For Prairie Village native, holy grail is tomato that makes you go ‘wow’

Keith Mueller checking one of his tomato plants at the Community Garden at Cherokee Christian Church in Prairie Village.
Keith Mueller checking one of his tomato plants at the Community Garden at Cherokee Christian Church in Prairie Village.

August is a busy month for Prairie Village native Keith Mueller.

The 1980 Shawnee Mission East grad starts nearly 1,500 tomato seeds indoors in March. In May he transplants several hundred of the best seedlings at plots around the metro. And by August, he’s able to get a very good sense of just what he’s accomplished.

Mueller, who has a master’s degree in plant breeding and horticulture from North Carolina State University, is a professional plant breeder. And he’s on a mission to create amazing new tomatoes.

“My goal is simple,” he said. “I want to be able to put it in my mouth and go ‘wow’ without thinking. If you have to put in your mouth and think about it for a minute, that’s not working. You can make those — they’re a dime a dozen.”

Since moving back to the Kansas City area in 1998 (he now lives near Waldo), Mueller has planted tens of thousands of seeds, shepherding each iteration of plant through to the next stage. He uses seed specimens from seed banks at universities and government agencies to try to isolate desirable characteristics and then breed them with existing varieties to create beautiful, flavorful and robust new tomato plants.

“I look at the seed banks, and there’s all these genes nobody has used,” he said. “There are different flesh tones. Different nutritional properties. So what I’m doing is taking those and putting them in to heirloom lines. I want it to pop. I know I can take advantage of certain genetic things.”

This year, he had experimental plots in Kansas City, Kan., south Kansas City, and a community garden plot at Cherokee Christian Church in Prairie Village. He’s been documenting his results on a popular Twitter account, KCTomato.

“It’s kind of slow in the winters,” he said. “But I love what I do.”

A sampling of Mueller's yield from his experimental plants this season.
A sampling of Mueller’s yield from his experimental plants this season.