“We are the luckiest tomato growers in all of history,” proclaimed Craig LeHoullier as he thumbed with dramatic impact via the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook, a hefty index of almost 12,000 heirloom styles of the beloved Solanum lycopersicum.
Choosing amongst such a staggering number of tomatoes, plus tons of of recent hybrids not included in that print model of the yearbook, is step one towards your best-ever harvest — or what Dr. LeHoullier, a retired chemist who has grown maybe 3,000 varieties, calls “epic tomatoes.”
And reaching that aim doesn’t begin with simply any previous tomato that the native big-box retailer 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 ebook, now in its seventh printing, with about 80,000 copies in print. And Growing Epic Tomatoes is the identify of a web-based course that he teaches together with his buddy Joe Lamp’l, the host for 12 years of the Emmy Award-winning public tv program “Growing a Greener World.”
Mr. Lamp’l is not any tomato slouch, both. Each yr, underneath lights in his Atlanta-area basement, he sows greater than 40 varieties — a complete of about 2,000 seedlings. He transplants 60 into his raised-bed backyard; the remaining go to an annual plant sale that he holds together with his youthful daughter, Amy.
Dr. LeHoullier just lately moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina from Raleigh, the place he held an analogous annual sale. But now he’s paring down, from a peak of 150 varieties a yr to possibly 50, with one plant of every grown largely in straw bales, not backyard beds.
“The fruit set is too good here, without so much heat and blossom drop,” he mentioned of his new location. “Last year, with 100 plants, I was picking 75 pounds daily for a month.”
Yes, there may be such a factor as too epic.
So Many Tomatoes, So Little Space
Despite their shared ardour, these two profitable gardeners differ of their alternative of drugs and the subtleties of their methods — the strategies to their tomato insanity. Likewise, they’ve an ongoing debate about which tomato finest anchors a BLT.
Dester, Dr. LeHoullier says emphatically, whereas Mr. Lamp’l insists on Black Krim.
And for sauce? Whatever is ripe, aside from cherry sorts, they agree. It’s an excessive amount of work to pores and skin so many little guys for a batch.
There’s one other level on which they concur, as properly: Every gardener ought to dig into the catalogs and discover all the probabilities.
“The diversity of catalogs is where tomato dabblers become the tomato obsessed,” mentioned Dr. LeHoullier, who named the favored heirloom Cherokee Purple in 1990. (It got here from seed that had been handed down and ultimately made its technique to him.)
Some of his advisable sources embrace Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, whose founder tried some Cherokee Purple seed that Dr. LeHoullier shared, and launched the range to commerce in 1993. The Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit whose catalog showcases heirlooms, is “pivotally important,” mentioned Dr. LeHoullier, who serves because the group’s tomato adviser.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Pinetree Garden Seeds additionally make his record, together with Victory Seeds, which presents the entire 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 mentioned, “and no need to deal with suckering.”
Dwarfs are excellent for pots or space-constrained gardens — and for gardeners who don’t need to repeatedly prune and help a 10-foot vine.
Identify the varieties that match your area and backyard situations, and particularly these rated with particular resistance to any illness strain you may have skilled. Both males develop a mixture of hybrids and heirlooms, that are normally thought of much less resistant, as a hedge towards loss.
And whilst you’re searching, take into account what you’ll be doing with the tomatoes you develop. Will they be hot-packed in Ball jars, as entire tomatoes? Then Dr. LeHoullier recommends not simply the same old suspect, Roma, however any coloration of Oxheart. But should you’re planning to eat them out of your hand, Dr. LeHoullier and Mr. Lamp’l recommend Sun Gold, the favored tangerine-orange hybrid cherry tomato.
‘Insurance in a Small Footprint’
Timing is one other level on which they agree. To decide when to sow tomatoes indoors, rely again eight weeks out of your ultimate spring frost date, when it’s normally protected to transplant seedlings outside. (Calculate when to sow to your location.)
Then strive 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 every compartment, they thickly sow seeds of a unique selection. Dr. LeHoullier calls this “dense sowing” — in his plant-sale days, he sowed as much as 100 seeds in every compartment. Mere tomato mortals will in all probability do extra like a half-dozen in every cell.
The concept is area effectivity. For these first 4 weeks, the little thicket that sprouts in the neighborhood pot or cell gained’t take up a lot room underneath your lights. Peppers and eggplants might be sowed this manner, too.
“Even if you only sow six seeds of each desired variety to a cell,” Mr. Lamp’l mentioned, “you get insurance in a small footprint.”
After 4 weeks, Phase 2 begins. “Take that rootball out, tease the tiny plants apart and put them in their own cells,” he mentioned.
But first, let’s again up a bit. Working with a sterile, fine-textured germinating or seed-starting combine is crucial. Dr. LeHoullier fills his cells with dry combine, then moistens all the things with a small watering can earlier than sowing the seeds. He sieves a bit extra dry medium on prime with a spaghetti colander, to barely cowl the seeds, then mists the floor.
Seed should keep moist to germinate. Cover every flat with a transparent plastic dome or with plastic wrap (Dr. LeHoullier’s most well-liked methodology) laid proper on the floor. Flip the sheeting every single day to reduce extra moisture buildup that might harbor illness.
Heat utilized to the underside, from a germinating mat positioned underneath a just-sown flat, speeds germination from a couple of week to a few or 4 days. But keep in mind to take away the germinating mat as quickly because the seedlings poke via, together with no matter humidity cowl you used, otherwise you’ll threat having weakened seedlings.
Another widespread mistake: fertilizing too quickly. Resist the urge, the 2 males agree. Seeds come filled with what they should get began.
“I seldom fertilize when they’re inside, under lights,” Mr. Lamp’l mentioned. “It can lead to seedlings that are leggy and floppy.”
Light Up Their Leaves
By the time Dr. LeHoullier’s seedlings attain their first four-week transplanting, he daringly takes benefit of out of doors gentle as an alternative of counting on develop lights. But he retains a frost blanket on the prepared, simply in case.
Mr. Lamp’l’s indoor seed-starting room has the look of a laboratory, fitted with metallic shelving and all method of develop lights, from fluorescent T5 high-output sorts to the newest dual-band LEDs that glow with a coloration referred to as burple. He enjoys experimenting and evaluating outcomes. And for all of his backyard adventures, he makes use of the Day One journaling app to file information and photographs.
Once the seeds germinate, Mr. Lamp’l lights them for 16 hours a day. Each fixture hangs on ratchet pulleys, so it may be raised because the vegetation develop. At first, he follows every gentle producer’s tips for advisable positioning; then, based mostly on the vegetation’ response, he adjusts.
The Remedy for Overenthusiasm
Oops — you began too quickly. Or possibly inadequate gentle pushed the one that you love seedlings previous the best stocky stature to leggy. Tomatoes are forgiving, although, and there are two attainable workarounds.
At out of doors transplant time, take away the bottommost pair of leaves, then plant the seedling extra-deep, so two or three pairs of leaves stay aboveground. Tomatoes have the power to kind roots alongside a complete stem, together with that newly buried half.
Or minimize the highest six inches off a too-tall plant and root the chopping in water on a vivid windowsill. After roots kind, pot the chopping as much as develop for an additional couple of weeks underneath lights. Then progressively acclimate it to the outside — as you’d with any seedling experiencing sunshine and open air for the primary time — earlier than transplanting it into the backyard.
“Take it slow when hardening seedlings off,” suggested Mr. Lamp’l, who begins with a half-hour of out of doors publicity and provides an hour day by day over an eight-day interval. “Even strong grow lights might only be 10 percent the intensity of outdoors.”
Once the seedlings are within the floor, Mr. Lamp’l’s do-it-yourself “ultimate tomato cages” go up round every plant. Two parts of wire mesh are minimize 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 ensuing items are then bent into L shapes, every offering two sides of a sq. cage.
“Makes me smile every time I bring them out from storage and put them in the bed,” he mentioned. “They’re it.”
What makes Mr. Lamp’l — and Dr. LeHoullier, as properly — smile much more: summer time’s first ripe tomato.
Among the non-cherry sorts, the heirloom Mortgage Lifter is more than likely to win that race in Mr. Lamp’l’s backyard. At Dr. LeHoullier’s, Kimberly and Taxi normally are available in first.
The prize for many 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 ways or tastes. But there’s a tomato after which some for everybody.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the web site and podcast A Way to Garden, and a ebook of the identical identify.
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