They taste so good, tangy, sweet, and oh so luscious. The right tomato makes me swoon with my eyes closed, in contrast to others which I can easily refuse. So what’s the difference? It’s heirloom varieties over traditional hybrids.
Heirloom, sometimes referred to as heritage, varieties of any vegetable just taste better. Up until recently, breeding programs for modern hybrid vegetables all but ignored taste and nutrition, and instead focused on solving the revenue generating challenges of extended shelf life and transportability. This has resulted in the glut of bland produce we have today.
That should be reason enough to plant your own garden with heirloom varieties. Not only are these your best flavour options, but they’re also the best performers in home and market gardens. Inspired yet?
Farmer Karen Whitty of Whitty Farms in St. Catharines plants more than a dozen varieties of heirloom tomatoes, with names like Orange Russian, Turkey Purple, Northern Lights, or Black Zebra and a few of the sweeter Brandy Wine varieties. She strives for the best flavours she can grow, and because she’s not carting her produce cross-town much less cross-country, she can take the time to ripen her produce for full flavour and nutrition.
Yes, that’s right. Science is now supporting what gourmet gardeners have known all along – that food allowed to ripen in the garden is higher in nutrition because most of the nutrients (and flavour) develop in the final stages of ripening.
You really can taste the difference. Heirloom carrots are disproportionately flavourful, heirloom squash is richer, and garlic is ultimately more pungent and powerful; even rhubarb has a welcome tang and crisp bite.
Generally speaking, heirloom veggies are old-time varieties that are open-pollinated (not cross pollinated in a greenhouse). Over time these vegetable varieties become more adapted to the location they’re grown in, and show this by eventually producing more volume and becoming more resistant to insects. Many of the heirloom variety of seeds are saved each growing season and handed down through multiple generations of families. I know my family is still growing the same variety of garlic my grandmother brought with her from Italy in the early 1900s.
If you don’t have heritage seeds in your family, there are organizations like Seeds of Diversity and USC Canada (Unitarian Service Committee) that collect and save seeds from extinction. They offer all varieties of seeds from carrots to potatoes and tomatoes to beets. Start these seeds in a sunny window right about now and when they’re strong enough, transplant them in your own backyard garden.
Remember that heirloom varieties will behave slightly differently in your garden. I remember when my grandmother would harvest tomatoes from July to the onset of frost. That’s because heirloom varieties are less uniform than hybrids, and one plant will ripen continually until the weather halts it from growing.
“Heirloom tomatoes are so sweet and delicious; my favourite way to eat them is straight from the garden when they’re still warm from the sun”, says Karen. “These are things to look forward to, and have good memories of.”
If you don’t have a backyard garden, look for heirloom varieties at your farmers’ market. You can identify them easily because they probably will not have the picture perfect image vegetable marketers have come to expect. Instead, you’re more likely to find lopsided beets, tiny melons with stripes, cucumbers with little spikes, twisted squash and ugly tomatoes. It’s all good!
When I’m starting my tiny heirloom seeds, I feel connected to generations of gardeners like me who cared enough to seek out the best flavours. Throughout the summer, when I’m enjoying the spoils from my garden, those vibrant flavours take me back to feel the love of generations of my own family.
by Lynn Ogryzlo
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to Look Local Magazine. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.ca
Burlington Public Library Seed Library
Seeds of Diversity
Hamilton Community Garden Network