something blue

While not strictly blue (as in Duke or Carolina blue), you can find tomatoes with a dark indigo tint, particularly where they face the sun. Over the past decades, plant breeders have been taking advantage of a tomato found in the wild that possesses a genetic trait of a blackish-blue coloring on the fruit shoulders, signifying high levels of anthocyanin. Starting with Indigo Rose, there has been a great proliferation of these unique colorful types. You can easily grow a conversation piece in your garden with some of these striking colored varieties.

With a staggering diversity of types (over 10,000 cultivars available to grow) and the attendant array of flavor nuances, colors, shapes and sizes, tomatoes can make talented chefs out of the most rank amateurs and easily find their way into every meal (including dessert!). Whether plucked and consumed in the garden, seeds dripping onto our T-shirts, or sliced, pureed, roasted or canned, tomatoes are summer’s eternal gift.