— by Roberta
It is March, and as I am writing this it’s cloudy, wet, but a balmy 8 degrees Celsius (at the time of posting it’s -3 and there’s a threat of snow). Signs of spring are all around us, and if the moving ahead of the clock one hour and March break don’t convince you, perhaps this little sprouting of flowering egg yellow crocuses will.
Spring is a time of natural renewal. Things grow, the landscape changes, critters procreate, even the most fervent homebodies are coming out into the sunshine. There are also more joggers on the sidewalks. But it’s March, and spring in March in Canada is a far cry from spring in March in my native Croatia. There it is truly spring in March, i.e. green leaves on the trees, green grass, short sleeves warm days, and all the good stuff associated with spring. Or at least that is how it used to be. The climate is changing, so who knows what the future holds for spring anywhere on the globe. (For example, today it’s only 13C in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, and according to family reports the trees are still leafless.)
When I originally immigrated to Canada (close to 23 years ago) waiting for spring was tough. It was actually rather depressing for several years. March came and went with hardly any significant changes to the landscape or my mood. April wasn’t much better, and evenings in May (OK, days, too) were still too chilly to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I love the seasons, but as winter goes less is more.
It took several years, but a time came when winter was no longer such a downer. What changed? I re-discovered gardening! First I started with perennials. I’d get gardening books from the library, spent hours in the gardening section of bookstores, and made lists of what I wanted to grow. I didn’t browse for stuff on the internet, because the internet in the 1990s was still only a dirt road compared to the multi-lane highway of information it is now. (I still LOVE books! The image below shows a fraction of my gardening library.)
I planted balloon flowers, peonies, pinks, violets, heck, I don’t even remember, AND I grew a few tomato plants. I started with a couple of seedlings from the very accessible choices of cherry tomato and other hybrids, and loved it. That was the turning point, ladies and gents, I started appreciating winter for the garden planning time it offered, spring, summer and fall for the puttering in the dirt, and summer and fall for the bounty of tomatoes. I had re-discovered food, or more specifically that food did have flavour after all. Tomatoes are just such an obvious example of this, used over and over in comparisons between industrial and home-grown food in literature and conversations, but other fruit — strawberries, apricots, peaches, plums, etc., etc. — are just as good an example. Long distance fruit just doesn’t have the same flavour punch as fruits grown close to home to full (or at least near full) ripeness. But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this. (By the way, I do not buy tomatoes in winter, it’s really not worth my while.)
Anyway, after a couple of years my situation changed and I had no longer access to a growing space. Winters became tough again, but I had schoolwork to do, so keeping busy kept me from major gardening withdrawals. Then a friend told me about this allotment garden where she had a little plot, and I shared it for a short period of time. But that wasn’t good enough, so I got my own. The first year I cultivated only a quarter of the plot and had planned on growing some lettuce and tomatoes to start with. While at the garden a fellow allotment keeper was walking by and we started chatting: “Would you like some tomato plants? I have some extras,” said she. “Sure” said I, “what are they?” She: “They are heirloom varieties.” Me: “Oh. What’s that?” And so on. Well, that was the moment when a door was opened to a wonderful world of growing and eating possibilities. That first year I grew my first black tomato (Black Prince) and thought it was the most beautiful tomato I had ever seen. And not just beautiful, but yum yum yummy!!
My grandmother grew a yellow tomato one year and the family was a bit reluctant to eat it. It was weird because tomatoes are “traditionally” red, right? Well, no. The Italian word for tomato is pomodoro (i.e. golden apple), and not pomorosso (i.e. red apple). If that’s not a hint to how short our culinary memory is, then what is? Then again, I can’t think of any better example where everything old is new again than the heirloom tomato, which was resurrected from obscurity by chefs. (My favourite yellow tomato: Henderson’s Golden Ponderosa, pictured below.)
So what’s an heirloom tomato (or other fruit or vegetable)? It’s literally an old variety that has been passed down from generation to generation just like grandma’s table china, a quilt, silver cutlery or a grandfather clock. Heirloom seeds were generally not represented in the commercial stream, although that has changed significantly over the last decade or so, and heirloom seeds are now much more accessible. Heirloom seeds also breed to type, meaning that the seed you save will grow fruit that’s the same as the parent plant (a great quality if you prize consistency and sharing), while hybrids are the result of crosses between two varieties, and seed saved won’t give you what you expect (great for keeping a secret recipe secret and the seed proprietary).
I am sure I could write a book about this, but let’s consider the tomato for a moment: its home is Mesoamerica (now Mexico), it was “discovered” by European explorers and cultivated as an ornamental plant (with small golden fruit) since it was thought that it was poisonous (and the plant itself is), until a brave soul tested this theory and survived the experiment. What happened next you will have to actually read in a book (I’ve posted some suggestions and links at the bottom of this article), but the tomato found a home in many parts of the globe, and was morphed into varieties of many sizes, shapes, colours and flavours by the people who grew and ate them. Since images speak louder than words, here’s a link that illustrates quite well just a fraction of the hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties out there (note though that some are also hybrids, so pay attention to the descriptors). As farmers’ market supporters you are able to benefit from some of this variety; as a gardener you have access to so much more.
So what’s the point of telling you all this? Well, it’s about my annual ritual of renewal. To get with spring (when there are no signs of it yet) I start my tomato seeds in mid March, as do so many farmers whose laboriously gained fruits we’ll all have a benefit to enjoy when harvest time for each respective fruit or vegetable comes. If you are a gardener you likely share this feeling of re-starting the cycle of life and are enjoying one of many Seedy Saturday or Sunday events across Canada (click here for Toronto events). If you are not, then gardening events like Canada Blooms will boost your mood and reassure you that spring is coming. Or… you can wait until first market day and eat your way from harvest to harvest enjoying mouthfuls of edible history here and there.
Recommended reading: Botany for Gardeners, Brian Capon; Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, Cary Fowler & Pat Mooney, anything on composting.