Meet the South's Tomato Man
A few years after he started growing heirloom tomatoes, Rodger Winn had a problem—way too much fruit. This is because he grows tomatoes very well, and from unique selections, some of which time almost forgot. He's a seed saver. And in the Midlands of South Carolina, he's known as the Tomato Man. But that's mostly because of SPLAT (South Carolina Piedmont Lycopersicum Annual Tasting), aka the big tomato-tasting party that Winn and his wife, Karen, host every July in his 3-acre garden in Little Mountain, South Carolina. Problem solved.
In 2004, he put tables under his 100-year-old pecan tree and stacked them with tea and a wide array of tomato selections, such as "Cherokee Purple," "Big Rainbow," "Super Choice," and "Sun Gold." (The latter is his best seller and the only hybrid he grows because "It's just that good.") Everyone was invited. Word has spread over the years, and now about 200 people come, many of them with their own tomatoes to add to the table.
Explaining his passion for heirlooms, Winn says, "The flavor is just superior to anything I can buy at the grocery store or get canned. And we are losing important genetic diversity in our plant industry." Mostly, he loves the history. "These plants sustained American families for a hundred years before modern agriculture took over. I like to preserve those stories," he says.
Winn also credits Karen's family for having a lot to do with his seed saving. "They never bought commercial seeds. I have collected lots of selections from them," he says.
Of course, fresh tomatoes are a key Southern delicacy as well. "I can't think of a summer without tomato sandwiches with Duke's mayonnaise," Winn says. You'll see Duke's on the table at every SPLAT. He also loves administering blind taste tests that surprise his guests with unexpected flavors and challenge preconceived notions about what a tomato should be. "I tire of just a plain old basic red tomato," explains Winn. His tasting crib sheet? Black ones are richer. Pink ones are sweeter. The green and yellow kinds? Their flavors vary.
But all of this is just a side gig. His quote, unquote real job is at a local utility company. "People say that I still work because I need to go there to rest," Winn says with a laugh. "There may be some truth in that."
This year's SPLAT happens July 22. Visit rodgersheirlooms.com for more information.
The Tomato Man's 4 Tips for More Tomatoes
"A lot of people think heirlooms are more susceptible to disease, harder to grow, and not as productive," Winn says, "but I get 20 to 30 pounds of tomatoes per plant." Here's how he does it.
1. Offset Their Weight
Heirloom fruits are often heavy. Because of this, Winn limits each plant to two stems. Once a week, he removes all suckers and limbs to promote airflow.
2. Create a Good Barrier
To prevent soil fungi and bacteria from getting to the leaves and fruit, Winn puts down a thick layer of hay mulch after each planting.
WATCH: How To Pick The Best Tomato Plants
3. Water Carefully
Further inhibit fungal growth by hand-watering at the base of the plants. If you must use a sprinkler, do it in the morning so they will dry before night.
4. Plant Twice Per Season
Winn says, "I plant my main crop in April, and by late July, those get pulled up and replaced when I replant for harvesting in late September."