According to Guy Clark, there are “only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” Luckily for us, it is homegrown tomato season.
Tomatoes are the No. 1 plant found in a home vegetable garden. Gardeners may plant 100 tomato plants in rows in a large garden or one or two plants in a container, but the bragging rights are still the same. There is nothing like biting into a tomato that you grew in your own yard.
The varieties will change by who’s growing them, and debates may rage over whose variety is best, but ultimately it comes down to what you like. Unfortunately, you can’t always find the exact variety you like at your local nursery or garden center. That is where growing your own transplants from seed can make a difference.
We all know the story about Johnny Appleseed, but one neighborhood in Central Arkansas has its own Don Tomato-plant — Don Ernst and his self-proclaimed Pop’s Tomato Patch. Ernst is a history teacher who just happens to love tomatoes.
Mixing the soil himself, Don Ernst creates a rich medium in which his tomato plants thrive side by side with companion vegetables. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
As a child in Greene County, he helped his stepfather in the garden, sometimes not too willingly, but something rubbed off. It lay dormant until he and his young family moved to Fort Smith for a teaching post and bought a house with the perfect spot for a garden. He started gardening on his own.
Several moves later, he was hired to manage the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center in Little Rock. One of their teaching gardens was vegetables and fruits, and he developed a bond with the young man in charge of the gardens, and started learning even more.
With shade in the backyard and poor soil, his new home at Little Rock didn’t lend itself to gardening — until he hit on the idea of container gardening. Then he read the book “Epic Tomatoes” by Craig LeHoullier, and his life really changed.
LeHoullier is a retired chemist in North Carolina who is equally as passionate about tomatoes as Ernst and has written several books about them. He has a website, blog and a newsletter (see craiglehoullier.com). He teaches online classes and in person, when possible. He has long been a grower of heirloom varieties, and he and his wife have sold heirloom tomato transplants at a farmers market in North Carolina.
Ground cherries (left) bear small, round, yellow fruits in papery “wrappers,” as tomatillos do, and taste like a pineapple and tomatillo blend. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
His customers often asked for varieties that would do well in containers. While almost any tomato plant can grow in a container, large, indeterminate types do take up more space and require more work. LeHoullier noticed some dwarf varieties listed in an old seed catalog and started investigating.
If you know anything about tomatoes, you know there were two kinds:
◼️ Indeterminate, the large plants that continue to bear all season long and require staking for support.
◼️ “Patio” or determinate varieties, which have a stout stem and bear loads of fruit that ripen in a relatively short time frame, and then their season is over.
Enter a third type — dwarf tomatoes.
Don Ernst encourages other home gardeners to discover the delights of older tomato varieties by sharing transplants grown from seed. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
While not quite determinate or indeterminate, these rare, compact plants have a stouter stem, smaller foliage and work extremely well in containers. They also have the flavor of the big, indeterminate heirloom varieties, but on a much smaller plant.
Dwarf tomatoes will never produce as many tomatoes as the larger plants, but they fill the need for container varieties extremely well.
LeHoullier enlisted like-minded gardeners to start a dwarf tomato-breeding project in 2005. The breeders have released more than 130 varieties and partnered with several seed companies to make these varieties available to home gardeners.
Ernst learned about the project and got involved. Today, he grows two dwarf varieties, Tasmanian Chocolate and Sarandipity.
Cherokee Purple is an heirloom variety that Don Ernst considers the tastiest tomato ever. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
DID IT HIMSELF
About five years ago, Ernst put to use what he had learned from reading about growing tomatoes. He has a basement and a garage where he does his planting — there is no fancy greenhouse, state-of-the art shelving or drip irrigation. He makes do with what he has.
He started ordering seeds from the resources listed in “Epic Tomatoes” and set up a shop-light kit over some tables to hold his flats. He bought some heat mats, some good soil, and he was off. He plants between 30 and 40 heirloom varieties each year and averages about 300 transplants a season. He plants about 50 plants in his own yard, and sells or gives away the rest. He gives away more than he sells.
His favorite varieties are Mexico Midget, an heirloom, currant-size, indeterminate variety that is extremely vigorous and flavorful, and Cherokee Purple, in his opinion the best-tasting tomato in the universe.
Ernst’s garden is in his front yard where he has sun. Everything is either in a raised bed or a variety of containers — none very large. The raised beds he built himself with recycled materials, which he scrounges. His wife cringes when he picks things up from the side of the road to use.
Makeshift benches and containers support Don Ernst’s home garden in Little Rock. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
He treats the wood with linseed oil to make it last longer, but he gardens organically. He forages in a local lot to harvest the large bamboo canes that he cuts to use for his stakes.
Each year, he gets a little better at his craft, learning from trial and error. He now mixes his own soil and starts his seeds in flats in January or February.
Once the seeds germinate and have produced their first set of true leaves, he transplants them to 4-inch pots. Lights stay on his young plants 24 hours a day to get up and growing. While he still has his shop lights, he has added an LED light kit, which is more efficient.
He tries to keep the temperature between the mid 60s to low 70s. In his unheated garage, he sometimes has to move the seedlings indoors during particularly cold periods. When it is time to start moving plants outdoors in April, he hardens them off by moving them out for moderate days and in for colder.
He continues to grow in installments through late spring so that everything isn’t ready at once, and then he starts a few more plants for fall planting.
Twine keeps Don Ernst’s thriving tomato vines attached to bamboo canes he foraged in a vacant lot. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
PASS IT ON
A lifelong educator, Ernst’s passion for teaching and inspiring others is evident. He loves to share what he has learned, passing along his tomato transplants and also the bounty of his tomatoes. If he is driving or walking by a home where he sees gardeners at work, he stops to chat and offer tomato plants.
He hopes that sharing his passion for tomato gardening will inspire others to garden.
A particular concern of his is how many children are disconnected from the earth — where their food comes from. He is working with a national coalition of educators who advocate for school gardens. His hope is that, one day, every school in the U.S. will have a school garden.
Before covid hit, he took 100 Mexico Midget tomato plants that he’d grown to his granddaughter’s third-grade classroom in Paragould and taught a class on growing tomatoes. Those efforts paid off. His granddaughter is now a gardener, and so are several of her classmates. One boy took his tomato plants home, and he and his grandfather are growing the Mexico Midget — saving seeds and growing their own plants.
A lifelong teacher, Don Ernst began his innovative experiments with homegrown tomatoes after reading a book. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
Ernst thinks there is something magical in watching these young people get hooked on gardening and seeing the joy they get from growing plants. He is definitely planting a seed and watching it take root.
His advice to new (and experienced) gardeners is just to try it. Have fun and don’t take things too seriously. And who knows, you might be hooked once you taste one of your own, homegrown tomatoes.
Janet Carson’s blog is at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.