Food & Drink

Secrets of a Southern Tomato Garden

Tips and tales from a prize-winning backyard gardener

Photo: Brent Cline

“If you think you hate tomatoes, you haven’t tried a real one,” Phil Wingard says. He’s standing in his backyard garden in Clover, South Carolina, cradling some of his latest pickings in his arms: a Carolina Gold, the hue and size of a tangerine; a tiny, spherical Green Doctor; a yellow, teardrop-shaped Virginia variety called Powers Heirloom; and a fuzzy pink fruit fittingly dubbed Peach Blow Sutton. 

Photo: Brent Cline

Phil Wingard in his tomato garden.

In past seasons, Wingard—an antique dealer when he’s not gardening—has grown more than one hundred tomato varieties from seed in his quarter-acre of organic raised beds and rows. This year, since he spent much of the spring coaching Clover High School’s boy’s tennis team and curating an exhibition on South Carolina stoneware (another of his passions) for the McKissick Museum in Columbia, he only has about forty-five varieties going. When added to his lush plots of okra, squash, celery, swiss chard, kale, eggplant, jalapeños, herbs, and onions, though, his plants number over three hundred. “I think it’s a responsibility for everyone to grow at least some of the food they eat,” he says. And while his entire garden feeds himself and his wife, Debbie, plus friends and any interested local buyers, it’s his tomatoes that have become a coveted commodity. 

Wingard, who has lived in Clover his whole life, developed a fascination with tomatoes early on. “When I was a kid, there was a fellow in town named Johnny Williams, who’d lost both arms just beyond the elbow,” he says. “He’d grow tomatoes from the seed up. We’d walk by his house, and he’d have them lined up on the picnic table. He always had the first ripe tomato.” In 1961, when a young Wingard moved with his parents into the house in which he and Debbie now reside—the couple made it their home three and a half years ago—he decided to try it himself. Over the decades, he honed his collection of heirloom seeds, replanting the seeds from each year’s tomato harvest and sending away for new varieties from Seed Savers Exchange or from other tomato growers he’s met through the years. 

Photo: Brent Cline

Wingard's garden.

Now that he’s back in his childhood garden, Wingard had to give up the small greenhouse he used at his former home a few streets over, but he’s found a solution: He buddied up with Jeff Birkey, who grows hydroponic lettuce in a large greenhouse nearby. Birkey helps germinate the seeds and gives them back to Wingard when they’re ready to plant—usually around April 1. Then Wingard spreads in his own compost made mainly from decomposed wood chips. “We don’t use pesticides or herbicides,” he says. “The only thing you have to worry about when you eat one might be a worm.” He drip-waters the plants an inch a week, and lets nature take its course. “You just can’t stress about bugs or disease,” he says. “That’s one reason I grow over three hundred plants.” 

Photo: Brent Cline

Fresh tomatoes on the vine.

The tomato vines themselves appear withered, but that’s all part of the plan. “The two biggest mistakes people make with tomatoes: over-watering and over-fertilizing,” he says. His compost is purposefully low on nitrogen, stunting the plants. “The best tomatoes come from vines that are a little stressed.” 

Wingard reaches towards a raised bed where Cherokee Purple vines and Brandywines intermingle and plucks one. “I pick them when they’re turning. There’s nothing the plant will do to make it taste any better, and in two days, it’ll be dead ripe and ready to eat.”

Photo: Brent Cline

Wingard beside his tomato rows.

He walks to the other side of the garden and grabs a juicy-looking specimen sporting varied shades of yellow, orange, and green. “I met a local girl at a bourbon tasting whose mother had gotten this from an Italian woman, and she gave it to me,” Wingard says. “That’s all I know about it.” He tucks it in the crook of his arm and reaches for a bright yellow one nearby. “This one was supposed to be red, but it came up yellow. The next year, it did the same thing. I call it Phil’s Mystery Yellow. It’s been growing like this for seven or eight years, and I don’t know where it came from.” 

Photo: Brent Cline

Two Phil’s French Red tomatoes, a variety a friend brought Wingard from France.

He picks a small yellow sphere: “This is Lemony. It’s one of my favorites because it won me a contest in Columbia.” At the Palmetto Tasty Tomato Festival almost a decade ago, Wingard’s prize-winning Lemony caught the eye of Mike Davis, the chef at the West Columbia bistro Terra, who approached him about trying a few. 

Photo: Brent Cline

Now, Wingard sells Davis thirty to forty pounds of tomatoes each week, usually meeting halfway at a truck stop in Winnsboro. Davis displays them on the window sill and along the bar in Terra’s dining room, taking each to the kitchen just as it hits peak ripeness. “I’ll make a crudo, or a chilled soup with one certain variety,” Davis says. The star of Terra’s tomato offerings, though, is Phil’s Heirloom Tomato Salad, which incorporates some of the best tomatoes, olive vinaigrette, LaTour cheese, basil, balsamic-soaked onions, and house-made sourdough croutons. 

“Phil doesn’t do this to make money,” Davis says. “He does it for the love of tomatoes. Some of these old varieties he grows have been lost over time because of how they look or how they ship. Plus, everywhere else, tomatoes go into the refrigerator at some point, which really alters the flavor. Phil’s never do.” 

Photo: Brent Cline

A tomato sandwich in Wingard’s kitchen.

Back in Clover, in the cool of his kitchen, Wingard grabs two slices of white bread and begins spreading Duke’s mayo on in thick waves before slicing up a juicy red Brandywine and layering it on top. Debbie scoops a dollop of her homemade salsa on the side. “All these tomatoes have a connection to the past,” Wingard says. “Old varieties are always being rediscovered. Heirlooms are created by someone growing the same strain over and over and passing it down. It’s nothing pretentious.” But it is special—one bite of that transcendent sandwich confirms the worth of Wingard’s touch with a tomato.