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“We are the luckiest tomato growers in all of history,” proclaimed Craig LeHoullier as he thumbed with dramatic effect through the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook, a hefty index of nearly 12,000 heirloom varieties of the beloved Solanum lycopersicum.
Choosing among such a staggering selection of tomatoes, plus hundreds of modern hybrids not included in that print version of the yearbook, is the first step toward your best-ever harvest — or what Dr. LeHoullier, a retired chemist who has grown perhaps 3,000 varieties, calls “epic tomatoes.”
And reaching that goal does not start with just any old tomato that the local big-box store serves up as transplants by the truckload.
“Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” is Dr. LeHoullier’s 2014 book, now in its seventh printing, with about 80,000 copies in print. And Growing Epic Tomatoes is the name of an online course that he teaches with his friend Joe Lamp’l, the host for 12 years of the Emmy Award-winning public television program “Growing a Greener World.”
Mr. Lamp’l is no tomato slouch, either. Each year, under lights in his Atlanta-area basement, he sows more than 40 varieties — a total of about 2,000 seedlings. He transplants 60 into his raised-bed garden; the rest go to an annual plant sale that he holds with his younger daughter, Amy.
Dr. LeHoullier recently moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina from Raleigh, where he held a similar annual sale. But now he is paring down, from a peak of 150 varieties a year to maybe 50, with one plant of each grown mostly in straw bales, not garden beds.
“The fruit set is too good here, without so much heat and blossom drop,” he said of his new location. “Last year, with 100 plants, I was picking 75 pounds daily for a month.”
Yes, there is such a thing as too epic.
So Many Tomatoes, So Little Space
Despite their shared passion, these two successful gardeners differ in their choice of gear and the subtleties of their techniques — the methods to their tomato madness. Likewise, they have an ongoing debate about which tomato best anchors a BLT.
Dester, Dr. LeHoullier says emphatically, while Mr. Lamp’l insists on Black Krim.
And for sauce? Whatever is ripe, other than cherry types, they agree. It’s too much work to skin so many little guys for a batch.
There’s another point on which they concur, as well: Every gardener should dig into the catalogs and explore all the possibilities.
“The diversity of catalogs is where tomato dabblers become the tomato obsessed,” said Dr. LeHoullier, who named the popular heirloom Cherokee Purple in 1990. (It came from seed that had been passed down and eventually made its way to him.)
Some of his recommended sources include Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, whose founder tried some Cherokee Purple seed that Dr. LeHoullier shared, and introduced the variety to commerce in 1993. The Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit whose catalog showcases heirlooms, is “pivotally important,” said Dr. LeHoullier, who serves as the group’s tomato adviser.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Pinetree Garden Seeds also make his list, along with Victory Seeds, which offers all of the varieties from the Dwarf Tomato Project, a breeding effort that Dr. LeHoullier co-founded in 2004, with about 145 varieties. It’s “the heirloom experience with short plants,” he said, “and no need to deal with suckering.”
Dwarfs are perfect for pots or space-constrained gardens — and for gardeners who don’t want to repeatedly prune and support a 10-foot vine.
Identify the varieties that match your space and garden conditions, and especially those rated with specific resistance to any disease pressure you have experienced. Both men grow a mix of hybrids and heirlooms, which are usually considered less resistant, as a hedge against loss.
And while you’re browsing, consider what you’ll be doing with the tomatoes you grow. Will they be hot-packed in Ball jars, as whole tomatoes? Then Dr. LeHoullier recommends not just the usual suspect, Roma, but any color of Oxheart. But if you’re planning to eat them out of your hand, Dr. LeHoullier and Mr. Lamp’l suggest Sun Gold, the popular tangerine-orange hybrid cherry tomato.
‘Insurance in a Small Footprint’
Timing is another point on which they agree. To determine when to sow tomatoes indoors, count back eight weeks from your final spring frost date, when it’s usually safe to transplant seedlings outdoors. (Calculate when to sow for your location.)
Then try their “four-week, four-week routine,” sowing into cells in an 18-cell flat or a flat fitted with 18 three-and-a-half-inch-square pots. Into each compartment, they thickly sow seeds of a different variety. Dr. LeHoullier calls this “dense sowing” — in his plant-sale days, he sowed up to 100 seeds in each compartment. Mere tomato mortals will probably do more like a half-dozen in each cell.
The idea is space efficiency. For those first four weeks, the little thicket that sprouts in the community pot or cell won’t take up much room under your lights. Peppers and eggplants can be sowed this way, too.
“Even if you only sow six seeds of each desired variety to a cell,” Mr. Lamp’l said, “you get insurance in a small footprint.”
After four weeks, Phase 2 begins. “Take that rootball out, tease the tiny plants apart and put them in their own cells,” he said.
But first, let’s back up a bit. Working with a sterile, fine-textured germinating or seed-starting mix is essential. Dr. LeHoullier fills his cells with dry mix, then moistens everything with a small watering can before sowing the seeds. He sieves a bit more dry medium on top with a spaghetti colander, to barely cover the seeds, then mists the surface.
Seed must stay moist to germinate. Cover each flat with a clear plastic dome or with plastic wrap (Dr. LeHoullier’s preferred method) laid right on the surface. Flip the sheeting every day to minimize excess moisture buildup that could harbor disease.
Heat applied to the bottom, from a germinating mat placed under a just-sown flat, speeds germination from about a week to three or four days. But remember to remove the germinating mat as soon as the seedlings poke through, along with whatever humidity cover you used, or you’ll risk having weakened seedlings.
Another common mistake: fertilizing too soon. Resist the urge, the two men agree. Seeds come packed with what they need to get started.
“I seldom fertilize when they’re inside, under lights,” Mr. Lamp’l said. “It can lead to seedlings that are leggy and floppy.”
Light Up Their Leaves
By the time Dr. LeHoullier’s seedlings reach their first four-week transplanting, he daringly takes advantage of outdoor light instead of relying on grow lights. But he keeps a frost blanket at the ready, just in case.
Mr. Lamp’l’s indoor seed-starting room has the look of a laboratory, fitted with metal shelving and all manner of grow lights, from fluorescent T5 high-output types to the latest dual-band LEDs that glow with a color known as burple. He enjoys experimenting and comparing results. And for all of his garden adventures, he uses the Day One journaling app to record data and photos.
Once the seeds germinate, Mr. Lamp’l lights them for 16 hours a day. Each fixture hangs on ratchet pulleys, so it can be raised as the plants grow. At first, he follows each light manufacturer’s guidelines for recommended positioning; then, based on the plants’ response, he adjusts.
The Remedy for Overenthusiasm
Oops — you started too soon. Or maybe insufficient light pushed your beloved seedlings past the ideal stocky stature to leggy. Tomatoes are forgiving, though, and there are two possible workarounds.
At outdoor transplant time, remove the bottommost pair of leaves, then plant the seedling extra-deep, so two or three pairs of leaves remain aboveground. Tomatoes have the ability to form roots along an entire stem, including that newly buried part.
Or cut the top six inches off a too-tall plant and root the cutting in water on a bright windowsill. After roots form, pot the cutting up to grow for another couple of weeks under lights. Then gradually acclimate it to the outdoors — as you would with any seedling experiencing sunshine and open air for the first time — before transplanting it into the garden.
“Take it slow when hardening seedlings off,” advised Mr. Lamp’l, who starts with a half-hour of outdoor exposure and adds an hour daily over an eight-day period. “Even strong grow lights might only be 10 percent the intensity of outdoors.”
Once the seedlings are in the ground, Mr. Lamp’l’s homemade “ultimate tomato cages” go up around each plant. Two portions of wire mesh are cut with a bolt cutter from a four-by-16-foot livestock panel of 4-gauge wire with openings of about six by eight inches. The resulting pieces are then bent into L shapes, each providing two sides of a square cage.
“Makes me smile every time I bring them out from storage and put them in the bed,” he said. “They’re it.”
What makes Mr. Lamp’l — and Dr. LeHoullier, as well — smile even more: summer’s first ripe tomato.
Among the non-cherry types, the heirloom Mortgage Lifter is most likely to win that race in Mr. Lamp’l’s garden. At Dr. LeHoullier’s, Kimberly and Taxi usually come in first.
The prize for most prolific harvest? Polish at Dr. LeHoullier’s; Cherokee Purple and Black Krim at Mr. Lamp’l’s.
No two gardens, or gardeners, are alike, in tactics or tastes. But there is a tomato and then some for everyone.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.
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