Lessons from the ‘NC Tomato Man’
Craig LeHoullier has far-reaching influence in the world of tomatoesBy Margaret Buranen
As a child, Craig LeHoullier really disliked tomatoes. But when Craig was about 12, his grandfather offered him a tomato he had grown. That tomato was the seed that grew into a lifelong interest in growing tomatoes and sharing them with other people.
Now gardeners all across the country know Craig LeHoullier of Raleigh as the NC Tomato Man. Craig has written two gardening books (“Epic Tomatoes” and “Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales”), with a third forthcoming, on dwarf tomatoes.
“This is the tomato’s time. No gardeners in history have ever had so many tomato varieties to choose from,” Craig says. “I’m happy to be an ambassador for tomatoes. They offer an incredible diversity of subtle nuances in taste. I’m kind of a foodie [for tomatoes], like people who enjoy different coffees or teas.”
Craig estimates that over the years he has tasted about 4,000 different types of tomatoes. That much sampling has taught him that there is no correlation between a tomato’s taste and color.
“This is the tomato’s time. No gardeners in history have ever had so many tomato varieties to choose from,” Craig says. “I’m happy to be an ambassador for tomatoes. They offer an incredible diversity of subtle nuances in taste. I’m kind of a foodie [for tomatoes], like people who enjoy different coffees or teas.
He speaks at gardening shows and events, but don’t expect formal lectures.
“I like to go out and have a conversation with fellow gardeners,” he explains. “I share, they share, and I learn from them.”
Craig met his wife, Sue, now a retired nurse, while he was earning his doctorate in chemistry at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. His work for pharmaceutical corporations took them first to Philadelphia, then to Charlotte.
Joining Seed Savers in 1986 (seedsavers.org) took Craig beyond basic gardening. He developed an interest in finding rare varieties of plants and keeping them from becoming extinct.
He grows about 150 to 200 varieties of tomatoes each year, plus eggplants, peppers and other vegetables. His garden grows entirely in containers or straw bales.
“Tomatoes are approaching roses in terms of getting them to succeed everywhere,” he says, “but every disease, [type of] weather, humidity and critter seems to affect tomatoes.”
Tomato pro tips
Because not all tomato varieties will thrive everywhere, he always advises gardeners to have an open mind. “Enjoy the journey, and don’t get hung up on growing the perfect tomato [or particular varieties].”
Craig suggests gardeners pick 10 varieties of tomatoes to grow. “Five or six [of those] won’t do well, but three or four will be outstanding.”
For NC gardens he recommends: “Cherokee Purple” (which he had the honor of naming), “Red Brandywine” and “Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red”; hybrids “Sun Gold,” “Big Beef” and “Lemon Boy”; and dwarf varieties “Sweet Sue” and “Blazing Beauty.”
North Carolina’s range of climate affects how different varieties will grow. For example, plants of a longer maturing variety may take 70 to 80 days to produce tomatoes in Raleigh, but need 80 to 90 days in Asheville.
To keep deer from devouring his garden, Craig uses two water scarecrows. Their motion sensors shoot out bursts of water to scare the animals away. For squirrels he recommends installing bird feeders and a birdbath.
“The birds drop seed that the squirrels eat, and they can get water from the birdbath,” he advises. “Frost cloth covering the plants will prevent the rabbits from eating them.”
Another trick is to pick tomatoes when they are only half-ripe and let them ripen inside. “Animals can smell when tomatoes are ripe and won’t eat them until then,” he explains.
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