Getting Dirty in Your Garden, Radio Podcast Featuring the NC Tomato Man – Craig LeHoullier

— Written By
NC Tomato Man, Craig LeHoullier

NC Tomato Man, Craig LeHoullier

Getting Dirty in Your Garden
Extension Master Gardener
Radio Show and Podcast

Tune in for expert advise on selecting and growing tomatoes in North Carolina. The NC Tomato Man, Craig LeHoullier, shares history, tips and interesting facts.

Transcript

HAROLD JOHNSON
This is Getting Dirty in Your Garden, brought to you by North Carolina State Extension Master Gardener Volunteers. I am your host, Harold Johnson, and I’m a Master Gardener in Durham County. Some interviews provide intellectual stimulation. We think, reason, and add to our memory. This interview provokes an entirely different response; your taste buds activate. As you listen to Charles Murphy talk tomatoes with Craig Lehoullier, I suspect at some point you’ll remember and almost taste a ripe, juicy, maybe slightly sweet home-grown summer tomato. Caution! You might need a napkin as you listen!

CHARLES MURPHY
Well hello, again! This is Charles Murphy, North Carolina State Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Durham County and today we are talking with Craig Lehoullier who is also known as the North Carolina Tomatoman. So what we want to do is get some tips about growing tomatoes and find out what he can share with us from his wealth of knowledge. Craig, you’re obviously passionate about tomatoes. You write about tomatoes, you grow tomatoes; you’re breeding new strains of tomatoes, or helping to do that. How did you get involved in tomatoes? What prompted that?

CRAIG LEHOULLIER
That’s a fun question! First of all, Happy New Year, and thank you very much, Charles and Harold, for the opportunity to speak to you today. This is a treat! It’s my first one of the year, which is always special. Really, there are almost two answers to that. The first is why do I love gardening? For that I really do pin that on my grandfather and my dad. I find from talking to lots of gardeners over the last few years that most people who love gardening seem to have a family connection, a loved one, someone in the past that took them by the hand and walked them through their garden. I was fortunate that that’s what happened to me. That went dormant for a while because you’re a boy and you play with your trucks, you discover girls, you go to school, and the whole gardening thing becomes dormant for a while. When I met and married my wife and I was in graduate school in New Hampshire in 1980 the first thing we decided to do was plant a garden and we have had a garden every year since, so we are essentially 35 years and counting. As far as why tomatoes, I like to tell people I feel that crops choose us. So I like to think we choose these hobbies, but if you listen to what’s blowing in the air, a crop or a passion will find you. Whether it’s the fact that I loved my grandfather and he grew great tomatoes and his tomatoes were the first that I tasted that I actually loved. I was a tomato hater until I was about 14 or 15 years old. Then you think of the morphological variations in size, color, flavor. You add in the heirlooms and you can grow a living museum, the sky was the limit! Other things—they are not terribly difficult to grow, although they are challenging because everything in the world goes after them, just like roses. You can save seeds fairly easily from them. And they don’t cross all that readily, so it’s almost a garden passion, especially an heirloom gardener’s passion—just jewel box–to be able to focus on a wonderful crop like tomatoes.

MURPHY
Well, it’s supposed to be the most popular garden crop vegetable–that’s not truly a vegetable–that’s grown in the country. I think that that’s obvious when you look at the numbers of people who have tomato plants stuck here, there and yonder around their yard and in their garden.

LEHOULLIER
Yeah! So you take that fact and juxtapose that with the fact that we’ve been eating things like onions, potatoes and peas and beans for thousands of years, but the tomato in America really didn’t gain acceptance until the mid-1800’s. So in terms of the crop that we grow and the efforts to improve it, it is a relative newbie. Yet, it has just caught fire amongst culinary people, gardeners and people just love to slice them and let the juice drip down their chin when they bite into them.

MURPHY
Or walk through the garden, and pick one off, dust it and take a big bite out of it, which I have done in the past.

LEHOULLIER
I confess, yes!

MURPHY
There was a time that the tomato showed up from the New World, I think, brought back into Europe, probably with Spanish explorers, and introduced. But there was a time when they were regarded, perhaps, as an ornamental plant, but nothing you should eat.

LEHOULLIER
Yes. Yes.

MURPHY
Was that because of its relationship with nightshade, partly or did people just not understand what it was?

LEHOULLIER
It has been fun theorizing that; there have been several historical books on tomatoes, but it seems to be a combination of what you said—being a member of the nightshade family. There has been an extrapolation that this might not be a good thing to eat. There is a story that somewhere in Europe a chef–it might have been Napoleon; it may have been a king—was going to prepare tomatoes, but instead of the fruit, they cooked up a mess of the greens and made everybody sick. [laughter] One I picked up recently is they are wondering if the acidity of tomatoes reacted with the pewter and the cutlery used to serve them on and may have led to some form of metal poisoning among people. One that I actually think makes a lot of sense is when you think of the sanitary conditions of the country at the time when the tomato was just becoming known, wasn’t that great. The quality of water, pests, cow dung, and other things in the garden that could have brought E.coli around. Tomatoes are a hot weather crop. You are going to wash those tomatoes before you eat them. And there is a chance that some people got sick from the tomato but they were blaming the wrong agent—it was something on the skin. I would suspect all four of those reasons may contribute to it—it’s a theory, anyway.

MURHPHY
Well, it’s interesting to look at the history. You are right—it has just taken off. Once people decided that they were good to eat, there was no stopping them, was there?

LEHOULLIER
One of the things I love to do about gardening is to look at old seed catalogs. If you were to look at a seed catalog from 1840—and it’s an interesting time to talk about this is because a lot of our mail boxes are being stuffed with seed catalogs, which is one of the things that enthuses gardeners to do it all again. In 1840, you may have seen a listing for a tomato called ‘Tomato’. There was only one type that came over. In 1850 you would have seen “Large Yellow”, “Large Red”, “Red Cherry”, “Yellow Cherry”. So really it wasn’t until American seed breeders got their hands on it and started thinking about the potential. A lot of those early varieties, and all the colors, the sizes and shapes we see probably came out of either bees buzzing around gardens and crossing, which was allowing some recessive genetic shapes to show or just mutations. Mutations in the gardening world happen. You just have to be lucky enough to find one. So between 1850 and 1870, one or two or three varieties then became 20 or 30. And then a decade later they’d become 80 or 100. Clearly around that time American seedsman saw the growing fascination with this, and they just set apart to breed, create and release as many varieties as they could get their hands on, to where we are sitting here in 2016 [with] probably 10,000 choices of named varieties or more that we could grow. Yet, if we were to do DNA testing, we would probably find that there were no more than 1,000 or 2,000 discrete varieties. It’s just a lot of these have picked up synonyms. Somebody gives you a German Johnson and you forget the name of it. Uncle Charlie loves it! “What is that tomato?” “Oh, we call it ‘Uncle Charlie’s Favorite’!” Now your German Johnson has picked up an extra name and all of a sudden it’s Joe’s Delight. I think a lot of our heirlooms have maybe 20 or 30 names attached to them just by being passed around through the years.

MURPHY
That’s why [we have] Mrs. Lindsey’s Yellow or Gold or whatever…something like that. That’s interesting. Well, the first tomatoes obviously didn’t look much like what they look like now. Is the development partly a combination of the things you said–deliberate interbreeding and then just chance interbreeding in the garden and that sort of thing–to get to the point where we are now?

LEHOULLIER
Yeah, the tomato as it originated and is still on the mountains of South American—I have a variety called Mexico Midget–that is the size of a pea. That tomato probably represents exactly what the very first tomato looked like growing on those mountains. Then it made its way to Central America and somehow the Incas and the Aztecs, through finding mutations, through cross-breeding, bred the size up to where the larger tomatoes that Cortez brought back to Spain existed—yellow ones and red ones. However, they tended to be very pleated and ugly looking. In fact, if you go to the supermarket now and you can find something called the “Ugly Tomato” that’s got all the creases and folds. That probably represents…and if you look at paintings from the 1500 and 1600’s, the tomato is quite ugly. It is then, the American seedsmen starting with Alexander Livingston in the 1870’s that was trying to satisfy what Americans seem to really want tomatoes for, which is canning. Because your garden pumps out a lot of fruit, you can’t eat it all in the summertime. But, what we wanted to do was be able to eat from the garden all year. A canning tomato would be medium sized, very smooth and not much waste. It’s really in the last 20 or 30 years as the heirlooms have become popular that we have now gone right in the other direction, again. We think that the tomatoes that are best to eat are the ones that are the most funny looking and the ugliest. We have seen this big cycle that has happened in American between 1870 and say, 1970-1980–fascinating how these things happen!

MURPHY
Oh, I remember the first experience I ever had with heirloom tomatoes or heritage tomatoes, whatever you prefer to call them. I thought, “Who’d eat anything that would look like that?” [laughter] I want my big round, fat, globe, red tomato and that’s what I’m used to having!
LEHOULLIER
That is an interesting point in itself. I think that countries, collectively, develop their culinary preferences based on what’s in the store. A lot of times, if you go into a grocery store, the grocery store will almost teach a lot of Americans how to eat, so the peppers are supposed to be green; the tomatoes are supposed to be round and red. When we first started selling seedlings almost 20 years ago, I had to talk customers into trying one that stays green when ripe, or one that turns yellow or “shock of shocks!” these dark-colored tomatoes like Cherokee Purple that almost look like a liver. You cajole them:

“Give this a try, I’m going to give you this plant, see what you think,” and then you steer.

“Well, you know, that was a really good tip that you gave me. In fact, I want to grow three of those Cherokee Purple and what else have you got that’s a different color?”

Because then the different colors combined with the incredible flavor nuances start firing up their creative juices in people who love to cook. When you can have people over to your house and instead of serving them the red tomato sauce and the pasta or a plate of red tomatoes, you can give them this rainbow of tomatoes. You have a conversation. Then the conversation could get to “Tell me the story of those tomatoes.” Then that could lead to Lillian Bruce of Tennessee or J.D. Green of Tennessee or Aunt Ruby, Arnold of Tennessee. Interestingly a lot of the great heirlooms seem to have originated in the south: Kentucky, Tennessee. The farmers there were very, very observant and perhaps creative of locating that surprise plant that looked like nothing else and then saving seeds from it and then making sure that it was passed along to their friends.

MURPHY
And a long growing season, I suppose, of a favorite tomato cultivation, as well.

LEHOULLIER
Especially large fruited tomatoes that have a longer maturity date, for sure.

MURPHY
One of the contrasts I’ve noticed in addition to the outward appearance and color between hybrids that are commonly used, and the so-called heirloom varieties, is the flavor. I remember hearing people talking about, “Well, the flavor is totally different, totally different, at least in intensity!” I didn’t realize that until I had actually tried one, and it is! Is this what accounts for that? Any idea what accounts for it? I know it’s a complex question—the whole business of flavor is a complex question.
LEHOULLIER
I look at every particular variety of tomato—as you can make an analogy to a person. It has a set of genes that define its color, shape, size and personality. If we want to equate personality with flavor; having grown, in my 30 years of tomato obsession, maybe about 2,000 varieties, now, I can now say, with confidence, that I have found no direct correlation of color and flavor. It’s all in the genes and you don’t know until you try. People who like to wine taste or sample dark chocolates or try different beers, will find tasting tomatoes almost an analogous event. They will vary greatly in terms of tartness, sweetness, intensity, which is a great flavor, a great attribute. Blandness! You go to the market and get this big yellow tomato with yellow swirls. Some call them Big Rainbows; some call them Mr. Stripies. You cut them and they are gorgeous and you cut a big piece, and you think “Well, that didn’t taste like a whole lot, but it sure is pretty.” I have found that that variety which is, it may be so large that the flavors just get diluted out. It may be genetically coded for a lower amount of the flavor components or sugars, but boy, does it make a good grill cheese or a cheeseburger tomato, because the juiciness and the succulence and the fruitiness work really well. This is where I am blurring the line between cooking, food and gardening. People who, I think, love to garden can quickly become really inventive cooks just because of the time we live and the incredible amount of variety that is out there. So you picked up very much so, that you were lucky to try an heirloom that had great flavor intensity and I could go to the Farmer’s market and get you a half a dozen that you would say, “I don’t think I would ever eat that one again!” [laughter]

MURPHY
Well, I’m sure! And that holds true for some hybrid varieties, too, for that matter. There are going to be some significant differences.

LEHOULLIER
It absolutely does!

MURPHY
Well, I want to ask you a couple of questions. You do a lot of seed saving and starting from seed. Do you prefer that to starting from seedlings, for example? What do you think about that?

LEHOULLIER
It’s a great question. I look at anyone who takes up gardening as a hobby is entering a journey that can last a lifetime and they may want to try different practices along the way. Initially, they may want to, because they don’t have enough confidence yet, or knowledge, or space to start their own seed and they have access to a farmer’s market, and even the big box stores, now, are carrying a much wider variety of tomatoes. They may want to start with a seedling. A lot of time it is just timing. One of the things we talked about before we got started is how a garden season never ends. If you want to start seeds, you need to be ready to get going in mid-February in the Raleigh, NC, climate. I use a rule of thumb that I leave one month between the major steps in getting a tomato plant into the garden. If I start my tomato seeds in mid-February, I am going to do a transplanting of them into a larger pot and a deeper planting to build a root system in mid-March. That will allow me, then, to have the plants ready to either give to friends, or if people want to make a little money, sell them or put them in their garden by about mid-April when the weather has settled out. So it takes about a month to go from seed to where it’s big enough to move it into a larger container, and then a month for it to be ready and hardened off and ready to go into the garden. If people find really good arrays of seedlings, there are some things you really do want to look for. A healthy plant—let me back up a second—the best way to have a successful garden is to be very observant and to try to ward off problems before they begin. It is much easier to deal with the problem that pops up later in the season than to introduce problems right off the bat, that are going to show themselves. So looking at seedlings that have a nice deep green color, have no blemishes on their leaves; they have no signs of wilt. You don’t want a seedling that is “leggy”. What that means is you have feet of stem and plant above a container that looks way too small to suspend that plant. That plant will grow okay, but you want to plant it deeply. Every plant has transplant shock when you first plant it out and all of that stem above the ground is going to be buffeted by the wind, the cold rain. That’s going to set that plant back. If you see leaves with spots on them, it will tend to be a fungal disease maybe invading that plant. Even though it may do okay for a while, you don’t want to introduce fungal spores into your tomato crop. Your leaves will just look worse and worse, especially if you get cool, rainy weather, and it can move up the plant. I think a good stocky seedling of about 6 inches tall, nice green color, no spots, no wilting. The other thing if starting with seedlings is that so many people are involved with heirlooms these days. The amount of seedling access may overwhelm the amount of true knowledge and expertise on them. How can you be guaranteed that if you buy a Cherokee Purple seedling, you are going to get a Cherokee Purple plant? The more people that get involved, on one hand, the better it is. That means more people are gardening; but the higher the risk, because keeping all this information straight, keeping your seed pure, keeping the history straight takes a lot of work and a lot of attention to detail. I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking on the internet, looking what people are listing, and correcting some histories and correcting some information, gently. If you’re going to put the work into gardening and it is physical labor, it’s work—there is a big payoff at the end. But you don’t want your Turkey Purple to look like a Big Boy at the end of the year. It’s going to be a bit of a disappointment or vice versa. Another advantage of starting with seedlings is “I want to plant a garden. I didn’t have time to start seeds, but I have a weekend to dig.” You can go get the plant, dig, and get your seedling in, so there’s a time saving. You don’t have to have an office or a greenhouse or a workshop in your garage set aside to grow seedlings under lights. For those who want the greatest array of possibilities, seeds are the way to go for many, many reasons.

What I find for the key critical step for successful starting of tomato plants from seeds is high quality soil as planting mix—fluffy, light, quickly draining, sterile, because you don’t want to introduce damping off fungus or other funguses into the plant which will then, well, your seeds will germinate and then one day it gets eaten off at the soil line and your little forest is tipping over. I like to barely cover my seed, so I will fill cells with the soilless mix. There are many types: there is Sungro, there is Metro Mix, there’s Fafard. I’m not too fussed about brands. Make it soilless; ask your local garden center or do some research online to get a high quality sterile soilless mix that’s good for seed starting. I fill my containers, surface-sow the seeds—in one of the chapters in my book, I talk about my dense planting technique—I will get a plug-flat, a 1’x2’ rigid plastic flat with 50 cells and fill them and plant up to 50 seeds per cell, which gives me the potential of up to 2,000 to 3,000 seedlings in a 1’x2’ flat.

MURPHY
You just put that many seeds in one cell!?

LEHOULLIER
Yes, yes, and they are fine.

MURPHY
Ha! Ha! Ha!

LEHOULLIER
And this is how I have been able to produce without a greenhouse and with just a sunny driveway, several thousand seedlings a year, just like that. I detail that and I have that online as well and I have a video on my YouTube channel. I have an NC Tomatoman YouTube channel where I show people exactly how I start seeds and exactly how I transplant. All they need to do is search my website which is now simply CraigLehoullier.com. I have a videos page and people can find all those videos and click on them.

MURPHY
Oh, alright!
LEHOULLIER
Then I plant my seeds and then I barely cover. A lot of catalogs will say “Plant seeds 1/16 or ¼ inch deep. I sprinkle the mix on the top of the seeds only until you can’t see the seeds anymore—that may be like 1/32, mist with spray, loosely cover with plastic wrap. I use a constant temperature, very inexpensive heating map and I just have them in front of a sunny window. My tomato seeds tend to germinate in 3 days and this is with seed up to 10-12 years old. My germination tends to be around 98 to 102% because sometimes seeds stick together. I could talk an awful lot more about then growing them out and turning them so they don’t stretch to the sun and they start curving, but I transplant a month later. Because you are using soilless mix, it is very easy to separate those plants. Plant them deeply in individual 3” pots and I never lose a seedling and end up with a lot of plants that way.

MURPHY
Okay, this brings up a lot of questions. If I buy seedlings and then I get seedlings that look good from someone who is a reputable vendor, and I bring them home, how should I plant them in the soil?

LEHOULLIER
Good, so, let’s say that you get those seedlings and you have some suspicion that they could have been greenhouse grown and may not have been in direct sun, yet. You can either ask the person you are buying them from, what’s their treatment been like, or you can hedge your bets, bring them home and maybe the first day you have them, make sure they are well-watered, put them in the direct sun for an hour and then move them in the shade and the next day two hours, but what you don’t want is to have these seedlings that have been coddled in a greenhouse and then you bring them home, the sun comes out and essentially fries them.

Tomatoes like to be planted deeply. There are so many good ways to grow tomatoes. You could have a standard soil bed. I have grown every type of tomatoes in containers. I have also grown every type of tomatoes in straw bales and then raised beds is the fourth way. The most important thing is setting them where the sun shines. For a cherry tomato you can get away with 3 or 4 hours of sun a day. For the large fruited type, The Big Boys, The Mortgage Lifters, you really need a good 6 to preferably 8 hours a day. Otherwise, you are going to have massive vines and not much fruit. So, sun, direct sun, the more direct sun is most essential for the largest fruited tomatoes.

MURPHY
So, the direct sun, the duration of direct sunlight actually does improve the fruiting.

LEHOULLIER
It improves the fruiting, you get more photosynthesis, the sun is shining on those leaves, it keeps the plants [from] stretching less. Let’s say you have the Mortgage Lifter which is a very vigorous variety and it’s indeterminate, meaning it keeps growing vertically until killed by frost and it will sucker. But you could get a 12’ – 15’ Mortgage Lifter if it’s grown in only 3-4 hours of sun a day, it may have no more than 3 or 4 fruit on it, because it hasn’t had the sun it’s needed. Whereas a cherry tomato maybe quite tall, but it will put out more fruit and make it worth your while. What I tell people if they are in a lowlight condition, maybe grow them in a 5 or 10 gallon pot, move them to the sunniest spot in your yard, stake them and you will have a decent yield. If you really want to grow the big ones, get a container or straw bale or dig up a place where you get the absolute most sun in your yard to have success. It’s all about trying not to discourage gardeners. What I tell people, often, in my talks is the greenest novice will dig a hole, plant a plant and have a great success, because the sun shines well there, they have a good, healthy plant, they feed it the right way. They just luck into it. The most experienced tomato grower (and I’ll put my hand up) can have a disaster of their year because the weather is not right, because critters have come in, because diseases have hit, so what gardeners can hope to do is plan ahead, read your plants, understand your plants, set yourself up for success early on and then just manage it as the season goes on, realizing that we get to do this every year, so that if it doesn’t all work out this year, you can do it again next. You can take what you learned this year and apply it next year. I have found that gardening is very much a cumulative. Every person who has ever planted a plant has something to teach another person because they are going to have a unique set of experiences. I love going out and talking to gardeners because I learn as much from them as I impart to them. We end up with this incredible collected knowledge that just grows and grows over time. It’s a very optimistic hobby! Ha! Ha!

MURPHY
Ha! Ha! Ha! Now, I’ve heard about determinate varieties and indeterminate varieties. What’s the difference?

LEHOULLIER
Yes! There’s actually a third type I will add that’s fascinating because I’ve been involved in creating some. Indeterminate is—people think of Big Boy, Better Boy, Turkey Purple—it’s the Jack-in-the-beanstalk tomato. Ninety percent or more of tomatoes are indeterminate because it is the dominant trait. It’s the tomato that just can’t wait to grow, and it grows all over the place. The center stem will continue to grow until it is killed by frost. Everywhere the center stem meets leaves, it will produce additional stems. It has the highest potential yield. They tend to have the best flavor because even though the vines are vigorous, the ratio of the foliage to the fruit is still at a pretty good balance. Now determinates, which is a subset that didn’t even really pop up until the late 20’s, is where the plant will look just like an indeterminate until it reaches about 3 or 4 feet tall and then each of the shoots end in a blossom cluster. They produce a highly concentrated fruit, almost within in a week or two, and then they are done: Roma, Taxi, some of the newer hybrids, are determinate. They tend to be favored by farmers who want a very big crop; they machine harvest in a week or so the crop is done, they can pull the plant. Roma–the same way. Now, because they tend to produce so many fruit per foliage, the inherent intensity of flavor in determinates tends to be lower than those in indeterminates. So it is rare to find an absolutely delicious “want to go out in the garden, pick it, let the juice drip down your chin” determinate. That is why Roma is best cooked into a sauce than munched. It produces so many fruit that the foliage can’t generate enough photosynthesis to really create all the flavors. Now Dwarf is a variety that is very obscure. In fact, it first popped up in the 1860’s. There’s never been more than 4 or 5 types until we decided to do a project to increase that, now, to 60 or more types. What I love about dwarfs is they are like an indeterminate in that the foliage to fruit ratio is optimum for great flavor development, but they grow slowly, so I think of a dwarf as an indeterminate that grows at half the vertical rate. So, if at the end of the season, your Turkey Purple is 8 feet tall, your dwarf is only about 4 feet tall, but we have now bred a range of colors and shapes and sizes that mirror the heirloom experience. People who can’t fit a Cherokee Purple in their yard can grow Rosella Purple, get the same color, the same size, the same flavor, but they can put it in a 5 gallon pot on their deck.

MURPHY
I’ve gotta try that! An eight foot Cherokee Purple in a cage is a scary sight—you don’t want to stand on the leaning side of it!

LEHOULLIER
Where this came from is this friend of mine in 2005 had this idea—spurred by a lot of my seedling customers say, “I really wish you had delicious tomatoes I could grow in a container!” We have involved 260 people (I did this data the other day, so I know) 260 people in 14 countries. In fact, we have had volunteers from 45 of the United States, that have in 10 years, now, developed and given it—we have stabilized these to the 8th, to the 10th generation, so you can actually grow them and seeds from them and they will reproduce. What we do is we grow enough seeds of the finished variety to give it to a seed company and now we have 60 new varieties in various seed companies around the country and none of us got a penny from it. We didn’t do it for that reason. We did it to learn about tomato genetics, to prove that we could. And last year we had 36 out. We put another 24 out recently, and I grew all 36 in straw bales in my driveway just to do a comparison. They were among the best flavored tomatoes in my garden and they performed great. In fact, Ralph Whisnant, who has a garden here at Ralston, grew all 36 in a plot here at Ralston Arboretum and really enjoyed the experience.

MURPHY
Now, are these readily available at plant sales, for example?

LEHOULLIER
They are not available at plant sales. The best way is to contact me. Just send me an email at nctomatoman@gmail.com and I can point you in the right direction. I always overplant, so a few extras can be squirreled away from me in the spring, and I can also let people know who the main seed company is that are carrying these 60 varieties. But I think they are going to change. The goal is in a world where we want better control over the quality of our food, we want to have more people living healthy lives where they are outdoors and they are not on their iPad or their iPhone. What is one way we can bring tomato gardening to more people? We thought we can create varieties that taste great, are interesting looking, have stories behind them, but they can do well on a deck or a patio or a driveway. There is a quote called “Mission accomplished!” But we did it and we are continuing on. We are now working on stripes and pace and cherries, and we are doing it just for the fun of it.

MURPHY
Well, great! I want to be on the lookout for those! Another question—you talk about planting. You have mentioned it a couple of times, this straw bale—growing in straw bales. This is an interesting concept. Tell us about it.

LEHOULLIER
Yes, it seems like a lot of the work on this was done by a fellow who wrote the first really good book on this, named Joel Karsten. Also, in parallel it was done very well by a fellow who is a Wake County [deputy] sheriff named Kent Rogers, who in Wake Forest was taking this method to just a great level of expertise. Kent and I met through my seedling sales. It turns out that after I wrote the tomato book story, [they] said, “You know we notice that the straw bales are really catching on and we would like to have a straw bale book in our portfolio. Would you like to write one?” and I said, “Well, I will write one, but first I have to do it, don’t I?” So for two seasons, I kind of went whole hog into it. The year before I wrote the book I tried it with 15 bales and I grew melons, lettuce, beets, beans, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. To a level where I learned the technique and convinced myself that it is really good. Last year I ordered 40 bales. First of all, as far as the bales, your success with this and your ability to do it is going to depend on your ability to get wheat straw bales and the local box stores around here do carry them. The price—they tend to be, here in Raleigh about $5 or $6 per bale. If you think of each straw bale—which is about 3’x2’ rectangle—as being the equivalent of two forty gallon containers, and you think about the equivalent of purchasing growing medium. It starts feeling a little bit more cost effective. For container gardeners, you don’t have to buy all these bags of stuff, put them in your pots, lug your pots around. For people who are traditional dirt gardeners, you don’t have to dig up a plot, you don’t have to weed during the year, because what you’ve got is essentially, you’re starting with a sterile, almost like a hydroponic system—with the straw lending structure to hold your roots in and to hold the plant in. You have to “pre-charge” it. You have to get the center of these bales breaking down by treating them with a high-nitrogen plant food for a week or two and then watering. You are really super-charging these with nutrients which is going to get the inevitable biological organisms in there chewing up your straw to make a nice place for your roots to go into. Within about a week of starting the treatment, the centers of these (even if you start them in the early, early spring) are around 120-130 degrees, so you have active composting going on. Once your temperature drops back to 70 or 80 degrees where the roots will not burn, you are ready to plant. For the tomatoes, you use your hands and make a little crevice in the wheat straw, set your plant in nice and deep like you would in a container and get some of your planting medium and just heel it in and then you just start watering and the roots are going to go into the straw. As far as some of the constraints early on, it’s getting the bales, it’s making sure they are reasonable to buy, and then it’s having an area you are growing where you can water them regularly. And when you think you’ve got all this surface area above the ground, you are going to have the sun shining on them, water’s going to evaporate out. What I did find was myself watering them early on, daily. Because the water is going to go through, you’re watering the root zone. You can direct seed them. You put maybe a two inch layer of planting medium on the top and you can direct seed in, but on a hot day, that’s going to dry out quickly. It’s a method that’s perfectly suited for drip irrigation. If you were to run a drip hose across the top and just keep them running, you’ll get a constant stream. Like container gardening, similarly, they have to be fed quite frequently because when you water, you’re going to get lots of leeching of nutrients. If you take care of that, they are just the most wonderful growing…wherever the sun is shining you just drop it down. There are no weeds that come up out of them, except for some grasses.

MURPHY
So, essentially you have a compact of soil—it’s not dirt—soil “to be”, soil in progress…

LEHOULLIER
At the end of the year in my garden, you’ve picked your lettuce, your beans, your beets and they are sitting out there, in the fall—late fall—I put in garlic. They’ve still got their integrity. Right now, I‘ve got a beautiful crop of garlic growing and I will be able to harvest that in a few months because…

MURPHY
So can you continue to use a bale until it just finally degrades?

LEHOULLIER
And then you’ve got the most wonderful compost in the world! Yes! So, if there is no waste, to improve the integrity, you can buy the plastic tubs like the Tupperware tubs, and seat them in because that way when they start breaking down, you have somewhere…or some people who really like straw bale gardening have just built inexpensive wood frames for them. You set the bale in and then once those bales break down, you’ve got a frame full of compost.

MURPHY
Like a raised bed.

LEHOULLIER
It is like a raised bed. Things like carrots and potatoes that are fighting with the heavy clay to grow straight or to grow well, the straw bale is the perfect place. I think it is a method, like many things, grafting is another one. We garden in a standard way—standard gardening. Little fads and ideas arise and then they get really popular and everybody does them and then inevitably some of these methods are not going to be good for everybody; some people drop away. But that is what gardening is. Some things will work well for you and you develop almost a customized routine and each year you add something, you take something away, you learn something from someone else. It is so much fun to bring people in from the neighborhood, friends or family, if you have some heirlooms growing, some different techniques. Give them a little tour and tell them what you are doing and at the end, bring them in and feed them something that you have picked. I like to tell people that it’s great to grow gardens, but I think all of us who love this need to start growing other gardeners. We are planting the seeds of a lifetime of joy, health, great eating.

MURPHY
Well, I think that it’s valuable especially for one particular reason that occurs to me. Most of us–children, nowadays, especially–now I grew up with gardens. My dad was a gardener. We always had a garden in the backyard and grapevines and stuff like that. Children, nowadays don’t have that for a variety of reasons. Many children don’t; urban children don’t–rarely have that. So, if you say “Well, where here does the tomato come from?” “From the grocery store, from Harris Teeter,” or something like that. But if you can get them interested in doing it, then it makes the connection back, that has been sort of lost and diminished. Well, Craig, I want to thank you very much! We are going to have to stop at this point, but it’s been a lot of fun!

LEHOULLIER
Me as well, thank you so much! I loved it!

MURPHY
Well, I learned a lot. You taught me something that straw bale gardening, that I had failed at a few year ago, but I am going to go back and try again.

JOHNSON
You have been listening to “Getting Dirty in Your Garden” brought to you by North Carolina State Extension Master Gardeners. You may find this and future episodes on our website: gettingdirtyinyourgarden.org. Until next time, why not go out and get dirty in your garden?

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Photo of Lucy Bradley, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionDr. Lucy BradleyExtension Urban Horticulture Specialist (919) 513-2001 lucy_bradley@ncsu.eduHorticultural Science - NC State University
Updated on Mar 26, 2016
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