Gardening for Flavour – It’s All About the Heirlooms

They taste so good, tangy, sweet, and oh so luscious. The right tomato can make you swoon with your eyes closed, in contrast to others which can be easily refused. 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. “They are grown for flavour and taste, not for longevity of shelf life, how well they ship, or how they look,” says Sue Feddema, co-owner, Round the Bend Farm.

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.

Heirloom Veggies

Not only are heirloom plants your best flavour options, but they’re also the best performers in home and market gardens. Inspired yet?

New Roots Garden Centre in Newmarket carries a large array of different heirloom tomato plants, with names like Orange Russian, Purple Passion,  Northern Lights, or Black Zebra and a few of the sweeter Brandy Wine varieties. They also sell heirloom peppers, squash and other delicious plants you can grow at home. Heirloom carrots are also 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 fruits and vegetables are old-time varieties that are open-pollinated (not cross pollinated in a greenhouse). “They are not hybrid, so they need bees or wind for pollination, and they look and grow like the original mother plants,” Feddema says.

Heirloom Veggies

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. “They’re really good at reproducing themselves,” says Josh Meyer, owner of New Roots Garden Centre. “Whereas when you buy the store-bought GMO tomatoes, a lot of times the seeds are sterile so they won’t actually produce tomatoes again.”

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 to your own backyard garden.

And remember, tomatoes love sunshine and water. “They don’t need a lot of water, but they need consistent watering,” explains Meyer. “When you don’t water enough, that’s when you start to get those big cracks in the tomatoes.” He also recommends feeding them well with high calcium soil. You can even mix in some additives, like organic chicken manure, to prevent the black spots that are fairly common in tomatoes.

Heirloom Veggies

Interestingly, heirloom tomatoes actually respond to the colour red. “We put red plastic down on the ground to stop the weeds from growing and to encourage the fruit to ripen,” says Feddema. As the plants grow, it helps to stake them so they don’t fall over. You also want to pinch off the suckers that grow from the cracks in the branches. This makes the plant stronger and helps to grow more fruit. “The bushier your plant, the fewer tomatoes it will grow,” Feddema says.

If you don’t have a backyard garden, you can purchase fresh heirloom tomatoes at Round the Bend Farm or 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!

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


Local Links

New Roots Garden Centre

Round the Bend Farm

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