Spring is a tough time for Craig LeHoullier. The celebrated author of Epic Tomatoes—the modern-day Bible for tomato enthusiasts—has had an insatiable need to balance choosing seeds, starting a young family, and planting a garden from as early as the mid-1990s. “I remain to this day a juggler each spring,” confirms LeHoullier.
Before the success of his New York Times best-selling book, LeHoullier spent decades toiling in corporate America and commuting. For the past 25 years, he and his wife have called Northern Raleigh, North Carolina, home—where a typical afternoon might include watching deer traipse through the garden. As long as they are not eating his prize tomatoes, it’s a good day. “Once I got out of corporate America, a lot of my problems disappeared. I’m much happier doing what I’m doing now,” he says.
These days, LeHoullier’s schedule consists of an action-packed trail of weekend speaking engagements to very enthusiastic audiences, in places like Asheville, North Carolina’s Organic Growers School. He loves the engagement and never has to deal with rush hour. “I’m on a reverse schedule and miss all the traffic during the week,” he says. At home, at the end of a fruitful day of planning and plotting for the next speech or the next planting season, LeHoullier is still on the clock. “I try to treat people who read the book as my gardening customers, so before I go to bed each night, I answer all the emails. I have made countless gardening friends over the two years since I’ve been out doing talks. The world is a tricky place right now, so it’s nice to do things that are positive for people.”
Once I got out of corporate America, a lot of my problems disappeared. I’m much happier doing what I’m doing now.
He wouldn’t mind doing a tomato podcast in the future, but until then, you can see the popular tomato aficionado with Joe Lamp’l on the PBS series Growing a Greener World. Here, he talks with WTS about how the book came to be and how to grow your best-ever garden.
World Tomato Society: When did your tomato obsession begin?
Craig LeHoullier: It really started because of my grandfather and dad, who loved gardening. I was very young, and it planted the seed of watching things grow—I was kind of nerdy kid.
I was so fond of my grandfather but I never really ate tomatoes until he convinced me to try one of his. I was about 13, and I fell in love. If I were to guess, he probably grew varieties that were common at the time—Rutgers or Marglobe, perhaps even Big Boy. In fact, it was my desire to grow those varieties that my grandfather could have grown in his gardens that sent me on a search through old seed catalogs, seeking various candidates and locating lots that people considered gone for good—but they were just sleeping in this or that seed storage, primarily in the USDA seed vaults.
The whole thing about heirloom gardening happened after I joined the Seed Saver Exchange in 1986. That opened up my eyes. I like diversity in everything—also food. I’m a seeker. There is always something more and better out there to discover. My wife and I had our first garden in 1981. The red tomatoes, as delicious as they are, get kind of boring, but I started getting catalogs, and then I could grow some hybrids and heirlooms. The different colors and stories are endless. They all taste a little bit different. I set about on a three-year study to prove or disprove that heirlooms were worth growing. The project was such a success, and the heirlooms blew me away.
WTS: Are you on a mission for a pure fruit?
CL: I’m not an anti-hybrid person, I’m a delicious-tomato person. Sun Golds—a hybrid cherry—will always be in my garden, but to get the best diversity of colors and flavors, and the most interesting stories, you can’t save hybrid seeds. So, it’s heirlooms—a hobby with crop that has a lot of diversity, it’s not that difficult to grow, and you want to be able to save seeds and share them with people.
Right now, there are about 12,000 tomatoes being traded in the Seed Saver Exchange. You can never get to the end of it. Then you start deciding that you can breed your own, and you can really start growing crazy. Then you wished that you could live 300 years. Never enough time and never enough gardens to grow all the things that you want.
Between having a guy send me a tomato that I named Cherokee Purple and then the Russian woman (who sent me her seeds), I think the tomato chose me to be one of its ambassadors. I don’t think I had any say in this, but I’m very happy to play that part. Family heirlooms are sent to me all the time. These are treasures that people want to share. That’s pretty exciting, to have a revision of people’s history, in your hands, growing in your garden.
WTS: Were you surprised at the success of your book?
CL: It was a fun book to write, and it was a very positive experience. I feel really lucky that I get to tell my story and people like it. This is the first book I’ve written, I have a PhD in chemistry, so I’m a scientist by nature. I’m not sure anyone knows if they can write until they sit down and write.
I’m astounded that it’s done as well as it has; on the other hand, everybody loves gardens and most gardens feature tomatoes. I’m obsessed with a topic that seems to resonate with so many gardeners.
A tomato is one of those few edibles that needs to be in season to be at its best. Lots of things that you can buy at a farmers’ market or grocery store will approximate good produce, but tomatoes are one of those things that if you know what they taste like when you grow them yourself, there is really no substitute. That becomes one of the things that you really look forward to in the summertime. But when they come in, they come in like crazy. My wife and I start planning ways to have them for breakfast—and the season is gone so fast. We are tomato snobs, but we use canned for sauces and things, such as Trader Joe’s canned low-sodium tomatoes, and they’re fine, but we normally use our own.
WTS: How long did it take you to compile all of the expert advice?
CL: The best course I ever took in school was typing. I sat at my laptop and let my 30 years of experience (with growing heirlooms, etc.) just pour out of me. It was cathartic to write 90,000 words in about a year.
My friends call me the Butterfly. I’m a bullet-point guy. I like to do a lot of different things in small spurts. So, for me to reach the depths that I did in the book, I was working out of my natural inclination. But I want gardeners to succeed, and the tomato is a story that needed to be told.
That is what’s so amazing about heirlooms: They have stories. Your garden can be a museum. You can tell people about where the seeds came from and who grew them. There is really no other hobby quite like heirloom gardening if you really love genealogy and you love history but also diversity, quality, self-sufficiency, and sharing with people. It’s the perfect hobby that encompasses all that—there is nothing like it. Twelve months out of the year, you’re either planning or planting. At the end of the season, you’re figuring out what to do next year and what to do differently. With the book, I have all of these wonderful opportunities to get out in front of other people and share what I’m doing.
WTS: Was there anything that surprised you along the way?
CL: It’s easy to write about the things that you love. But for the book to be complete, I needed to write about things that I’m not an expert in, like diseases—what types strike and how to deal with them—and soil chemistry or what your plant needs. A lot of basic gardening books have been written on those subjects, but we needed to have those for this book to be complete. I have shortcuts to share, but we also needed the foundation of gardening in there.
The book was written in a way to share with you what I do, and I hope it works for you. Then, when I meet you out on the road, I hope you share with me what you do. The only way that gardeners improve is by making mistakes and by learning what other people do. Gardening is wonderful for people who love the journey and are not so hung up on the destination. So it surprised me that some of the chapters were more difficult to write about, but I wanted this to be a foundationally sound and solid book in every aspect.
The other surprise is I never really reread anything when I’m writing an email or for my blog. I just post it. For the book, there is a notion called editing. Going through the chapters sometimes four to five times and reviewing was hard for me, and proofreading was challenging—the opposite of my personality. My wife, daughter, and friends helped.
WTS: Is there a plan for another book?
CL: I think Epic Tomatoes is in the third or fourth printing, with 50,000–60,000 copies out there. So that is pretty staggering to me. It’s exciting, but everything is still new to me. I’ve only been an author since January 2015. The second book, Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales, people seem to like. The third book I’m working on I will self-publish because I want to tell the story about our dwarf tomato breeding program. I don’t think a publisher would see that as anything amazing, and I would like to try my hand at publishing an e-book. Now that people know me through the tomato book, I don’t have to worry so much about having a publicist or getting the book out there. I’m so excited about it, it would probably only take me a month to write it! This is something for later; I have a long to-do list right now.
WTS: What are some tips can you give our readers to have the best garden ever?
CL: One of the things that makes gardening a real challenge is the number of variables—some you can control and some you can’t.
1) One step that you can’t miss is planning and spending time thinking of what you did last year before you even plant a seed. Think about what worked and what didn’t. Make a plan for this year and decide what you are going to do differently.
2) Don’t skimp on any materials, whether it’s what you’re putting into your containers or the seeds you’re purchasing. With tomatoes, it’s much easier to ward off problems before they start than it is to deal with them after. It can be a rapid trip to the end of things, sometimes.
3) Know your plants and be out there with them. Don’t plant them and take off to Bermuda for a month. Spend time with them and know what a healthy plant looks like. Check the foliage when you’re watering and look for little spots, bugs, or worms.
4) Enjoy the journey! Have fun. Keep a notebook. Take lots of pictures and share with friends. Bring people in to show them what you are doing and talk to them about it.
The greenest novice could have tremendous luck. I’ve had three really good years and three really bad years. I can almost always equate it to the weather, unforeseen trips, or critters. You can’t get depressed! One of the best things about gardening is that we get to do it every year. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and think about what you might do differently.
Next year might be your best garden ever.