Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Tomato Talk and Seed Swap

A few years ago, I had the delightful opportunity to interview Lisa Hilgenberg, the lead horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This February, I was kindly invited by Lisa to join a number of Chicago-area bloggers and journalists at a luncheon and lecture featuring tomato guru Craig LeHoullier, as well as diving into the annual Seed Swap.

Lisa Hilgenberg, CBG's Regenstein Garden's lead horticulturist, and guest lecturer, Craig LeHoullier
Before the lecture, we all had a chance to mingle and share some of our own garden stories with each other. I finally had the opportunity to meet Lamanda Joy, the force behind the Peterson Garden Project, as well as a number of other people who combine their love of writing and gardening. I'm very much looking forward to adding them to my list of regular garden blogs, and perhaps even luring a few of them to come teach at our garden.

A few pages from an old seed catalog that Craig shared with us
 Lisa led us to the subject of our discussion: "Tomatoes are the most dangerously sexy vegetable out there!" Remember, they used to be considered poisonous, and then were called Love Apples. She told us about her favorite variety, the Power's Heirloom, and gave us some seeds to try it ourselves, then introduced us to our guest lecturer.

Craig had recently launched his book, Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, and shared some of his hard-won wisdom with us.

"I didn't choose tomatoes as my favorite vegetable," he insists. "The tomato chose me." People started sending him seeds they'd collected over the years, along with the stories that went with them. In 1990, he was sent the seeds of a tomato that had been given to the family generations ago, from the local Native Americans. Craig cultivated the seeds and found they grew a delicious, if startlingly ugly, tomato, and urged a seed sales company to carry it. They humored him, even though they thought the bruised-looking color would put people off. Today, that tomato is one of the most popular heirlooms around: the Cherokee Purple.

His big project these days is developing dwarf tomato plants that can be grown in containers, yet still produce full-sized fruit (he generously gave us some seeds for a few of these dwarfs; look for them in our plant sale!).

A few quick tomato tips that Craig shared during his lecture:
• You can plant dozens of seeds per cell in your seedling tray; barely cover them and use Saran Wrap to hold in moisture, flipping it daily.
• When you transplant, plant them deep (trim off the lowest leaves).
• Mulching is VERY important with tomatoes; it helps prevent splashing soil onto the leaves during watering, which is the cause of a number of tomato problems.
• Give at least 3 feet of space between plants, so air can circulate.
• The smaller the fruit, the less fussy the plant.
• You want to bottom-water your tomatoes and minimize wetting foliage.
• Consider planting your tomatoes in straw bales (I bought Craig's book on straw bale gardening; I'm happy to loan it to any of our gardeners).

Some of Craig's favorite tomatoes include:
• Cherokee Purple ("Fifty Shades of Purple!")
• Cherokee Green
• Cherokee Chocolate
• Lucky Cross (Little Lucky)
• Lillian's Yellow Heirloom
• Green Giant
• Nepal
• Sun Gold (yes, it's a hybrid, so you can't save the seeds… but it's "tomato crack")
• Brandywine
• Rosella Purple (dwarf)
• Dwarf Sweet Sue

After the lecture, hundreds of gardeners swarmed tables filled with seeds. I managed to elbow my way in and score a few more for our garden, and we'll distribute them at our Opening Day celebration on Sunday, April 17 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). 

Thank you, Chicago Botanic Garden, for your support of home gardeners and community gardens! I had a blast at this event, and look forward to applying what I've learned… and maybe I'll have a few seeds of my own to add to the swap next year!

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