Epic Tomatoes from Your Gardens: Some stories, history, and tips for success
6 to 8 PM – Thursday, April 13, 2017
Pittsburgh Botanic Garden
Davidson Event Center
Price: $15 members; $25 non-members
Tomatoes are the centerpiece of most gardens, as well as many mid-summer recipes. This is the very best time to be a tomato lover, as the selection of types to grow or purchase seems endless. Craig will be your guide on a comprehensive journey through all aspects of this wonderful vegetable (or is it a fruit?!). Starting by positioning the tomato in US gastronomic history, he will take you on a journey through some personal favorites that will do well for Pittsburgh growers, telling many stories of particular varieties along the way, including some special new varieties created by his unique world-wide breeding project perfectly suited for space-challenged gardeners. Craig will then switch gears and talk all about achieving success from seed starting to harvest, sharing the many tips and tricks he’s learned in his 30 plus year experience focusing on tomatoes.
About the instructor
Craig LeHoullier lives and gardens in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, Susan, and their collection of cats and dogs. An avid gardener his whole life, Craig’s love affair with tomatoes (particularly heirloom varieties) culminated in his first book, Epic Tomatoes (Storey Publishing, 2015). His exploration of growing techniques led to his second book, Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales (Storey). A chemist by education, Craig considers his gardens to be his annual laboratories, and he loves to speak to gardening audiences to not only share what he learns, but to learn from others as well; this is one of his favorite parts of gardening.
A Q&A with Instructor Craig LeHoullier
Get to know our spring speaker with a brief interview.
PBG || Describe your garden. What do you grow besides tomatoes? How large is your garden? etc.
CL || There is the garden I have, and the gardens I wish I had! This year will be my 36th garden… our first was the year after we were married, in a graduate student shared plot in New Hampshire in 1981. Each year has been quite different, but the real catalyst for change came early on–joining the Seed Savers Exchange in 1986, which changed my gardening life–in fact, all of my gardens, and my life–forever. We’ve gardened in Raleigh North Carolina since 1992, and this year will likely be my smallest, due to extensive travel–and will be entirely in my driveway. More about that later…
PBG || When did you first discover heirloom tomatoes?
CL || Let’s just say that the tomato chose me to be one of its ambassadors right after joining the Seed Savers Exchange and realizing that my hobby of gardening could develop so much depth–with tomatoes, the selection is endless–the thousands–and so many have stories. They are also a crop with the largest diversity of colors, shapes, sizes and flavors. What’s not to fall in love with!
PBG || What about heirloom tomatoes is interesting to you?
CL || To be able to grow a living museum in your garden or (currently), driveway, allowing for interesting walks with friends and family to tell them stories behind some of the varieties–to be able to easily save seed and share with others–to be able to find an infinite array of flavor differences, and to use the colors and sizes and shapes in creative ways in cooking. I guess the answer is “pretty much everything”!
PBG || When did you first discover your passion for growing things?
CL || My grandfather, during walks through his garden at the age of 3 or 4, and my dad, through trips to the local parks to learn about the flowers, clearly both instilled a love of gardening from a very young age. Aside from small back yard gardens, it was after my marriage and our first garden that my wife and I decided that growing things provides so much–exercise, being outside, and best of all, unmatched freshness, quality and flavor.
PBG || Aside from gardening and writing, what are you most passionate about?
CL || Even above gardening and writing, my wife, my two daughters, our dog and cats–that is most important. But as far as other things I love, cooking, home roasting coffee, really good beer (make mine dark–as in impossible to see through!), kayaking, music, movies–I’ve never been able to find time to do all of the things I enjoy…but I sure try!
PBG || How do you combine your education in chemistry, with your love for gardening?
CL || That’s great question and one I’ve thought often about. I seem to use both sides of my brain when gardening–the creative part is that which makes me love the stories, history, array of colors and flavors and sizes–all of the diversity–truly a feast for the eyes and palate. But I also enjoy treating each garden like it is a big project–currently, my driveway is my laboratory where I conduct research, experiments, track results–in fact, our recent Dwarf Tomato Breeding project reflects perfectly both ways of looking at things–the art, and the data.
PBG || Do you believe growing is more of an art or a science, and why?
CL || I think that if you put 10 experienced–actually even–novice gardeners into a room, you would get a great collection of approaches, experiences and ideas. There is always going to be a scientific basis for what happens–but it is an incredibly complicated situation, with so many intertwined variables… each person’s soil, sun exposure, methods, the weather that particular year, disease and critter populations. So I think gardeners develop a flexibility to roll with the punches–and that makes it a bit like art–improvising, each garden reflecting the whims of the particular gardener.
PBG || After gardening for this long, do you still experience occasional gardening failures? If so, how do you cope?
CL || Any gardener that tells you that they have it all figured out is just fooling you, or incredibly lucky. I have good years, fair years, and bad years–all because of those many variables I talked about above. It is a combination of experience, the ability to make good observations, choosing the right thing to do based on what you see – and even then, it just improves the changes for success, not guarantee it. I actually cope by reminding myself that gardening is a lifelong journey–we really only learn when things go wrong… we just need to be sure to not repeat the same mistakes. Gardening is not just something to do in the summer–I find it is a 12 month activity, and I am always doing something related to it–reflecting on past results, planning–planting, troubleshooting–harvesting, processing, preserving, sharing–then the cycle repeats.
PBG || What do you consider your greatest gardening achievement?
CL || I think that my most lucky event was when Mr. J D Green sent me the unnamed purple variety that I ended up naming “Cherokee Purple” back in 1991–its widespread popularity is just staggering and shocking to me! As far as true achievements, I am pretty proud of what our Dwarf Tomato Breeding project has accomplished, and I am also very gratified that people seem to find my book Epic Tomatoes useful to them.
PBG || What advice do you have for someone who is just entering the world of gardening?
CL || That is another great question. I think it would be to go slow – check where the sun shines in your yard, think of what sort of produce you love to eat, and whether you have a dirt garden or need to use containers or straw bales to maximize the sunniest locations, ease your way in, but don’t skip any of the steps…make a plan, read a good basic gardening book or attend a local workshop – and get ready to do something not only enjoyable, but very addictive…
PBG || Which tomato varieties would you grow in Pittsburgh (Zone 6b)?
CL || I hope to do a bit of good research on that prior to my visit, because I like to tailor my suggestions to the recent conditions. But just a quick scan of the degree day, hardiness zone maps and frost dates, I don’t think there are tomato varieties that need to be avoided (due to long maturity dates) with good planning. Clearly, midseason varieties would be a bit less risky. But I will present good options for success at my workshop–both in terms of tactics, and varieties–and really look forward to sharing my tomato adventures to all.