According to Guy Clark, “there are only two things that can’t be bought for money, and that is true love and homemade paradise.” Luckily, it’s home tomato season.
Tomatoes are the number one plant in home vegetable gardens. Gardeners can plant 100 tomato plants in a row in a large garden, or one or two plants in a container, but the boast is still the same. There is nothing like biting into a tomato you have grown in your own yard.
Varieties vary depending on who grows them, and there may be debates about whose variety is best, but ultimately it depends on what you love. Unfortunately, you won’t always find the variety you want at your local nursery or garden center. This is where growing your own transplants from seed can make a difference.
We all know the story of Johnny Appleseed, but one of the neighborhoods in Central Arkansas has its own Don Tomato Plant – Don Ernst and the self-proclaimed Pop tomato patch. Ernst is a history teacher who happens to love tomatoes.
By mixing the soil itself, Don Ernst creates a rich medium in which his tomato plants bloom alongside co-vegetables. (Especially for the Democratic Gazette / Janet B. Carson)
As a county kid, Greene helped his stepfather in the garden, sometimes not very reluctantly, but something was worn out. He slept until he and his young family moved to Fort Smith for a teaching job and bought a house with a perfect place for the garden. He started gardening alone.
He was hired a few steps later to head the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Education Center in Little Rock. One of their teaching gardens was fruit and vegetables, and a relationship was established with the young man in charge of the gardens and he began to learn even more.
With a shady garden and poor soil, his new home in Little Rock was unsuitable for gardening – until he came up with the idea of container gardening. Then he read Craig LeHoullier’s book “Epic Tomatoes,” and his life changed a lot.
LeHoullier is a retired chemist in North Carolina who is as passionate about tomatoes as Ernst and has written several books about them. He has a website, blog and newsletter (see craiglehoullier.com). He holds online classes and, if possible, in person. He has long been a grower of inherited varieties, and he and his wife have inherited tomato transplants at a North Carolina farmer’s market.
The ground cherry (left) brings small, round, yellow fruits in a paper-like “package,” as tomatoes do, and tastes like a mixture of pineapple and tomato. (Especially for the Democratic Gazette / Janet B. Carson)
His customers often asked for varieties that worked well in containers. While almost all tomato plants can grow in containers, large, indeterminate varieties take up more space and require more work. LeHoullier noticed some dwarf varieties in an old seed catalog and began investigating.
If you know anything about tomatoes, you know that there are two varieties:
◼️ Indefinite, large plants that bear throughout the season and require maintenance.
◼️ “Patio” or determined varieties that have abundant stems and produce plenty of crops that ripen in a relatively short time and then end the season.
Give me a third type – the dwarf tomato.
Don Ernst encourages other home gardeners to discover the joys of older tomato varieties by sharing seed-grown transplants. (Especially for the Democratic Gazette / Janet B. Carson)
Although not quite definite or indeterminate, these rare, compact plants have thicker stems, smaller foliage, and work extremely well in containers. It also has the flavor of large, indeterminate heritage varieties, but on a much smaller plant.
Dwarf tomatoes never produce as many tomatoes as larger plants, but they meet the demand for container varieties extremely well.
LeHoullier asked like-minded gardeners to start a dwarf tomato breeding project in 2005. Breeders have released more than 130 varieties and have partnered with a number of seed companies to make these varieties available to home gardeners.
Ernst got to know the project and got involved. Today it grows two dwarf varieties, Tasmanian Chocolate and Sarandipity.
Cherokee Purple is an hereditary variety that Don Ernst considers to be the most delicious tomato ever. (Especially for the Democratic Gazette / Janet B. Carson)
YOU DID YOURSELF
About five years ago, Ernst took advantage of what he learned about growing tomatoes. It has a cellar and a garage where it does plantings – no fancy greenhouses, modern shelves or drip irrigation. You can do what you have.
He started ordering seeds from the sources listed in “Epic Tomatoes” and set up a set of store lamps over a few tables to fit in his apartment. He bought some thermal mats, good ground and left. It plants 30 to 40 heritage varieties a year and carries out an average of about 300 transplants per season. He plants about 50 plants in his own yard, the rest he sells or gives away. You give more than you sell.
His favorite varieties are Mexico Midget, an hereditary, currant-sized, indeterminate variety that is extremely vigorous and succulent, and Cherokee Purple is considered the best-tasting paradise in the universe.
Ernst’s garden is in the front garden, where the sun shines. Everything is either in a raised bed or in different containers – none too large. The raised beds were built by himself from recycled materials that he tangled up. His wife winces as she picks things up from the side of the road to use.
Improvised benches and containers support Don Ernst’s home garden in Little Rock. (Especially for the Democratic Gazette / Janet B. Carson)
It treats the tree with linseed oil to keep it longer, but it grows in organic gardens. He feeds on a local plot to harvest the large bamboo sticks that he cuts to use for his stakes.
Year after year he gets a little better at his craft, learning from his attempts. Now he mixes the soil himself and sows the seeds in January or February.
Once the seeds germinate and have extracted their first true leaves, transplant them into 4-inch pots. On its young plants, lights remain 24 hours a day to rise and grow. As long as he still has the lights in the store, he added a set of LED lights, which is more efficient.
It tries to keep the temperature between the mid-60s and the low 70s. In your unheated garage, you sometimes need to move seedlings in during particularly cold periods. When you need to start moving plants outdoors in April, harden them by moving them out for moderate days and cooler.
He continues to grow in installments until late spring so that not everything is ready at once, and then begins a few more plants for fall planting.
The twine keeps Don Ernst’s flowering tomato grapes tied to the bamboo sticks he was looking for on an empty plot. (Especially for the Democratic Gazette / Janet B. Carson)
As a lifelong educator, Ernst’s passion for teaching and inspiring others is evident. He loves to share what he has learned, he also passes on the plantings of tomatoes and the abundance of tomatoes. If you drive or walk past a house where you see gardeners working, stop talking and offer tomato plants.
He hopes that sharing his passion for tomato gardening will encourage others to garden as well.
His particular concern is how many children are cut off from the ground – where his food comes from. It is collaborating with a national coalition of teachers advocating for school gardens. He hopes that one day every school in the United States will have a school garden.
Before the coronavirus struck, he took 100 Mexico Midget tomato plants with him to his grandson’s third-grade classroom in Paragould and spent an hour growing tomatoes. These efforts have paid off. Her granddaughter is now a gardener and she has several classmates. One of the boys took his tomato plants home and grows the Mexico Midget with his grandfather – they save seeds and grow their own plants.
After reading a book, lifelong teacher Don Ernst began his innovative experiments with home-grown tomatoes. (Especially for the Democratic Gazette / Janet B. Carson)
Ernst thinks there’s something magical about the way these young people get stuck in gardening and see the joy of growing plants. He will surely plant a seed and watch it take root.
He advises new (and experienced) gardeners to give it a try. Have fun and don’t take things too seriously. And who knows, if you taste one of your own, self-grown tomatoes, you might get bored.
Janet Carson’s blog is here arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.