The Master Gardener’s Bookshelf – Epic Tomatoes

By Susan Wilhelm, Certified Master Gardener

Epic Tomatoes—How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time (Epic Tomatoes) by Craig LeHoullier, is a captivating book about growing heirloom* tomatoes covering everything from deciding what to grow to harvesting and eating the results. The author, a scientist by training and a long-time gardener, got interested in growing heirlooms, looking for tomatoes that were unique, had historical relevance, and good flavor. He has been growing heirloom tomatoes for over 35 years and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Epic Tomatoes starts with the origins of today’s tomatoes and moves through planning and planting, growing, maintenance, and care, to harvesting, storing, and cooking with tomatoes. It also covers techniques for seed saving and breeding your own tomatoes. An early chapter, “Anatomy of a Tomato” addresses tomato color and flavor, types (hybrid, open-pollinated, and heirloom), growth habits, and leaf shapes. Another chapter addresses what the author refers to as “tomato myths and urban legends” and a comprehensive troubleshooting section focuses on diseases, pests, and other problems.

Interspersed throughout are sidebars highlighting topics such as tomato seed longevity or knowing when to plant. There also are short sections titled “Meet the Varieties” with histories of specific heirloom tomatoes. The descriptions and photos of the 10 tomatoes he considers the tastiest will make your mouth water. (Actually, all the tomato photos will make your mouth water!)

Solanum lycopersicum - Craig LeHoullier named this heirloom tomato Cherokee Purple.

Solanum lycopersicum – Craig LeHoullier named this heirloom tomato Cherokee Purple.

While focusing on heirloom varieties, Epic Tomatoes ultimately is about how to grow any tomatoes successfully, whether hybrid or heirloom; from seed or plant; in the ground or in a container. (He grows his tomatoes in containers.) The content is comprehensive, the explanations clear, and the accompanying photos helpful. His candid assessments of planting and care techniques help readers understand the differences between various strategies and the bases for his recommendations. A table of 250 recommended tomatoes, indicating for each one its name, shape, size, approximate season of ripening (early, midseason, or late), growth (determinate, indeterminate, dwarf), whether a hybrid or open-pollinated, and flavor is an easy reference for determining varieties readers may want to try.

Epic Tomatoes—How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time (Storey Publishing, 2014) is a book you will return to again and again, whether as a gardener or a consumer at your local farmer’s market. It is available at the Alexandria Public Library, the Arlington Public Library, and national booksellers.

To learn more about growing tomatoes, watch this site to sign up for the MGNV public education class   “Tomato Love” offered on Saturday, April 6 and again on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Listen to interviews with Craig LeHoullier on The Joe Gardener podcast or drop by the Organic Vegetable Garden at Potomac Overlook Regional Park this summer to see the tomatoes Master Gardeners are growing.


*Mr. LeHoullier defines heirloom plants “as a particular category of open-pollinated varieties that predate the majority of modern hybrid varieties.” Open pollinated is defined as a term “to describe varieties that are genetically uniform and that reproduce the parent from saved seeds.”

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