How to Grow Epic Tomatoes
Photography by (c) Shoe Heel Factory, illustrations by (c) Mary Kate McDevitt used with permission from Storey Publishing.
Take your hands off that supermarket tomato—that perfectly round, perfectly red, flawless globe—and step away from the shelf.
Author and tomato expert Craig LeHoullier wants you to try—no, not just try, but revel in the amazing variety of tomato colors, tastes, and textures that are available to gardeners who are willing to grow their own from seeds.
As a longtime fan of heirloom plants, I already knew you could grow a rainbow of these familiar fruits (and tomatoes are fruits, botanically speaking), in pinks, yellow-oranges, purple-blacks, greens, and pale yellow-whites. Tomatoes come in stripes, and bi-colors, too, with flavors that range from tartly acidic to fruity-sweet.
But if the only tomatoes you know are the most common red varieties, you'll want to dig into LeHoullier’s book, Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time (Storey Publishing, January 2015).
Then grab a shovel and start digging in your garden to make room for some of the lesser-knowns he’s grown in 30 years as the tomato adviser to Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit, Iowa-based organization that preserves and shares heirloom seeds. He's trialed over 1200 tomato varieties and introduced more than 100.
From its trendy, chalkboard-paint inspired cover to the full-color photographs inside, LeHoullier’s book is packed with growing advice. The variety names range from the intriguing to the evocative, and they’re enough to make you scribble a list of must-haves: ‘Dwarf Mr. Snow’ ,‘Cherokee Chocolate’,‘Egg Yolk’, ‘Wild Fred’, ‘Pineapple', ‘Jersey Devil’ and ‘Lime Green Salad.’
Then there’s ‘Mexico Midget’, one of LeHoullier’s picks for the top 10 tastiest tomatoes to grow. It’s “truly addictive,’ he writes, with the “rich, complex flavor” of big, beefsteak-type tomatoes compacted into pea-sized fruits.
You may already grow another of LeHoullier’s top choices. The old and popular favorite ‘Brandywine’ makes the cut, he says, for its delightful balance of “sweetness and tartness,” with flavors that “explode in the mouth.”
You won’t be able to find many of these varieties as starts at your garden center, or find their fruits on your grocery store shelves. Most simply aren’t popular enough for commercial growers to offer, so you’ll need to look for them in seed catalogs. You might also ask around and find that some of your friends and neighbors have them growing in their gardens, and with luck, they’ll share some seeds with you at harvest time.
The many hybrid varieties available today, LeHoullier explains, have shadowed most of these lesser-known tomatoes. Although there's great value in preserving old-timey varieties, he admits, and many gardeners agree, that hybrids aren't a bad thing.
Hybrid tomato varieties have been bred to resist disease, produce bigger, more consistent yields, and last longer in storage, among other desirable characteristics. Unfortunately, they just don’t always taste as good as many old-time tomatoes gardeners grow in their backyards.
LeHoullier's book is a treat for the senses, with reproductions of pages from antique seed catalogs, a useful question-and-answer section, instructions for starting tomato seeds, advice on preserving your harvest, and troubleshooting various problems.
A handy appendix of regional growing tips gives advice on coping with the challenges of growing tomatoes in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, California, Florida, and eastern Canada. I was left wishing LeHoullier had expanded this section.
But LeHoullier does include a chapter on how to breed your own tomatoes, information that I've seldom seen in similar books. He makes the process sound like a fun experiment, and not much more difficult that something you would've done for a high school science class.
With a little work and some serendipity, he says, your breeding efforts may make you “the proud parent of a new tomato variety.”
Whether or not he persuades you to create your own variety, LeHoullier’s mouth-watering illustrations and expert advice will inspire you to skip the supermarket and grown your own when you crave rich, real, tomato flavor.