Grow­ing Granny’s Toma­toes

Stanstead Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Vic­to­ria Vanier, Bish­op­ton

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.

Photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

Brian Creel­man and Do­minique Lainet are seen here in their green­house in Bish­op­ton, sur­rounded by de­lec­ta­ble heir­loom greens.

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