Recently, I had the pleasure of catching up with Dr. Randy Gardner, professor emeritus, North Carolina State University, talking about what he’s been doing since retiring from the Department of Horticultural Science in 2008. We quickly reviewed his exemplary career at NCSU and his productive tomato breeding program, then talked about what he’s been doing since he formally retired 15 years ago.

I knew Randy as a colleague when I was employed as an Extension vegetable specialist and as a friend over his entire 32-year career at NCSU. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate many of his up-and-coming tomato lines and his named varieties. I always thought of Randy as one of the premier “traditional old school” tomato breeders in the mold of the late Dr. Henry Munger of Cornell University. Ironically, Randy and I did overlap briefly as graduate students at Cornell – Randy in the Department of Pomology and I in the old Department of Vegetable Crops.

I asked Randy how he got into working with tomatoes and tomato breeding. He gave a hearty laugh and told me he grew up on a small family farm in Hillsville, VA, and at an early age was raising his own tomatoes to sell to earn some extra pocket money. He obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from Virginia Tech and then went on to Cornell, graduating in 1976.

Randy’s timing was perfect, as NCSU had just advertised a new tomato breeding position that would head up their fresh market tomato breeding program at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, NC. The rest is history. The trademark of Randy’s releases were tomatoes that were flavorful, attractive and disease resistant.

Back in 1981, he released Mountain Pride. I remember escaping the hot and humid weather of Raleigh and heading to the cooler climate of the mountain station to conduct research on different aspects of plasticulture and having the chance to view his new tomato lines. Throughout his career, Randy released more than 22 tomato varieties, including Mountain Spring, Mountain Fresh, Fletcher, Mountain Gold, Crista, Mountain Merit and Mountain Majesty, along with over 30 breeding lines.

Those in the tomato industry have told me that Randy is credited with developing the cultivars used on some 60% to 75% of the vine-ripe tomatoes grown in the eastern U.S. Randy has received numerous awards over the years, such as 2015 All-American Selection Breeders Cup Award, which recognizes plant breeders who have dramatically influenced horticulture.

Since Randy’s retirement he has switched gears, breeding independently and developing what he likes to call “improved heirloom-type tomatoes” that tend to be less fasciated or lobed, have greater disease resistant, have increased firmness to reduce potential cracking and less of a core while still maintaining the flavor and eating quality that heirlooms are noted for.

One of the varieties that Randy has developed, Mountain Rouge, is a pink tomato with a Brandywine background. It features resistance to cracking, has late blight and nematode resistance and less of a core, increased firmness and a less fasciated shape while maintaining the great taste of Brandywine.

He continued to develop other excellent lines such as Mountain Heritage, similar in flavor and color to Cherokee Purple with crack resistance and late blight, Verticillium and Fusarium resistance. Another variety is Mountain Gem, a determinate plant with a red fruit and bright red interior, good flavor and resistance to late blight, tomato mosaic virus and tomato spotted wilt virus. (It’s being marketed by Seedway Seed Company.)

Mountain Gem tomatoes. Photo courtesy of Dr. Randy Gardner

Mountain Gem recently produced significantly higher yields in total pounds per plant of U.S. No. 1 tomato fruit harvested in a high tunnel trial conducted at the Illinois Dixon Springs Ag Center. He also released Mountain Girl, a pink indeterminate. He has a line called Sweet Prince which is a dark red, large cherry or grape variety. Randy has also incorporated Septoria resistance into his lines.

He does his early and late blight testing work at the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC. Randy has not left growers out of his loop and continues to test/evaluate his varieties with growers in North Carolina and beyond. He listens to growers’ needs and then tries his best to breed varieties that will ultimately help them be better and more productive. I believe what makes Randy such a great tomato breeder is his ability to make great selections from the field which is probably due to his being around the plants all his life and knowing what makes a good tomato.

Randy said he is continuing to breed all types of tomatoes – an example would be Mountain Magic F1, indeterminate plant, producing high yields of two-ounce bright red salad tomatoes with very sweet flavor. These crack-resistant fruits can be truss harvested and have high resistance to Fusarium wilt races 1, 2 and 3, late blight and Verticillium wilt and intermediate resistance to early blight.

Randy was really excited about a new variety that he released as Mountain Girl F1 Hybrid, a compact indeterminate with good foliage, mid-season maturity, large, smooth pink fruit, firm and crack resistant, high yield and good internal color, structure and flavor. It is resistant to Verticillium wilt race 1, Fusarium wilt race 1, late blight and root knot nematodes. The indeterminate hybrids Mountain Heritage (purple fruit) and Mountain Girl (pink fruit) have good fruit crack resistance, good flavor and better shelf life than the old heirloom varieties.

Randy pointed out that his new heirlooms can be picked more closely to full color which really improves the flavor, whereas in the past growers had to pick the tomatoes as they turned to prevent them cracking. Some of Randy’s new varieties, like Mountain Majesty and Mountain Gem, are good candidates for high tunnel growers.

It was a pleasure to chat with Dr. Gardner about his latest developments in heirloom tomato varieties and to marvel at his certainly active retirement program. I am sure we will see more wonderful releases of improved heirlooms from the friend that I consider so worthy of the title “King of the Heirlooms.”

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