by Henry Lane Hull

This past weekend the Master Gardeners of the Northern Neck hosted the 25th annual Gardening in the Northern Neck Seminar, which sold out to an audience of 350 enthusiastic plant lovers.

Craig LeHoullier, the author of Epic Tomatoes, How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, and resuscitator of many brands and flavors of heirloom tomatoes, addressed the group on his work over the last three decades in propagating and preserving the species.

Craig is a chemist by profession, a native of Rhode Island and graduate of Rhode Island College. He holds a Ph.D. from Dartmouth and spent his first career in the world of chemistry with assignments all across the country. He and his wife, Susan, who accompanied him, began their first joint garden in 1981, the year after they were married. Since his retirement, he has devoted his new career to intensive study of the tomato and how its heirloom varieties can be preserved and expanded to the gardening public.

During his presentation Saturday, Craig showed numerous slides of many of his varieties. He is one of the most sharing individuals one could meet, motivated by his desire to stimulate others to participate in his efforts to promote the tomato in all of its varieties and glories. He spoke of his early association with the Seed Savers Exchange that began in 1986, a non-governmental organization that was founded near Decorah, Iowa, in 1975. The Exchange’s mission is to perpetuate plant species by saving heirloom seeds and sharing them with others nationally and internationally.

In his book, Epic Tomatoes, Craig discusses many of the 4,000 varieties of tomatoes with which he has experimented. He also has worked with 250 types of peppers and over 100 species of eggplants. One of the most engaging sections of the book is entitled, “Breed Your Own Tomatoes,” wherein he covers varieties he has developed on his own, some of which now are standard.

Of particular service to those of us in the Northern Neck is his treatment of tomato diseases and how to combat them. Until hearing his presentation and reading his book, I always had assumed that black spot and fungus problems in this area were endemic and one had to live with them. The book happily explains that such is not necessarily the case.

Craig’s other book is also useful for those of us fighting some of the soil conditions of our area. Entitled, Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales, Easy Planting, Less Weeding, Early Harvests, it looks at the straw bale as a home for numerous types of vegetables. Using such a repository the gardener can economize on the initial outlay as the bales are less expensive than potting soil and other media that one would use in a raised bed. In addition, having the bed two feet off the ground makes tedious picking of peas and beans less backbreaking and labor intensive.

The LeHoulliers are representative of a growing wave of people who are seeking to return to earlier practices, finding in them a wisdom that largely has been lost in our race to modernity. For years they have made their own yogurt, which they profess to have much better flavor than store-bought varieties. Susan is a professional quilter, who enjoys making over fabrics that otherwise would be discarded into objects of beauty in their new right.

Craig showed pictures of his former garage and driveway, now the breeding ground for his tomatoes and the esplanade for their subsequent life in hundreds of containers on the concrete. As he lives in North Carolina he has a long growing season in which to plant, grow, harvest and process his production. His Carolina connections originally put him in contact with the traditional Cherokee tomato seeds that led to his promotion of that species into the marketplace.

Craig is a dedicated gardener, who proclaims that anyone who gives him seeds should expect that he then will share them with the world at large. As he spoke, the audience was filled with admiration for his prodigious accomplishments in nurturing and developing one of America’s favorite fruits and everyone was all the more eager for the arrival of spring.