Growing Granny’s Tomatoes
Ifyou’d like to thumb your nose up at ‘Big Agriculture’ and grow some really interesting vegetables or fruit at the same time, then ‘Heirloom’ gardening might be for you. I dabbled in it last summer for the first time, growing about eight different varieties of heirloom tomatoes with names like
Wapsipinicon Peach, Matt’s Wild Cherry, the San Marzano, world-renowned as the best cooking tomato, and what became the family favourite: Indigo Rose. When ripe, this mid-sized marvel had a shiny blue purple skin with a sweet, pink interior and grew in clusters of eight or ten uniform fruit. One plant must have given us at least thirty pounds of fruit over the summer. And, as a bonus, the ‘volunteer’ tomato plants that seeded themselves in my greenhouse will grow up to be just like their parents!
Heirloom varieties, by definition, are old cultivars that were handed down from generation to generation before the widespread development and use of hybrid plants, beginning in the 1950’s. Hybrid varieties were often created with the commercial market in mind, able to travel well and last a long time, taste and nutrition not coming into the equation. Furthermore, unlike with heirloom varieties, the seeds of the new varieties would not be any good, unable to produce predictable offspring and forcing the farmer to buy new seed every year.
Brian Creelman’s farm, in Bishopton, is where I returned to buy more heirloom plants for this year’s growing season. “When I first started gardening, I had no idea about the difference between heirloom and hybrid. I started saving tomato seeds for the hell of it; I had a background in biology. Then the more I learnt about the large scheme of things, I realized we were putting all our eggs in one basket. To rely on only one variety, like the Cavendish banana, may be profitable in the short term but nature doesn’t work that way. It’s like having a library and then burning all the books except the one that you like,” commented Mr. Creelman. “One scary statistic is that we have now lost between eighty to ninety percent of the varieties of food plants,” he added.
Mr. Creelman grows one hundred and twenty varieties of heirloom vegetables, a bit of a logistical nightmare on the property that once belonged to the family of his wife, Dominique Lainet, a teacher. “I’ve got twelve lettuce varieties, forty-five kinds of tomatoes, and many varieties of beans.” Besides selling seeds from home and locally, Mr. Creelman also gets requests for seeds through the “Seeds of Diversity” website, a non-profit participatory seed exchange.
“Heirloom varieties are way more suited to small scale gardening. For instance, heirloom tomatoes spread out their ripening over the season, unlike commercial varieties that ripen all at once. You can’t treat nature like a machine or it can come back to bite you.”
According to this plant grower, some families of plants are easier to harvest seeds from than others. “The beans are easy – they fertilize themselves. But the brassicas are naturally ‘crossers’, which means they need many other plants to breed with. They need to mix up their genes a lot. So we don’t save just any seed under the sun. I just find it really cool that you can let one lettuce plant go to seed and you’ll have fifty or sixty packs of seed from it; enough for all your friends and family.”
Speaking of lettuce, the heirloom varieties growing in Mr. Creelman’s greenhouse, ready for market, looked exquisite, a term I never thought I’d use to describe lettuce. “I’ve got Oreilles de Diable, CracoViensis, a Polish lettuce, and an old English variety, Winter Density. Some varieties are over two hundred years old.”
“There’s a trend towards preventing farmers from saving seeds. Over the past thirty years, small seed houses have been gobbled up by the big players, trying to get a hold on the genetic material. It was that slow, creeping awareness that led me to heirloom plants,” said Mr. Creelman. “And I like growing things and seeing them through to their maturity; it gives me a sense of unmitigated satisfaction,” he concluded.
Brian Creelman’s heirloom plants, although winding down, and seeds can be found at his farm or at Clarke & Sons, in Lennoxville. His heirloom produce will be available soon at the Lennoxville Farmer’s Masrket.
Brian Creelman and Dominique Lainet are seen here in their greenhouse in Bishopton, surrounded by delectable heirloom greens.