NOVELTY, Ohio – The red-and-white striped canopy shades the heaping baskets of red, orange and yellow fruits and the honor-system money box at the end of the driveway.
Dozens of tomato plants – garden overflow – line one side of the driveway, their green and ripening bounties dragging them down. Out back is the main garden, jam-packed with the fruits, too.
Make no mistake about it: This is the home of Joe Cluts, ‘The Tomato Man.’
Challenged. ‘The Tomato Man’ has earned his nickname through a lifetime of hard work.
Always a gardener, Cluts got involved in the Geauga County Fair more than 30 years ago. He planned to showcase his beekeeping hobby, but once he got his hands on the fair entry book and saw all the gardening categories he could enter, he changed his plan.
His hobby garden was producing. Maybe he could win something to reward him for the time he’d put in planting, cultivating, picking.
That first time around, his entry “wasn’t quite up to snuff,” and the fair’s premier gardener was sure to tell him so. It seems he’d entered the wrong size, color and variety of tomatoes. He’d broken all the rules.
So that premier gardener challenged Joe, saying that if the novice exhibitor took any ribbon at the following year’s fair, the expert would pay him a first-place premium.
Joe Cluts felt the urge to compete boil inside him and accepted the bet.
The next year, he took a white ribbon and that expert gardener’s $3 premium.
“He sneered at me that my entry was terrible, and I shouldn’t have gotten any ribbon. But I did, and he honored his word.”
Strides. In the past three decades, Cluts has morphed from beginning competitor into that crotchety, old expert grower who drove him to succeed.
He admits he tries to be helpful to any fair exhibitor who picks his brain.
“How come I didn’t do well?” they ask.
“Well, did you read the entry book and follow the rules?” he responds.
“It’s all in getting four uniform tomatoes, four of a kind in variety, size, weight, shape, color,” he says.
And his advice works.
“People beat me sometimes, and that’s good. I’m usually a good loser.”
Out of control. Joe and Mary Cluts started their backyard garden, just outside of Novelty in Geauga County, all those years ago with about a dozen varieties of tomatoes.
“Joe has always really loved tomatoes. I think that’s why he grows them,” Mary says.
“The first ones [to ripen] don’t get too far out of the garden before they’re gone,” Joe admits.
Joe’s first memories of tomatoes – the quintessential American garden fruit – were from his youth. His family would eat BLT sandwiches in the summer to use up their tomato crop, but not without a little work beforehand: Joe also recalls weeding the garden for hours on end, and meeting his quota of stones picked up between the rows before he was allowed to call it a day.
All that hard work drove him to love tomatoes even more.
When he planted his own garden, his goal was to stop at 57 varieties, like the Heinz 57 recipe. But those numbers kept creeping upward when friends gave him seeds from their family heirloom varieties or picked up others while they were traveling the world.
Today, the Cluts’ garden boasts 97 different varieties of tomatoes, everything from Ground Cherry Tomatillos and Sweet Millions to Hillbillies, Cherokee Purples, Green Zebras and Banana Legs.
“To me, they’re all yummy, yummy, yummy,” Joe says.
His system. Joe’s 50-by-150-foot garden features intensive raised beds made of a mixture of horse manure and sawdust.
Every spring he puts on another layer of the stall cleanings from a nearby horse farm, plus sand whenever it’s necessary, to break up the hard clay soil.
“And now we have soil you can grow stuff in,” Joe says, noting the amendment acts as a fertilizer and helps hold moisture in the ground.
Each tomato plant also gets its own support cage made of 6-inch square woven concrete wire, the same stuff that encircles the entire garden, more than 5 feet high, to keep out wayward deer and neighborhood children.
Aside from the myriad tomato varieties, the Clutses also grow onions, garlic, potatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, green beans, and more.
Bragging rights. The garden is a food source, bragging source, money source and hobby.
Aside from his county fair champion tomatoes – Joe has shown several first-place winners and grown the fair’s largest tomato – Joe sells plants and produce from a driveway stand off Pekin Road.
This year, he sold between 1,500 and 2,000 plants, and now neighbors and passersby are stopping to pick quart-size baskets overflowing with tomatoes from the stand.
Looking ahead. Last week, Joe looked forward to this year’s Geauga County Fair, and his beloved tomato judging that comes only once a year.
His plan? To enter every category he can, and bring home as many blue ribbons as judges will allow.
Joe has earned the name ‘The Tomato Man,’ and his reputation precedes him, Mary says.
It’s hard to miss him, or not know he’s in love with tomatoes. Joe’s got a vest that says “I’m a hot tomato” across the back and a tomato-themed hat.
“Everybody knows him now,” Mary says.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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