Oak Park's 'Tomato Lady'

Lissa Dysart's passion has turned into a cottage industry

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

They range from half-inch gems to voluptuous 3-pounders; palest of yellows and reds so dark, they're called black; striped and mottled; pink and orange; round, oblong, heart- and pear-shaped beauties. All future promises from 4- to 8-inch stalks reaching for the sky at pop-up greenhouses in a modest backyard in southeast Oak Park. The 90 varieties of tomato seedlings, along with a selection of vegetable plants are up for sale out of the home of Lissa Dysart this Saturday.

Dysart's craving for quality, home-grown tomatoes comes from a childhood experience. Growing up in Crystal Lake, she said there was a farm nearby with community garden plots. Her family would garden there and "have tons of tomatoes and eat them at every meal throughout the summer." By the time she moved out, "horrible hydroponic tomatoes came into being," she said. 

To counter tasteless grocery-store tomatoes, Dysart had a 5-gallon bucket with a tomato plant on a fire escape while living in one Chicago apartment, then grew plants in a small plot of land between apartment buildings at another. 

Inside her Oak Park home, where Dysart has lived since 2002, planting starts by February, a laborious process with so many seeds in recent years. She has Netflix to keep her company as she plants. Shelves with shop lights, set up in her basement, provide light for the sprouts in the early months. 

"Anybody could do this," she said. 

The plants, all grown organically, all non-GMO, primarily open-pollinated, heirloom varieties, start as seeds she chooses after culling through garden catalogs in the cold winter months. Favorite sources are Baker Creek, Seed Savers, Pinetree, and Fedco, as well as seed swaps. Growing so many varieties is simply explained by Dysart's curiosity. She has also taken on the job as seed buyer — along with heading up the Edible Garden Tour — for Sugar Beet Food Co-op, an add-on to her job as marketing director, which is fitting given her gardening acumen and the co-op's need for someone to oversee these responsibilities. 

When Dysart's home-grown plants are big enough and the weather is right, the seedlings move outside to temporary greenhouses. Although her yard has a large tree, it doesn't leaf out during the hardening-off process, when the plants adjust to being outside. Sunlight streams through the tree branches and reaches the greenhouses — one of which is new this season to accommodate the growing number of young plants. 

Dysart has 1,000 seedlings this year, a new record. Although she's been growing vegetables from seed since the late 1990s, she didn't start selling until eight years ago.  

A gardener Dysart taught to "seed start" decided to post her extra plants on Craigslist. "It paid for her seed purchases and gardening whatnot that year," Dysart said. "So the next year I tried it and it worked out nicely. This has grown from there." 

She's been called the "Tomato Lady" on the Garden Club of Oak Park-River Forest's Facebook page, where locals ask garden questions, share successes, exchange plants and raise butterflies. One man who recognized Dysart on the Berwyn Bungalow tour even jokingly called her his "dealer." Gardeners are that passionate about their plant suppliers.

Besides the Garden Club's Facebook page, Dysart reaches customers by an email list generated from previous sales, word of mouth, and by Craigslist, where she still generated one presale this year. 

Besides tomatoes, there are melons, winter and summer squash, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers and a few others like kale, cumin and Romanesco. Although some varieties are recognizable, many are very different from what gardeners can find elsewhere — white-fleshed melons, color-changing hot peppers, cucumbers that look like potatoes, a Native-American squash that has been around for more than 400 years. 

"I like the tie to history," Dysart said. "They've always been grown this way. It just makes sense; it's more natural."

By every measure, her effort is a success. She sold all 70 tomato varieties and other vegetable plants she grew in 2018. 

"To me it's a little bit like throwing a party, where it's a lot of work and before it happens I'm like, 'Why did I do this?' Dysart said. "And then when it happens, I'm like, 'But it's great and it's fun and everyone really enjoyed it and people are asking are you going to do it again?'"  

She relishes the fruits of her labor with the harvest from the 30 to 40 plants she keeps for herself, nestled in her front yard where there is enough sun to sustain vegetables. What she doesn't consume as a "garden snack" — such as a small tomato warmed by the sun and popped right into the mouth off the vine — she will put into a tomato-basil bread salad, a brown-rice-flour breaded fish topped with a tomato-herb vinaigrette or a simple caprese salad.  

Rich rewards for her efforts. 

To obtain the list and preorder, email red135@gmail.com. The seedling sale is Saturday, May 11, 9 a.m. to noon, 1026 S. Cuyler, Oak Park, enter through garage. Seedlings are $4 each (cash) for 3-inch peat pots.

Reader Comments

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Les Golden  

Posted: May 7th, 2019 8:14 PM

This is the secret to health, organically grown, fresh produce. She's a great role model!

Cheryl Knecht Muņoz  

Posted: May 7th, 2019 5:28 PM

"Anybody could do this." Lissa says. But SHE actually DOES it! Brava, Lissa! You are the Tomato Lady. <3

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