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Remembrance of seeds past

Growing heirloom vegetables is a way of cultivating good taste, preserving the past and investing in the future of the environment. Even urban gardeners can take part CRAILLE MAGUIRE GILLIES writes

By CRAILLE MAGUIRE GILLIES, Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, May 11, 2002

Guide to Gardening
bulletGround rules
bulletThe sweaty secrets behind Britain's gardening fetish
bulletWhat you want
bulletThe tools
bulletRemembrance of seeds past bulletTen worst gardening mistakes

The crown jewels of my kitchen garden are my Purple Prince tomatoes. For the past two years, using a few strategically placed terracotta pots and a small raised planter squeezed between my neighbour's driveway and my sunny side door, I have managed to harvest a modest, but gratifying, crop of heirloom tomatoes along with the usual array of peppers, spinach, lettuce and herbs.

I reasoned that if I'm going to grow tomatoes in my small, sun-challenged kitchen garden, they should be something special. The Purple Prince variety, noted for its plum-coloured skin and juicy flesh, is a vast improvement over the ubiquitous, tasteless Tiny Tims, a diminutive hybrid that can be grown even by brown thumbs.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables like the Purple Prince are prized not just for their flavour and diversity, they have a rich history that spans the globe. Today, nostalgia for plants our grandparents grew, concern about genetically modified food and hunger for the almost-forgotten flavour of vintage vegetables has more gardeners growing organic heirloom varieties.

Mary Brittain, co-owner of The Cottage Gardener, an heirloom plant nursery west of Port Hope, Ont., started growing heirloom plants after recovering from a serious illness several years ago. "I suddenly found that gardening was very therapeutic," she says.

When Brittain learned that some of the most succulent, hardy vegetables were being replaced by thick-skinned hybrids like the Tiny Tims, she became interested in heirlooms. "Since the 19th century, we've lost about 75 per cent of varieties of vegetables that were in existence," she says. Brittain attributes the loss to the efficiencies required by mass production. To her dismay, she found that sources for heirloom seeds were limited.

Heirloom vegetables, which provide gardeners with thousands of choices not found at the grocery store, are defined as varieties that are at least 50 years old, naturally pollinated and grown organically. And the trend is not limited to tomatoes (technically a fruit), although there are hundreds of these available. The Cottage Gardener carries seeds for dozens of beans, beets, cucumbers, kale and lettuce - all with intriguing names and storied pasts.

There's the early yellow crookneck squash, grown by North American natives as early as the 1700s, and later adopted by settlers; Lucullus Swiss chard, a prolific producer reportedly named after the Roman general; and the popular Brandywine, a hefty tomato developed by the Pennsylvania Amish.

You don't need a spread in the country with abundant sunlight to grow your own heirlooms. With a little ingenuity, even urban gardeners are finding creative ways to maximize space using trellises and netting, double-cropping (growing crops concurrently in the same space), raised beds and containers.

"With a four-foot-wide bed, you can grow enough to feed a family," says Ellen de Casmaker, who runs Quebec-based Eternal Seed Co., and boasts customers from as far away as Alaska.

She recommends crop rotation to limit the spread of viruses and suggests a simple root-leaf-fruit plan. Divide your garden into three areas: one for roots such as carrots and potatoes, one for leaves such as lettuces, and another for fruits such as tomatoes and peppers. Then rotate the crops in each area every year, so that this year's potatoes are not planted in the plot that held potatoes last year.

The growing interest in heirloom species has persuaded large-seed suppliers such as William Dam and Veseys to stock up, but they still consider it a niche market like the interest in organic growing.

Kari MacInnis-Coles, trial co-ordinator at Vesey's, says many customers still put looks before taste. "Consumers want perfect-looking food and gardeners are really used to growing perfect-looking vegetables; it's almost culture shock." With their smaller proportions and irregular shapes, MacInnis-Coles is skeptical that heirlooms will ever achieve mainstream status. "Heirlooms are a kind of novelty thing that we carry. I mean, Brandywine is an ugly tomato. It cracks and shrivels up. You're never going to get something that's supermarket perfect."

But organic growers like de Casmaker and Brittain preach the superiority of heirloom vegetables and scorn hybrids - often factory-farmed varieties bred to endure manhandling and a long shelf life.

"The general principle," Brittain argues, "is that any vegetable seed passed down through generations is not going to be kept and saved unless it will thrive. What's scary about modern [hybrid] varieties is that most are developed from very few parent species, so their gene pool is very narrow."

And when it comes to biodiversity, history's verdict is clear: Monoculture was responsible for the great potato famine in mid-19th century Ireland.

For the most growers, it is the joy of growing unique plants with a colourful heritage that turns them onto heirlooms. Cindy Jemison, an amateur gardener in St. Catharines, Ont., marvels at the beauty of her vegetable garden, waxing poetic about her two-pound pineapple tomatoes with their mottled yellow-red flesh. "The plants themselves are very beautiful. People are really intrigued, but they're sometimes afraid to taste them because they are unfamiliar," she says.

After reading The Heirloom Vegetable Garden, by William Woy Weaver ($39.95, Owl Books), Jemison started collecting seeds and now grows 10 varieties of tomatoes, four kinds of peppers and a patch of "incredibly rare garlic" on her 12-by-16-foot plot. "I can pack quite a bit in," she says.

To maximize space, she weaves climbing beans through netting on the side of her garage. Although her young daughter revels in picking "lollipop" tomatoes, not everyone in the family shares Jemison's passion for heritage vegetables. Her husband, who helped build the garden, prefers to stick to conventional varieties. "If it's not perfectly round or perfectly red, he won't eat it."

But Jemison is passionate about the flavour, variety and history behind her heirlooms. "I like older things, things of character. I don't have antiques in my house, just in my garden."

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