My 2019 Garden: A Collection of Many Projects

Craig LeHoullierGardening is work but can also be play. In fact, for me, the fun makes the work tolerable, particularly when considering the demands of growing everything in containers or straw bales in my hot and humid Raleigh climate. Located in my driveway (because that is where the sun shines best), my garden is an annual research laboratory, food producer, and place where stories can be told about many of the varieties that grow there. Here is a quick walk through the many projects that are in progress in 2019.

Favorites For the Table

We can’t get enough tomatoes no matter how many plants we grow each summer. Over my 40 years of gardening clear favorites have emerged, and each garden has a selection of the truly cherished varieties, grown for maximum yield in straw bales. Some examples from this year’s garden are Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Chocolate, Cherokee Green, Green Giant, Azoychka, Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red, Lucky Cross, Yellow Brandywine, Egg Yolk, Sun Gold and Stump of the World. With two plants per straw bale, my very achievable goal is 20 pounds of tomatoes per plant.

dwarf project in grow bags

New Members of My Tomato Garden

Each year gardening friends, readers of my book Epic Tomatoes and folks I’ve met on the speaking trail share family treasures with me, and it is a joy to give the varieties places in my garden. Out in my driveway are Redman Giant, Roman Figun, Civil War, and a German tomato sent to me by an Epic Tomato reader that was from her grandfather’s garden years ago. Previous examples are Cancelmo Family Heirloom, Cutler heirloom and Koch family heirloom. Not surprisingly, they are typically wonderful.

Azoyckka June 30th

Refreshing Old Seeds

Having a monstrous tomato seed collection means that many varieties are at risk of seed death, given infrequent grow outs. I’ve gone to growing indeterminate (tall) tomato plants in 5 gallon grow bags with a focus on getting a few ripe tomatoes for fresh seed, rather than maximizing yield. Examples this year are Azoychka, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Great White and Carbon.

Growing for Pollen to Expand Our Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project

Breeding your own tomato varieties using the technique of collecting pollen from the father plant and applying to the style (tip of the pistil) of the female plant is fascinating and fun. The Dwarf Tomato Project that I have co-led since 2005 now has 106 new compact growing varieties in various seed catalogs, and all project releases began with a cross to create a hybrid. The diversity of tomatoes available today, combined with some imagination, can lead to some unique creations.  I have a selection of unusual indeterminate varieties growing in 5 gallon grow bags merely to provide pollen for some new crosses. Yellow foliage, variegated foliage and anthocyanin fruit types are among the diverse pollen donors I am hoping to use this year.

cherry tomatoes

Sampling New Dwarf Releases

With 106 varieties from our project now released, there are a hefty number I’ve yet to grow out. I am giving nearly 30 of them a first look and can’t wait to sample the successes. Maura’s Cardinal, Mystic Lady, Parfait and Egypt Yellow are among them.

growing eggplant amethyst pepper

Dehybridizing Eggplants and Peppers

The easiest way to create a new non-hybrid veggie variety is to begin with a favored hybrid and grow out some saved seed. It can take up to 10 generations to stabilize a great find, but lots of basic genetics can be learned along the journey. I have my latest selections from Islander pepper and Orient Express eggplant growing in my garden this year.

ornamental peppers

Creating New Ornamental Hot Peppers

Finally, work continues with some gorgeous hot peppers that all originated from one single red fruit obtained from a local arboretum many years ago. The bees helped me create some diversity in the family, and each year I sort through and narrow down the most promising to continue with.

Be sure to have some fun with your garden. Work in some projects, create or learn something new, and get the most out of your efforts. There really is never enough space, or time, to explore all of the wonderful places you can go!

Heirloom Really Is The Perfect Word For Such Treasures

Craig LeHoullierI’ve read articles over the last few years that bemoan not only use of the term “heirloom”, but also the growing of such “flawed”, imperfect varieties. Some say it has become a buzz term, used by some to command higher prices for seeds, plants, produce or the products made from them. Others see the term used to falsely elevate the humble act of gardening; to use it as a bragging right.

It seems appropriate to use my first blog for Heirloom Gardener to sing the praises of the term and note its lifetime relevance to my sixty plus years. The seed for my love of gardening was planted by my grandfather, Walter Gibbs, during hand-walks through his magnificent Pawtucket, Rhode Island back yard garden when I was barely as tall as the water spigot. I have a number of heirloom pieces of his life that I keep in my office; a pocket watch, a bus token, and countless letters that he penned to me while I was in graduate school, which made me feel a little less far from home.

They are not “heritage” letters – they are indeed heirlooms, valuable bits handed down to me, and surely to be handed down to my daughters as tangible evidence of a life well lived, and a person well loved. Growing at Duke Gardens in Durham, NC is a living manifestation of my grandfather’s garden; a lilac shrub produced from a cutting taken from his yard, planted when he was young, hand delivered to me by another beloved heirloom gardener, my dad, Wilfred, a few decades ago. I am lucky indeed.

Was it the seed that Walter planted in me when I was so young that germinated into a lifetime love for heirloom gardening? Perhaps – though I will never insult hybrid vegetable or flower or fruit varieties or those who wish to focus on them, it is the collection of unique attributes about heirlooms that make them so attractive to me.

Heirlooms can be shared, handed down, regrown from saved seed and provide the equivalent experience. They are multitudinous in number (indeed, the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook offers a chance to grow literally thousands of tomato varieties, just as an example, and my own collection is also in the thousands).  They are the beginning of garden stories, which can be told and retold, used to capture the imagination of friends, neighbors, relatives…and, especially, young folks, the future life blood of gardening and seed saving and sharing. They are imperfect, variable, often funny looking, and so diverse, straining the imagination to comprehend the color, shape, size and flavor possibilities. They can be very fragile – infuriating in some cases, so elusive due to the easy ability to contact this or that disease. Yet, the successes make it so, so worth the effort and occasional disappointments.

Heirloom – what a wonderful term to use for so much of the past, present, and, hopefully, future of spectacular gardens everywhere.





epic tomatoes

Gardening Hacks

Savor your best tomato harvest ever! Craig LeHoullier, tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange, offers everything a tomato enthusiast needs to know about growing more than 200 varieties of tomatoes — from sowing seeds and planting to cultivating and collecting seeds at the end of the season. He also offers a comprehensive guide to the various pests and diseases of tomatoes and explains how best to avoid them. No other book offers such a detailed look at the specifics of growing tomatoes, with beautiful photographs and helpful tomato profiles throughout. Order from the Mother Earth Gardener store or by calling 800-234-3368.

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