Craig LeHoullier is consumed by tomatoes.
He has written two books about growing them: Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales: Easy Planting, Less Weeding, Early Harvests. He lectures about tomatoes at gardening conferences. He has been the Seed Savers Exchange tomato adviser for 30 years. He and his wife, Sue Angus-LeHoullier, founded Tomatopalooza, a tasting event in Raleigh. For 15 years, he has co-led a project to grow dwarf tomatoes. He writes a gardening blog on his website. And he taught a webinar with fellow gardener Joe Lamp’l about how to grow epic tomatoes.
But he wasn’t always known as “NC Tomato Man.” LeHoullier earned his PhD in chemistry from Dartmouth and spent 25 years in the pharmaceutical industry. Although he has always been a gardener and tomato lover, his obsession is flourishing now. His retirement is devoted to organizing seeds, researching heirloom tomato history and planning, planting and tending his backyard garden in Hendersonville. It should come at no surprise that this summer, LeHoullier grew 105 types of tomatoes. At its peak, his garden harvested 75 pounds of tomatoes a day for 30 days.
As tomato season was winding down, LeHoullier spoke with Xpress about how he fell in love with gardening, how he named the most famous of all heirloom tomatoes and his recipe for the ideal tomato sandwich.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
When did your love of gardening begin?
Since I was three or four, I loved being in the gardens my father and grandfather planted in New Hampshire, where I was raised. When Sue and I married in 1981, we planted our first garden on land a local farmer allocated for graduate students. The joy of harvesting from your own garden and then cooking and eating it is pretty addictive.
How did you become so passionate about tomatoes?
When we moved to Pennsylvania in 1986 for my first job, I did a lot of my early research and development of tomato varieties. In my book Epic Tomatoes is an appendix of a three-year project comparing hybrids to heirlooms. It took a very short amount of time to convince myself there was no need for gardeners to limit themselves to hybrids. The heirlooms are where the real interest is — the diversity of colors and flavors.
What’s the difference between a hybrid tomato and an heirloom tomato?
A hybrid is a variety that has to be created in some company’s greenhouse somewhere with a physical act of taking pollen from the male donor of the new variety and apply it to the flowers in the female. After that pollination, those are the seeds that end up in seed packets in garden stores and online. If you want to keep growing a particular hybrid like Big Boy or Sun Gold, you have to go back to the company and buy the seeds every year.
An heirloom, through years of growing, is genetically stable. Heirlooms are the ones seed savers focus on and seed libraries have that can be passed on. If someone grows Cherokee Purple and saves seeds from it the next year, they will get Cherokee Purple again.
What’s the story behind your naming the Cherokee Purple tomato?
John Green from Sevierville, Tenn. sent me a packet of seeds and a letter that said, “Here is a purple tomato that originated with the Cherokee Indians over 100 years ago. I hope you like it.” In a further phone call, I found out he got it from a woman named Jean Greenlee, who lived in Rutledge, Tenn., who got it from her grandfather, who got it from the Cherokee tribe in the 1800s. In 1990, I slapped a name on it I thought was appropriate and sent it to the right seed company [Southern Exposure Seed Exchange] that started selling it. And the rest is tomato history. For me, the Cherokee Purple story is so illustrative of how fragile any living thing is. If someone drops the ball along the way it can go extinct.
How do you organize your seeds and plan your garden?
I have samples of every seed I have ever received and save seeds from what I grow every year in glass or plastic bottles and coin envelopes. I also have seeds for the Dwarf Tomato Project, labeled 1 to 7,000-something in vials. All the descriptions are in Excel spreadsheets.
It takes weeks for me to figure out what I want to grow. But each garden has a section of our favorites to eat, a section of the Dwarf Tomato Project and a section of new things people send me. Four people last year sent me seeds that were in their families for generations — Bing, Fultz, Earl and Aunt Gladys.
We grow in straw bales or containers. I love growing on top because I can control disease better and have easy access. This summer was the best tomato garden I have had in my 40 years.
Can you share some tips to a successful garden?
It’s almost like as a tomato grower, the natural world conspires against you, so you have to be clever and persistent. Gardeners really need to watch their watering, especially if they are dealing with a lot of heat. People are afraid of overwatering, but should be much more afraid of underwatering, because that’s where problems occur. If you have good draining soil, it you grow in containers, straw bales or raised beds you literally cannot overwater your tomatoes. People plant these big gardens, but don’t have time for them and wonder why they’re not successful. Gardening is one of those things where you get repaid what you put into it.
Of all the tomatoes you have grown and tasted, do you have favorites?
I was on Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s radio show “Splendid Table” when my first book came out and she asked if I could only take three tomatoes to a desert island, which three would I take? I said Sun Gold, the little orange cherry tomato that to me tastes like a little burst of heaven; the Cherokee Purple, because I love the flavor and the story behind it; and the third is Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, a bright yellow tomato a fellow sent me that he got it from an elderly lady in Manchester, Tenn. named Lillian Bruce.
You said you picked 75 pounds of tomatoes a day for 30 days — that’s 2,250 pounds of tomatoes! What do you do with them all?
We have canned 63 quarts of tomatoes, 30 pints of sauce and put lots of things in the freezer. We eat fresh tomatoes all through the season, and when the last one is picked, that’s it. We don’t eat another fresh one until next year’s first. We have a favorite gazpacho recipe in my book, and we make Caprese salad. We make and can cherry tomato pesto. One of the easiest ways to make sauce is fill two huge roasting pans with as many chopped tomatoes as will fit, one diced sweet onion, one diced sweet pepper, a little olive oil, salt and pepper, stick it in a 300 degree oven for six hours and stir every so often. You get sauce with a concentrated tomato flavor to can or freeze.
The simple tomato sandwich with mayonnaise, salt and pepper on white bread is a summer staple. Regional battles are waged over the best mayonnaise. Where do you stand?
I don’t like mayonnaise. My favorite tomato sandwich is good quality crusty bread, butter one side of two slices, put a huge slab of my favorite tomato that day with a slice of really sharp cheddar cheese and just grill it until the cheese melts and it’s really gooey. The tomato essentially melts into the cheese. But you need that good, crusty bread to provide the crunch contrast. It’s just delicious.