Roseville gardener wins two State Fair blue ribbons for tomatoes, despite challenges

Some of John Swenson’s tomato plants have grown to his size or taller. He and his dog Sunny enjoy working in the garden. (photos by Alex Holmquist/Review)

During a late June thunderstorm, a roughly 30-foot Pine tree, which used to stand next to these trees, toppled over onto Swenson’s garden killing several of his prized tomato plants.

Swenson points out the stump of the tree that fell onto his garden in June, almost crushing his entire tomato crop.

Swenson’s “Moby Grape” tomatoes took first prize in their division at the Minnesota State Fair.

John Swenson’s dreams of taking home another Minnesota State Fair blue ribbon for his prized tomatoes were almost crushed, literally.

The tomato-growing season was off to a rocky start this year thanks to a late spring and cool start to the summer. But little did Swenson know those weren’t the only challenges that Mother Nature had in store for him.

This spring, Swenson planted ten tomato plants, which when he purchased them from Linder’s Garden Center, near his Roseville home, were just a few inches tall. His plants grew slowly because of the cooler spring and early summer temperatures, but Swenson persevered, believing if he took special care of his plants they’d surely thrive.

He wasn’t counting on a roughly 30-foot pine tree taking out more than half of his crop in late June. That weekend, two rounds of thunderstorms wreaked havoc on much of the metro area, and Roseville was one of the hardest hit communities.

“My plants can handle any kind of storm, but not a tree falling on them,” Swenson said with a chuckle.

Survivors — and winners

Swenson counts himself fortunate, as the damage was confined to the garden; the tree didn’t hit his house.

But right after the storm, Swenson thought he’d lost all ten of his tomato plants. It was only after he and his wife Margaret cleared some debris that they found four “Moby Grape” tomato plants and one Roma plant still salvageable.

And those plants not only survived, but also managed to earn Swenson first place in their division of the vegetable competition at the Minnesota State Fair.

This year, Swenson took home two blue ribbons for the “Moby Grapes.” The tomatoes, a sweet variety sized somewhere between most grape and cherry varieties, were judged on their uniformity in size, shape and color, as well as their maturity and overall quality.

This isn’t the first time Swenson’s taken first in the competition. His grape tomatoes took first place in their division in 2012, and his cherry tomatoes took fifth place in 2012 and 2010.

Swenson said he has honed his tomato gardening abilities mainly through trial and error over the years — 20 in all that he’s been growing tomatoes. When he was a child, he tagged along after his grandmother and babysitter as they worked in their gardens, and he’s added tricks of the trade through time.

One thing he has learned is that tomatoes thrive in hot weather, and will start to grow “explosively” once the temperature starts to rise.

“The more jungle-like the weather, the more tomatoes like it,” he said, and once the temperature in Minnesota begins climbing, “it’s like somebody turns on a switch.”

But this year isn’t the only year that Swenson has run into some bad luck. During two previous summers, disease wiped out his entire stock of tomatoes.

“Sometimes you do well, sometimes you don’t,” Swenson said with a sigh.

But Swenson does his best to ensure his tomatoes grow to their full potential each year, using just compost he gets from the Ramsey County compost site in Roseville for fertilizer, protecting his garden from grazing deer with a tall fence, and staking his tomato plants so they stand straight and tall. Some of Swenson’s tomato plants have grown to as tall as he is and even taller.

Swenson also grows other produce in his garden: lettuce, kale, dill, and this year he tried his luck with tomatillos. He even gets a little help from his dog, Sunny, who occasionally helps him dig in the garden and steals a cucumber or two when Swenson’s not looking.

But Swenson said he’s more than happy to share his produce with his neighbors.

“You can’t get them this good from the grocery store,” he said, holding up one of his prized tomatoes.

— Editor’s note: Swenson didn’t know why the tomato variety is called “Moby Grape” and we don’t either, but we did find “Moby Grape” was a rock band which released its first album in 1967. Dedicated fans say the band “collectively merged elements of folk music, blues, country, and jazz together with rock and psychedelic music” and quote author Jeff Tamarkin’s description of a group as dramatically leveled and elevated by fate as Swenson’s State Fair entry: “The Grapes’ saga is one of squandered potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad luck, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever to emerge from San Francisco.” Members still perform occasionally.

Alex Holmquist can be reached at or 651-748-7813.

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