Dec 24 2014 - Welcome to my new blog! Wishing you a wonderful Holiday Season

It's been a pretty remarkable end of 2014.

Friday, December 19 was a memorable day. My daughter Sara and I were doing some Christmas shopping in Durham NC. A few minutes after entering the store Parker and Otis, Sara walked up to a shelf and exclaimed "there it is!" Epic Tomatoes was standing upright in front of a book display. The first public sighting of my first book was quite a moment. After consulting staff, I happily signed the three copies that were on the sales floor (another first - the "first first" was receiving my advance copy on December 4.)

Much work lies ahead. My first workshop and book signing for 2015 will take place on January 24th at The Wylde Center in Decatur, Georgia, at the 3rd Annual Seed and Scion Swap. My official launch party will be hosted by Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on February 4 - look out for more details on that in the coming weeks, and be sure to RSVP on Facebook!

Then come the garden shows. The Northwest Flower and Garden Show, then the Philadelphia Flower Show ... each event requires new and unique presentations. Time to get cracking on them....

Please come back to this blog often - on it I will be sharing my experiences as I travel about to various gardening events and workshops and, hopefully, meet many of you. My gardening energy is sustained through sharing my experiences with others. 

May you all have a wonderful holiday season - Happy New Year!

Georgia on my mind (specifically, Decatur!)

January 30, 2015

One thing I hope to do with this blog is capture some of my experiences while out and about with Epic Tomatoes. As I've told many friends, the experience of writing a book (and all that followed) is filled with firsts, and those firsts often arrive daily. The "first" that we just returned from represents my first major book related event.  What a way to start! 

Susan and I just returned from attending and speaking at the Scion and Seed Swap, organized by the Wylde Center, in Decatur Georgia. Our hosts, Stephanie Van Parys and Robert Hamilton, were generous, gracious and simply wonderful people. The venue, the Decatur Recreation Center, was just perfect. The audience was attentive and involved. There is simply no way that the experience could have been better.  

Here is a "word stew" of impressions of our time in Decatur, written down in my journal just following the event.

FUN. Wonderful people. Generosity. Yummy (as in the baked treats that were there!). Seeds (so many samples given away by so many TO so many). Great conversations (during signing the books, and prior to and after the event). Meeting friends from the Tomatoville website and being so impressed with them. Decatur - a foodie town! Gratitude....and, always, my wife Sue, calming me down, smiling at me in the audience. 

For my next adventure.... the local book launch at Quail Ridge books and music next week, and, even before that, creating my presentations for a very full trip to Seattle - a new series of firsts - my first talk at a bookstore, first at a garden center, and first at a major regional gardening extravaganza.  

Even given all the activities to come, The Decatur event - the Seed and Scion Swap - will always hold a special place in my heart.

Brrrr after the Blur.

February 20, 2015

Reflections on our Seattle visit on a 6 degree Raleigh morning

After all the planning and anticipation, seminar preparations and practices, our week in Seattle has somehow come and gone in the blink of an eye. If it is true that the best times of our lives seem to pass the fastest, this was one of the really good ones.

The centerpiece of the trip was the spectacular Northwest Flower and Garden Show, at which I got to be on the radio (the Ciscoe Morris Show), offer two workshops, and sign lots of books. Walking through the show's many lovely display gardens was inspiring, surrounded by sweetly smelling tulips and hyacinths and countless blooming azaleas and orchids. Though the weather outside was delightfully spring-like itself - and quince, magnolias and flowering fruit trees were abundant - the combination of weather and the environment of the show itself fired the desire in me to get planting!

I am so appreciative of the many folks who made us feel so welcomed - far too many to mention by name, but including those involved with all aspects of ensuring that the workshop speakers were given first class treatment, the many I was fortunate to meet from the University Bookshop, and, of course, all of those who attended my talks and purchased my book. 

Prior to the main events, Sue, Sara and I loved our trips to Bellingham to speak at Village Books, and the workshop at Seattle's magnificent Swansons Nursery. Of course, it is always wonderful to be able to spend time with our daughter, since we live so far apart. The final unanticipated delight was discovering Uber, which made our travels around Seattle pleasant and economical.

We returned home one day late, the Raleigh storm causing flight cancellations, to a neighborhood of glazed ice roads. Up in my office are two flats of happily germinating seedlings, carefully maintained by our daughter Caitlin while we were away. Today is the day the rest of my seeds get planted. It may be single digits outside, but spring really is very close.


Taking a step back as I reach the end of the "first quarter"

March 16, 2015

Craig LeHoullier

Some thoughts and observations from the Epic Tomatoes tour:

Decatur...Bellingham...Seattle...Richmond...Raleigh...Philadelphia...Boyce...Baltimore...Bedford. 9 cities

Georgia...Washington...Virginia...North Carolina...Pennsylvania...Maryland. 6 states.

What a thrill, and what a privilege. I've had the chance to distribute lots of tomato seeds, some Large Lucky Red tomato variety seedlings, and share and learn tomato stories and growing tips from wonderful, welcoming, generous gardeners. And that's the common factor in all of these events. I've met a few old friends, and made lots of new ones. I've met some internet/phone/mail friends in person - finally. 

Something I've found really interesting is the topic of questions depending upon general location. For the Pacific Northwest, major concerns are getting tomatoes to ripen and a big time battle with late blight. Virginia has a serious issue with stink bugs. We here in North Carolina do battle with Fusarium Wilt and Early Blight. Since most gardeners adore and grow tomatoes, solving anything that gets in the way of success becomes a major focus. 

Finally, everyone wants to talk container gardening, which is great - it means that more and more people want grow tomatoes in sunny spots on their decks, driveways or patios. 

From coast to coast, from large audiences to more intimate affairs, using slide shows or demos or dinners or snacks - it's been pretty amazing, profound, memorable - and fun! I appreciate everyone who attended one of my events, purchased books, and shared their gardening passions with me.

Next stop - Charlottesville (one of our favorite places) and the Virginia Festival of the Book.  We hope to see some of you on Friday morning!


Asheville - the next stop on this most enjoyable adventure

April 21, 2015

Craig LeHoullier

Sue and I departed on Friday in a fog of wind-blown yellow green pine pollen. The road to Asheville was decorated with an endless stream of Redbuds and Dogwoods in full bloom - a soothing, constantly varying palette of shades of creams and purples. (Why are they called "Red" buds, anyway?). After a stop in Black Mountain, which houses one of Sue's favorite yarn shops, and an ice cream cone, we found ourselves in Asheville, ready for the adventure that would be the Mother Earth News Fair.

Saturday and Sunday flashed by - a dash of traffic, some long treks from the parking lot, the expected chaos of the combination of lots of people with crafts, vendors of all sorts, food trucks and other goodies, and lots of interesting gardening and related workshops. Mixed in were great pints and delicious meals at Asheville Brewing and Pizza, Sierra Nevada Brewery (just the pints there), and Plant (would could believe vegan food could be so memorable?). 

Best of all was seeing familiar gardening friends and making some new ones. My two workshops were very well attended with enthusiastic gardeners - I really enjoyed the energy and great questions that emanated from the attentive, involved audiences. I really want to express my heart felt thanks to all who attended, purchased my book, and stopped by for a chat. 

Once again, I find myself so fortunate to be on this adventure - the opportunity to share my passion with so many wonderful people, in truly special places. We now get to leave the road and stay local for a few months - which is good news, since there is so much to do with seedlings and our own garden.

The End of the First Half

May 25, 2015

Craig LeHoullier

I've reached a pretty significant milestone - the "end of the first half" in a way. When I look at my calendar, the next major event is way out there in mid July. That means one thing - rolling up my sleeves (or, more accurately, donning my tomato foliage-stained T-shirts) and immersing myself into the garden. Epic Tomatoes wouldn't have possible without a 30 year custom of doing just that. Having stories to tell and information to share requires continual growing, testing, tasting - and making mistakes (the only way I think that we can truly learn).

And what an opportunity to immerse this year - enabled by the delivery of 40 straw bales a month or so ago, destined as hosts for much of my growing efforts. I blog about the experience regularly on - particularly enlightening will be the comparison of all of the released Dwarf tomatoes, happily chugging along in straw bales in my driveway.

I often get questions inquiring about the best tomatoes for yield, vigor, health - all important attributes, but not easy to answer. I feel like a broken record sometimes - my favorite answers to tomato questions seem to be "it depends" and "do the experiment". This brings to mind how differently we all garden, and the array of hopes and expectations that we each have. I've never been a "yield" grower, or a "size" grower. As a seed saver and amateur variety breeder, as well as someone who just craves every single step along the way (planning, ordering, seeding, transplanting, maintaining and observing), I can honestly say that I love the journey more than the payoff (but don't think that I don't CRAVE the tomatoes at the end of the effort!). It's just that the unknown fascinates me, and gardening is a daily adventure - something new, exciting and different shows itself every day if you look often and close enough.

And so, for me, victory is a single tomato on each of the varieties I grow - that single tomato gives me color, size, shape, flavor - and seeds. In other words, it gives me data - information - that I can take forward and build on. When I grew heirloom tomatoes in Pennsylvania, I often achieved 40 pounds per plant. Despite the longer growing season, I am happy here in Raleigh if I can get 10 pounds off of a plant of some varieties. So much can take its toll - disease, weather, critters - it just reinforces as to how optimistic the gardening obsessed are. We often get knocked down, but we just dust ourselves off and get ready to do it again next season....often on a larger scale!

The Garden is Planted - Now What?

June 10, 2015

Craig LeHoullier

Part 1 - Laying out the Key Decisions

Most of us are now at the part of the gardening season when our decisions and actions can influence or directly impact the success (or failure) of our efforts. Up until now, we did what was needed at the time. Seeds were ordered and planted, seedlings transplanted, beds planned out and prepared, plants purchased, and all was laid out and planted - and perhaps staked and/or caged. All of those tasks made for a pretty consistently busy few months, with less room to think and ponder, and more to just do.

If all is going well, the plants are kicking in, still relatively short in stature, and easily manageable. A few suckers are appearing on the plants, perhaps flowers are opening and even setting a few tomatoes. 

It now becomes all about time, patience, observations and good, informed decisions. The schedule of what we do becomes more focused on what is needed at the moment. There is wiggle room for differing approaches.

Here is the list of items to attend part 2, I will break them down, add details, and help guide your eventual decisions for each.

  • Mulching

  • Watering 

  • Feeding

  • Pruning

  • Spraying or dusting

  • Observing - looking for signs of success or of the onset of issues

This is great time to start a garden log. Whether using a hand-held audio recorder and speaking your observations for later transcription, or traveling the garden with a pad and pen, garden logs are useful to keep track of what you are doing when, and what you are seeing - they are really useful to refer back to, either in this season or those to come.

This is really the time that not only defines garden success, but helps all of us grow as gardeners. It is when we learn, and, hopefully, improve. Sure, harvesting tomatoes is wonderful, but we are now on the journey - and to some of them (me included), this is the most fun and interesting part of the season.

The Garden is Planted - Here's What!

July 7, 2015

Craig LeHoullier

Part 2 - one gardener's approach to the key garden maintenance tasks

We are roasting in Raleigh - the days of 96-100 degree temperatures and high humidity seem endless and infinite. Despite such uncomfortable conditions, the garden is doing very well....with a little help from it's friend (me!).  In the last blog I laid out a list of garden post-planting maintenance considerations.  I will now flesh them out a bit with my own approaches.

  • Mulching - there are two great reasons to apply a mulch around the tomato plants; moisture retention, and to serve as a barrier between the soil and plant foliage. Splashing of disease-containing soil onto lower leaves is a key mode of plant infection. Keep it simple; I use grass clippings (we don't treat our lawn with anything at all, so they are safe to use). 

  • Watering - Daily conditions and plant location, as well as the plants themselves, tell me when to water. Plants in a traditional garden - situated in soil - have a larger reservoir of water to draw from than those in containers, raised beds or straw bales. During this heat wave, I water twice per day; all of my tomatoes are in bales or containers, planted in soil-less mix - it is virtually impossible to over-water. It is important to water at the base of the plant and leave the foliage as dry as possible.

  • Feeding - The factors for watering need hold generally true for fertilizing as well. I am feeding my plants weekly, using a general purpose water soluble fertilizer, applying at the base with a watering can.

  • Pruning - Dwarf or determinate varieties need no pruning, though they should be secured to short stakes, or caged. Indeterminate tomato varieties can be pruned (suckers/side shoots removed) very flexibly, depending upon how many main growing stems you can control, using your staking method. Caged tomatoes need not be pruned at all. I like to allow two suckers to develop, so that my plants have three fruiting stems.

  • Spraying or dusting for insects and disease - You are on your own to decide if and when to spray or dust, and what to use. Chemical or organic or nothing at all is a very personal choice that relates to your own particular philosophy on what to or not to use. Good garden hygiene, plants well spaced, and beginning with healthy plants, combined with frequent observation and trouble shooting go a long way to reducing the need to deal with issues. This year I've used Thuricide (a biological defense against worms and caterpillars) to try to keep the tomato fruit worm under control. 

  • Observing - looking for signs of success or of the onset of issues - is the most fun part of gardening. I check things out at least once a day, and usually more. I walk about with a hand held voice recorder, and transcribe my notes onto my laptop that evening (although it is hard to keep up...I have dozens of segments waiting to be transferred to my Excel spreadsheet!). I like to comment on the general health of plant, occurrence of issues, and emerging fruit shape, size and eventually, color and flavor. It is so valuable to be able to look back on previous results...and it is just a great learning tool.

That's enough for now - I am sure all of you are busy keeping things growing well, and in eager anticipation of the bounty to come!

Watering and harvesting, seed saving and cooking and preserving - with a dash of traveling and speaking

August 3, 2015

Craig LeHoullier

I feel like this is the perfect storm of activity. It has been really dry in Raleigh and my tomato plants are always thirsty, residing in their bales or grow bags with no way to reach for in-ground water reserves. As I water the plants, I note instances of inevitable diseases, and many plants tipping or waving in the breeze, a consequence of my lack of attention to topping and pruning.

I also notice that ripe tomatoes abound - along with eggplants and peppers; that calls for harvesting (armed with a Sharpie to write on the veggies that are intended for seed saving). Harvesting demands action - first a triage (which to let ripen further, which to save seeds from, victims for imminent eating or processing), and then the acts themselves. 

Along side the joyous chaos of harvest time and continual care has been so many wonderful opportunities to be with tomato enthusiasts and gardeners. From a delicious tomato dinner at the Irregardless Cafe to a lovely stay in Mt. Holly, on to a meaningful Seed Savers Exchange Campout, just to name a few....and they keep coming, and will, right into November.

Through it all, the energy, camaraderie and kindness of audiences everywhere has been inspirational. It is like a reinforcing circle - gardening is followed by engagement with audiences, which provides ideas and energy to garden some more. I am a really fortunate person, a bit more than half way through a truly remarkable and utterly unexpected year.