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Jeff Johnson with an 8-foot tomato plant grown with soil from his grandfather’s farm in Punkin Center.
Daily photo by Deangelo McDaniel
Jeff Johnson with an 8-foot tomato plant grown with soil from his grandfather’s farm in Punkin Center.

Digging up a Johnson family tomato tradition
Hartselle man moves 2 tons of soil to help his plants grow to new heights

By Deangelo McDaniel · 340-2469

HARTSELLE — So, how far would you go to carry on a family tradition?

That’s the question Jeff Johnson posed to himself when his grandfather, Willie M. Johnson, died in 2001.

To continue Willie Johnson’s tradition of growing tomatoes, which dated to the Depression, the grandson moved 2 tons of soil from the family farm at Punkin Center to Hartselle.

And after several planting seasons, he has apparently mastered the family tradition.

The seven plants Johnson planted are 8 feet tall, producing 30 pounds of tomatoes every other day. They show no signs of slowing.

“I think they’ll probably reach 9 feet tall,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s plants are Better Boys and Big Beef. Like his grandfather, he doesn’t pay as much attention to the plant variety as he does preparing the soil and nurturing the plants once they are in the ground.

“It takes a lot of time and hard work,” Johnson said.

Legacy continues

The decision to construct a metal rack to grow the plants upward is his grandfather’s legacy. His seven plants are fewer than the 16 to 20 his grandfather planted annually. But, the soil is the same.

After unsuccessful seasons of growing tomatoes at his Parker Road home, Johnson decided to move soil his grandfather used to Hartselle.

Johnson has fond memories of going with his grandfather to pick tomatoes and feels obligated to continue his legacy.

“I was always mesmerized with their size and productivity,” he said.

Willie Johnson planted his last tomato patch in 1999, and his grandson remembers picking tomatoes on Christmas.

“How many people can brag about that?” Johnson said.

He doesn’t want to share the family secret, but like his grandfather, he said, he’ll never charge a neighbor, friend or family member for a tomato.

Baring any wintry weather his 8-by-20-foot patch, which has plants 15 feet round, is likely to produce tomatoes for at least another month.

“I’ll share them as long as they are available,” Johnson said.

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