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Desert Companion

Red alert

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Tomato Lady
Aaron Mayes

Ripe makes right: Leslie Doyle knows the secret of tasty tomatoes.

“Tomato Lady” Leslie Doyle is on a mission to make sure you never eat a rubbery, mealy tomato again 

Every July and August for years, I would come home to giant platters of ripening tomatoes. Enormous beefsteaks supporting the weight of Better Boys, striped heirloom varieties, Romas and cherries in gorgeous red, safety orange, light green and sunny yellow. They always tasted as good as they looked, too: firm or tender, sweet or acidic, juicy-slicing or savory-saucing style. We’d put them in salad, sandwiches, lasagna, soup, eggs, pizza. We made salsas, bruschetta, sauces, pastes, and stir-frys, and even thought about canning before laziness and tomato fatigue finally prevailed. My roommate brought these beauties in by the dozen from her father’s tomato garden just outside the city.

It will probably not shock you that this city was far away from the glittering lights and stucco houses of Las Vegas, in the tomato-growing mecca of the Mid-Atlantic. Since I moved to Sin City, there’ve been a lot of pluses. But if my life were measured solely in the quality and quantity of tomatoes I’ve consumed, the last few years would be a very low period, indeed.

When I heard whispers about “Tomato Lady” Leslie Doyle, I had my doubts. People were dropping her name at meetings, in grocery stores, at cocktail parties like she was the Heisenberg of tomato-gardening. Apparently I wasn’t the only one jonesing for the unadulterated taste of a plump beefsteak or meaty heirloom. But was she for real, or was the perfect desert tomato just a mirage?

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Leslie Doyle is real — and perfect tomatoes are within reach. “There’s no gardening god in the desert,” she declares when I meet her. “Everything is DIY.”

Such gravid pronouncements come frequently from 75-year-old Doyle. Her colorful gardening hat suggests whimsy, but her blue eyes are serious. That seriousness — and her stubbornness and tenacity — explain how she’s perfected her methods of growing delicious tomatoes in an inhospitable desert environment.

‘He wanted tomatoes’

She’s not shy about how perfect those methods are. Doyle is known for ruffling feathers in the gardening community, whether she’s vocally advocating her tomato-growing techniques above those of rivals or noting her skepticism about green-minded gardening philosophies such as permaculture, with its focus on recreating natural ecosystems. But even those who don’t see eye to eye with Doyle credit her with inspiring waves of home gardeners in Southern Nevada and beyond, people who might otherwise spend their lives settling for bland, grainy tomatoes from the produce section.

“It’s simple,” Doyle says of her technique, “but unlike everywhere else, you have to know some things about entomology and botany.”

In other words, you’ll have to work for it. Doyle did. For years, she planted different varieties of tomato, watched crops fail, and started over. She employed organic gardening methods, tried soil with and without biosolids (nutrient-rich organic leftovers from treated sewage), experimented with new pesticides and vitamins, built different types of tomato beds, and adjusted the amount of water and sun exposure her plants would get. Trial and error eventually prevailed, and she was able to arrive at her signature process that gets results: using seeds from hearty hybrid varieties that are heat-tolerant; starting seedlings indoors before bringing them out; planting in raised cinderblock beds and nutrient-rich black dirt she composted herself; consistently watering in short bursts at least nine times a day (and more in the summer) with well-maintained irrigation; and sticking to a planting schedule that accounts for our early season. (“It was my husband’s fault,” she says of her obsessive quest for perfection. “He wanted tomatoes.”)

But her biggest innovation seems to be her approach to garden pests. Any would-be tomato gardener can turn over a leaf to reveal the tiny green aphids feasting there — the archenemy. In addition to employing the gardener’s best friend, the aphid-eating ladybug, Doyle began using reflective mulch in lieu of chemical solutions years before most gardeners caught on. If the critters can’t see, blinded as they are by a shiny surface that reflects sunlight, they can’t land, get comfy, and gobble up the tomato plant before anyone can enjoy its fruits. Rejecting other gardeners’ belief that shade is the solution, Doyle took the sun’s disadvantages and turned them into a bug-battling arrow in her quiver, hitting a red, juicy bull's-eye along the way. 

“I was on the cutting edge of it. It took me a long time to figure out how to garden in the desert,” she says, “but eventually I was responsible for changing people’s minds.”

Green thumb, brown knees

Despite her claims that the process she developed was a simple one, Doyle calls her brand of growing “brown-knee gardening,” emblematic of the work ethic it took to achieve success. As a result, it’s difficult to minimize her importance in the world of desert gardening. Today, Doyle’s self-taught methods are exhaustively laid out in her books, in online videos, and, of course, in her hour-long classes.

And if my taste buds are any judge, they work. The beefsteak hybrid that Doyle found to be the best desert-dweller is a huge and juicy slicer that tastes wonderful. In case you’ve forgotten what a homegrown tomato is like, imagine a flavorful, tangy yet sweet, red and ripe-all-the-way-through luscious fruit with just the right amount of juiciness — and not a bit of mealiness. (Fun fact: The mealiness of grocery-store tomatoes is partly due to the fact that they’re artificially speed-ripened with ethylene gas.) Doyle’s pride and joy, these tomatoes are so perfect that you can practically hear them cry out for a hamburger to sit atop or even just a salt shaker and a hungry soul. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the hybrid tomatoes that are part of her hard-won success are called Hawaiian Tropics. But her Juliets are nothing to sneeze at either, their tender fleshiness a unique attribute in the world of smaller tomato varieties.

Alongside her delicious tomatoes, she’s grown a cult of tomato-lovers out of the desert sand. Local attorney and gardening enthusiast Augustus Klaus is a student of Doyle’s working on his second garden, the first of which was atop a downtown roof.

“Everything grew tremendously well,” says Klaus enthusiastically before he pauses to laugh and explain, “except the one time we neglected her watering schedule and had a growing gap … or the time we tried and failed with a crop of Big Boys and understood why she recommends what she does.” When he carefully followed her recommendations, though, the harvest was a rich one that, he remembers, “went on all summer long.”

Students-turned-disciples such as Klaus and Doyle’s dedication to teaching keep her plenty busy. Between January and March, she teaches 35 sessions of her five varieties of gardening classes, runs the Sweet Tomato Test Garden out of her home, hosts weekly special events at the 3rd Street Downtown and Downtown Summerlin farmers’ markets, and consults for seed producers and gardens in the five-state area. Her home garden is a center for testing trial pesticides and fertilizers for agricultural companies. Her schedule doesn’t appear to be lightening up anytime soon.

“I used to think retirement was cruising, Netflix, and chocolate,” says Doyle, who retired to Las Vegas almost 20 years ago after a career in real estate in Southern California. But she’s not complaining. “I didn’t get much enjoyment out of inactivity. It’s nice being busy and having people around.” (Almost as soon as she finishes this sentence, there’s a knock at the door: a man with a bucket is looking for composted soil. In true Tomato Lady style, she’s a bit brusque with him, telling him he’ll have to wait.)

While “there are no accidental gardeners in Las Vegas,” as Doyle points out, it’s good to remember what you get for your toil in addition to being able to eat your dream tomato all summer long. “You can take all the credit,” she says. “This isn’t California, so when you’re successful, you get to feel an enormous sense of pride in the beautiful and delicious produce you grow.”

Maybe this season of summer salads and poolside burgers will inspire you to try your hand at Doyle’s methods, whether you want speckled Romans for sauces or red pear piriforms for pastes. Or you can hit her stand up at the farmers’ market or the Sweet Tomato Test Garden this summer and get some inspiration by tasting a few from the Tomato Lady herself. Then you can be the one whispering about them at the next cocktail party. And you can assure your listeners that the Tomato Lady is, indeed, very real. 

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