Craig LeHoullier’s (aka NC Tomato Man’s) Top Six Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes are always popular at the North Carolina State Farmer's Market in Raleigh.
Heirloom tomatoes are always popular at the North Carolina State Farmer’s Market in Raleigh.

I hated tomatoes as a child. You couldn’t get me to eat one, even with sugar sprinkled on it. The only tomato-based products that passed my lips were ketchup on a hamburger or watery spaghetti sauce. Then I married a wise man who insisted that our first home wouldn’t be complete unless there was a vegetable garden in the back yard with tomatoes. I had to agree with him that a homegrown beefsteak tomato was pretty good on a BLT and that tiny cherry tomatoes fresh from the garden did add a special je ne sais quoi to a salad. But still, I was confused. Why was this plain vegetable/fruit so prized by so many?

There's nothing like a BLT with homegrown heirloom tomatoes.
There’s nothing like a BLT with homegrown heirloom tomatoes.

Then, in the mid-1990’s, I met Craig LeHoullier, a man who speaks about tomatoes the same way a connoisseur describes vintage wines, fine antiques or classical music. His tomatoes are heirlooms. They have names, family histories, and, most importantly, incredible flavor.

LeHoullier is a retired chemist living in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he sells old varieties of tomatoes, hybridizes his own, writes about tomatoes (see The American Gardener Magazine, March/April 2013, A Spectrum of Heirloom Tomatoes), and frequently lectures about them. He is considered one of the country’s heirloom tomato experts, writing under the name NCTomatoman.

Years ago, I asked LeHoullier why he invests so much of his free time growing heirloom tomatoes. He passionately explained, “These tomatoes cannot be commercialized. Their skins are thin, and they are too juicy to be shipped. They must be grown in home gardens. We can’t let these genes disappear.”

“What are your favorite tomatoes?” I followed, not knowing that he had grown over a thousand varieties. LeHoullier quickly began listing the attributes of this oxheart or that potato-leafed variety, including where he first got the seeds and the details of his own growing experiences. I marveled that he could remember all his tomatoes like they were his children. LeHoullier modestly confessed to having a photographic memory.
Since most of us don’t have this gift, here is a short list of six of his all-time favorites:

  1. ‘Anna Russian’: A large-fruited, pink, heart-shaped tomato that’s early to bear, this variety has excellent flavor, lots of seeds and dates back to around the turn of the twentieth century. LeHoullier initially received his seeds from Brenda Hilenius of Oregon, who received hers as a family hand-me-down. According to family legend, these seeds were shared by a Russian immigrant.
  2. ‘Cherokee Purple’: Characterized by a most unusual color, this purple-skinned, red-fleshed, green gel-filled beauty is sweet tasting, like a tomato fruit should be. The pass-along plant came to LeHoullier in 1990 by way of J.D. Green of Sevierville, Tennessee, who told LeHoullier that a local Cherokee tribe shared it with his neighbors a century ago. LeHoullier named it, promoted it, and now ‘Cherokee Purple’ is a familiar favorite at local farmer’s markets.
  3. ‘Mortgage Lifter’: LeHoullier describes this variety as “fantastic.” It is a large, flattish, pink tomato weighing up to three pounds. The story goes that it was the result of hybridizing by “Radiator Charlie” Byles of West Virginia around 1920. By selling his disease-resistant creation, Byles was able to pay off the mortgage to his property, hence the name’s origin.
  4. ‘Hugh’s’: A late-season, 2-3 pound, lemon yellow tomato from Archie Hook of Indiana, ‘Hugh’s’ is another sweet variety that disproves the myth that yellow tomatoes are bland. Delicious and prolific, it is a favorite among gardeners who save seed.
  5. ‘Ruby Gold’: A large bicolored beefsteak with yellow fruit marbled in red, ‘Ruby Gold’ is LeHoullier’s favorite sweet slicer for cheeseburgers.
  6. ‘Brandywine’: LeHoullier explained that he had to grow three batches of tomatoes that were called ‘Brandywine’ before he found the real thing. The correct variant was worth the search. It has large red fruit and usually matures mid-season. The true ‘Brandywine’ is the tomato that others are often judged against for both flavor and hardiness.


The gorgeous 'Pink Berkeley Tie Dye' lives up to its name.
The gorgeous ‘Pink Berkeley Tie Dye’ lives up to its name.

To Craig LeHoullier’s list I must add a remarkable tomato recently passed along to me by Gerald Adams, Grounds Supervisor of the North Carolina Executive Mansion, and another tomato fancier extraordinaire. Gerald’s pick is ‘Pink Berkeley Tie Dye’ (from California, of course), an unusual pinkish purplish fruit covered with almost chartreuse-colored stripes, and though it sometimes gets cat-faced, it definitely challenges ‘Cherokee Purple’ for sweetness. The one that Adams gave to me created one of the best BLT sandwiches I have enjoyed in a long time.
Gardeners often ask whether heirloom tomatoes are easier to grow, more prolific, hardier, or more disease-resistant than newly introduced varieties. The honest answer is, “not necessarily.” It really depends on the tomato, but all will grow better in well-amended garden soil and are ‘heavy eaters’ requiring applications of a quality fertilizer like a quality Tomato & Vegetable fertilizer, which is OMRI Listed for organic gardening. Provide full sun, adequate and even watering, and a cooling mulch at the base, such as Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, and plants should thrive. Plenty of elbow room between plants will also promote good air circulation for good health. Follow these simple tomato growing guidelines and your garden will be bursting with fabulous heirloom tomatoes.

Growing Melons

Nothing tastes quite like homegrown melons fresh from the garden.

Melons are a summer favorite that always have a home in my garden. Truly, the large, sweet, globose fruits are one of the most satisfying garden edibles to grow. As long as one has a sunny, spacious spot with good soil on high ground, growing watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, and other melons is a snap. And for those with smaller gardens, there are always space-saving bush varieties.

Continue reading “Growing Melons”

A Guide to Edible Flowers

A bumblebee pollinates the edible flowers of borage.

Well-placed culinary blooms are surprisingly delicious and bring unique and elegant beauty to the table. Many edible flowers are common garden plants, which provides even more encouragement for everyday gardeners to add them to everyday recipes. They are not just for chefs and connoisseurs.

Edible flowers fall under two categories: herbal flowers and edible garden flowers. Most garden herbs have edible flowers—though you always want to double check before chowing down on any bloom. Some garden ornamentals also have edible flowers, but only a handful of these are really tasty.

Beware Florist’s Blooms

There are a few caveats to eating edible flowers. First, never eat flowers from a florist because they have often been sprayed with chemicals. In turn, never spray garden flowers you intend to eat. Even pesticides and herbicides approved for organic gardening are a no-no.  Flowers are too delicate to wash, so if you want to eat them, let nature tend to them.

Cultivating Edible Flowers

For the cultivation of all the herbs and flowers highlighted in the tables below, provide full sun, average moisture, and quality garden soil with good drainage. The addition of OMRI Listed Black Gold® Garden Compost Blend will improve performance. A granular fertilizer formulated for flowering is also recommended.

Pretty chive flowers and a sweet onion flavor to fresh cucumber salad.
Pretty chive flowers add a sweet onion flavor to fresh cucumber salad.

A favorite springtime edible flower recipe is chive flower cucumber salad. It’s very easy to make and will compliment lots of spring meal plans. To make the salad, thinly slice 2 cucumbers (peel them if they are thick-skinned), then make a dressing that combines 2  tablespoons white wine vinegar, 1  teaspoon sugar, 1/3 cup heavy cream, 1 shallot finely minced,  1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill. and salt and pepper to taste. Mix the dressing and cucumbers then toss with 2 to 3 chive flowers that have been trimmed and gently broken apart. The chive flowers lend a delicate oniony flavor to the salad that makes it extra delicious!


Popular Edible Herb Flowers

Herb Look & Flavor  
Basil  (Ocimum spp.) If your basil plants flower in summer, eat the zesty purplish or white basil blooms and green buds. They taste lovely on salads and veggies.  Ocimum-basilicum-Cinnamon-JaKMPM-300x200
Borage (Borago officinalis) Pure violet blue and flavored like cucumber, these early summer flowers look and taste lovely on any fresh savory dish.  Borago-officinalis-1024x682
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) Beautiful tufts of mauve blooms with pure chive flavor bedeck these plants in spring. Break them apart and use in place of chives.  100
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) Umbels of lacy white flowers are the precursor to coriander seeds. Use the fresh tasting spring or fall blooms in place of fresh cilantro.  Coriandrum sativum2
Dill (Anethum graveolens) Yellow or chartreuse green dill flowers appear in spring or fall and taste as dilly as the leaves but add good looks to dishes.  Dill
Lavender (Lavandula spp.) Lavender is a common culinary herb in the South of France. The flavorful summer flowers add charm and flavor to grilled lamb or herbed goat cheese spread.  Lavender
Mints (Mentha spp.) All mints have wonderfully minty summer flowers that may be white or purplish. Add them to any dish calling for fresh mint, from tabouli to desserts.  Mentha
Oregano (Origanum officinalis) The purple or white summer flowers of oregano lend potent oregano flavor to savory dishes.  050
Thyme (Thymus spp.) The early summer flowers of thyme may be pink, white or purple and taste delicately of thyme. Sprinkle them on spring cream soups or salads.  Thyms.ashx
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Blooming intermittently in fall, winter or spring, rosemary flowers are white or purplish and pair well with grilled meats and savory salads.  Rosemary


Popular Edible Garden Flowers

Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) These cheerful cool weather annuals have flowers in warm colors. Their petals have a spicy flavor and lend interest to salads.  Calendula
Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) Daylily buds and petals taste almost like lettuce. The summer blooming plants have colorful flowers in almost every shade but true blue.  Hemerocallis 'Red Razzle Dazzle' JaKMPM
Marigold (Tagetes spp.) True marigold flowers have a sharp, somewhat citrusy flavor that lend good flavor to heirloom tomato salads.  tagetes
Monarda (Monarda spp.) The zesty, somewhat minty flavor of summer blooming Monarda flowers can be used to decorate salads or desserts.  045
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) Summer blooming nasturtiums have flowers that are peppery tasting, like watercress. They are beautiful and add appeal to fresh savory dishes.  Nasturtium
Pansy (Viola hybrids) Violas are cool season flowers with a mild, sweet flavor and bright color. They can be candied and used to decorate desserts.  Viola Sorbet Lemon Chiffon JaKMPM
Rose (Rosa spp.) Rose petals can be used alone in fresh confections or used to make rose water. Be sure to only use garden flowers that have not been sprayed or treated in any way. Candied rose petals taste lovely with almond desserts.  Blushing Knock Out
Violet (Viola spp.) Spring blooming wild violets have a stronger sweet violet flavor than hybrid pansies, but they can be used in the same way.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Growing Tomatoes and Berries in Containers


Brazelberries™ Raspberry Shortcake In Square Terra Cotta Pot - Photo Courtesy of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery
Bushel and Berry® Raspberry Shortcake ® In Square Terra Cotta Pot – Photo Courtesy of Bushel and Berry®

It is always fun visiting garden shows to see what plants for container gardening are new and which are being promoted by nurseries for the retail customer. Some plants are not really ‘new’ but are probably ‘new’ to a homeowner and perhaps have not been readily available in garden centers because of lack of adequate production. At the recent Yard, Garden & Patio Show in Portland, the BrazelBerries™ Series of berries caught my attention.

 Berries for Containers

Who does not love picking a fresh raspberry in the summer and eating it directly from the plant? It is difficult to duplicate that flavor from a store-bought berry. Raspberries are one of my favorite berries and unfortunately in our garden, we do not have space or the sunny location that the plants traditionally require.

The good news for home gardeners is that a new series of berries has been developed targeted specifically for those with small space gardens or a deck or patio where containers can be used. This new container gardening-friendly series called Bushel and Berry® will be available in garden centers this spring season. The inaugural plant is a thornless dwarf raspberry called Raspberry Shortcake®. It is great for container gardening and requires no staking and has sturdy upright canes. An added bonus is that it has no thorns and produces raspberries in mid-summer.

Two other introductions in this series are compact blueberry plants, which would also be ideal for container gardening. Peach Sorbet™ has beautiful spring color in the new growth that ranges from pink to orange. In a mild winter, it will keep the leaves when the foliage turns purple, thus providing color year round. The second blueberry introduction is called Jelly Bean™ and is very dwarf, only reaching 1-2 ft in height. Both of these blueberries have the typical colorful blueberry new growth and flowers in spring. Even though these two blueberry plants are small in their growth habit, the fruit size is what we think of as normal blueberry.

Brazelberries™ Raspberry Shortcake In Square Terra Cotta Pot - Photo Courtesy of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery
BrazelBerries™ Jelly Bean Blueberry Plant – Photo Courtesy of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery

For those gardeners wanting container plants that not only look good but can also supply edible berries, these are three ideal plants. I am personally a big fan of container gardening and have many containers throughout my garden. However, except for my variegated Meyer Lemon, I do not have any plants in containers that produce anything edible. That will change this year with the addition of BrazelBerries™ in some of my containers.

For Raspberry Shortcake™, I would suggest a large container whereas the Peach Sorbet™ and Jelly Bean™ blueberries could be in a smaller size. However, I have found it is best to have a larger size container than might actually be needed for the plant as plants in small containers tend to dry out quicker in the summer and a larger size will help alleviate this. Fill the pot with Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil as it supplies not only earthworm castings but also perlite and pumice for aeration and good drainage, which these berries need. Mix some additional fertilizer formulated for fruit for best results. Your containers should be placed in a sunny location. Together with this combination of potting soil and fertilizer, your plants should thrive.

Indigo Rose Tomato Plant - Photo By Rich Baer
Indigo Rose Tomato Plant – Photo By Rich Baer

Tomatoes for Containers

This is also the time of year to be thinking of buying tomato seeds and making preparations for starting them indoors. A location near a sunny window is ideal and having a heat mat is also a benefit. Tomatoes are easy to start from seed and should be kept indoors until all danger of frost is over. The Oregon State University introduction ‘Indigo Rose’ was disappointing to some because of the late maturing fruits but for an ornamental plant in a container, it puts on quite a show in clusters of purple fruit. A healthful bonus is the high amount of anthocyanin occurring in the purple pigment.

It can be a rewarding project to start your own tomatoes from seed and it is quite easy. Begin with good quality seeds and sow in a tray of Black Gold Seedling Mix. This seedling mix has been formulated with a wetting agent to help with water penetration and the fine texture encourages high germination. Keep the mix moist until seeds germinate and when seedlings reach several inches in height, transplant to a small pot, 4-inch size is ideal, and use Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. This is 100% organic and OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) listed.

I like to ask listeners to my radio program which tomato performed the best for them and the winner this past year was from the former country of Czechoslovakia. The tomato is called ‘Stupice’. It is a cold-tolerant tomato and is ideal for our unpredictable spring weather here in the Pacific Northwest as well. It is good for both eating fresh as well as in salads. Harry Olson, a Salem, Oregon tomato grower, told me it was his first tomato to ripen in the spring then it continued producing fruit all summer and was the last tomato he picked in the fall.

Spring is coming, let’s get ready!

Container Gardening Stupice Tomato - Photo By Rich Baer
Container Gardening Stupice Tomato – Photo By Rich Baer

Growing Common Figs in the Garden

Figs may ripen to green, maroon, or brown, depending on the variety.

Figs (Ficus carica) have yet to become commonplace in American gardens, although they are surprisingly easy to grow and even easier to eat. Some consider them frost-tender and finicky, but this is far from true. The tough, fruitful shrubs are exceptionally drought tolerant, due to their Middle Eastern and Mediterranean roots, and many cultivated varieties are remarkably hardy, even in more northern landscapes. Figs are also relatively self-sustaining, requiring little supplemental care once established. Truly earthy, sweet figs are perfect starter fruits for budding food gardeners with space and inclination.

Fig Origins

A late-season fig ready for harvest.

Figs were one of the first domesticated fruits (along with olives, dates, and grapes) originating from the dry lands of the Middle East. Very early on, they were brought as far West as Portugal, and today wild shrubs freely grow across southern Europe and northern Africa as well as the Middle East, where they populate lowland stream and lakesides. In North America, they have become a lucrative crop, particularly in California and Texas. And here too, figs have escaped cultivation and are considered invasive in the southeastern United States and California, though seedless cultivars are available.

The small trees or large shrubs reach an average of 20 feet, and they are deep-rooted, though relatively tender. Their fleshy, sweet, teardrop-shaped fruits are called syconia (singular syconium) and are only pollinated by tiny fig wasps.

Fig Types

Cultivated figs have four standard fruiting types: Common, Smyrna, San Pedro. and Caprifigs. Each type has its own flowering and fruiting characteristics, but this piece will focus on Common figs because they are the most popular in North American gardens. This is because they don’t require cross-pollination, many cultivars are hardy, and some even have seedless fruits.

Contained Figs - Jessie Keith
Contained figs often maintain a smaller stature.

Common figs set fruit parthenocarpically, which means “without a pollinator”, so a single plant will set fruit. The fruits vary widely in size, color, sweetness, and flavor – some are eaten fresh while others taste best dried. In mild climates, plants may appear to produce fruits continuously through the growing season, but more commonly they produce crops in two flushes—once in spring and again in fall. The first spring crop is called the “breba crop” and produces fruit on last season’s growth; the fall crop is called the “main crop” and produces fruit on the current season’s new growth.

Fruit quality and shrub hardiness vary widely among Common figs. For this reason, they are further subdivided into several cultivar types, the commonest being Brown Turkey and Mission types.

Brown Turkey Figs

Delectably sweet ‘Bordeaux’ figs have strawberry-colored inner flesh.

Brown Turkey-type figs are by far the hardiest but are not the most flavorful. Their brown to green fruits are earthy and less sweet, but a few cultivars are remarkably tasty. The small-fruited, sugar fig ‘Celeste’ (USDA Hardiness Zone 7-10) is deliciously sweet and produces loads of small, squat, purplish-brown fruits on second-year wood. And the French ‘Blanche’ fig (aka. ‘Marseilles’, USDA Hardiness Zone 8-10) is an old, green-fruited variety brought to the Americas by Thomas Jefferson and grown at his Virginia estate, Monticello. Jefferson described the sweet fruits as, “unquestionably superior to any fig I have ever seen.” They are also excellent for drying.


Mission Figs

Mission-type figs are dark-skinned with rosy pink flesh and are by far the most popular for eating, fresh or dried. Many varieties are cold-tender, but a few will handle colder winters. The relatively compact and hardy ‘Black Jack’ (USDA Hardiness Zone 7-10) produces many sweet, purple-black fruits and reaches an average of 12 feet but can be pruned to a productive height of 6 feet. For many growers, the equally compact and hardy ‘Bordeaux’ (aka. ‘Violette de Bordeaux’, USDA Hardiness Zone 7-10) has the best-tasting fruit of all. The super sweet purplish black fruits have strawberry-colored inner flesh. Both ‘Bordeaux’ and ‘Black Jack’ grow well in large containers if regularly pruned and maintained.

Figs Sucker from the Base - Jessie Keith
Figs tend to sucker from the base. Remove suckers if you want plants to maintain a single stem.

Growing Figs

Figs grow best in full to partial sun and average, slightly alkaline soil with good drainage. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers that will encourage leafy growth and reduce fruit production. Any quality fruit tree fertilizer would be perfect for figs and should be administered once a year in late winter or spring.

Mulch the roots with at least 3 inches of mulch to protect the roots in winter, and amend the soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, as needed. Container-grown specimens grow beautifully in Black Gold Natural and Organic Potting Soil and can be overwintered in a conservatory, garage or basement if provided cool temperatures and very little water while dormant or semi-dormant.

Though self-sustaining once established, figs will become unproductive if left unpruned for too long. Removal of the oldest, largest stems in spring keeps shrubs more compact, manageable and fruitful. Dead wood can also become a problem. Specimens planted in the coldest zones often die to the ground, with new branches arising from the living roots in the spring; all dead wood should be pruned back before new shoots emerge.

So, plant a fig for food and fun. With so many delicious and surprisingly hardy selections, they are truly fruits for every gardener.

Good fig varieties are sweet and delicious. (Image by Eric in SF)