Growing heritage tomatoes a labour of love

AIRDRIE, Alta. – Jeff Casey learned how to grow tomatoes after travelling halfway around the world.He started gardening when he was teaching English in Japan in 1993. He took over a small vegetable garden of Japanese greens and tomatoes that another apartment tenant left behind. When he returned to Canada, he continued growing tomatoes with mixed results.The Airdrie, Alta., high school English teacher turned his passion for gardening into Casey’s Heirloom Tomatoes, which produces hundreds of seed varieties each year.He found an heirloom tomato website and he joined tomato forums. On-line friends donated seeds because he could not find any locally produced.“I didn’t have much success with Early Girl and stuff like that, so I went to the internet,” he said.Since so few people in Canada were involved in growing old, open pollinated varieties, he decided to save the seeds and sell them to other interested gardeners.He sells to three local seed houses and through his internet catalogue, where he provides plant descriptions and a story with each variety.“Sometimes you just don’t know where these varieties came from but the oldest one that I have is called Green Gage and it is pre-1800s,” he said, citing its yellow, plum-shaped fruit.“If you want to know what an old time tomato tastes like, this is it. There is no real sweetness to it.”Heirloom tomatoes are older varieties and often date back 50 years. People have sent him seeds from family collections grown for generations and traced back to Eastern Europe.The results are an array of tomatoes in different colours and sizes as well as flavours ranging from tart to sweet. Some varieties produce fruit that weighs more than 450 grams and tastes like sweet melon.Casey has also developed his own varieties, including one derived from a mutated plant that switched to a yellow from red tomato with a potato-like leaf. Casey’s Pure Yellow is a sweet, juicy beefsteak type that has been grown successfully as far away as Australia.Maya-Sion Airdrie Classic is another home-developed variety named after his two young children. It is a large tomato that produces well in the Calgary zone.His greatest challenge is the foothills climate, with its cold nights, wind, hail and few frost-free days.To make sure he gets enough fruit, he plants about 50 varieties in his greenhouses and the rest in sheltered parts of his garden.There are 8,000 to 12,000 different varieties of tomatoes available throughout the world.Casey offers about 100 varieties that perform well and produce good fruit in this climate.“I have got to the point where I have a stable list of plants I know will work well here,” he said.The work starts in January when dozens of tiny plants are nurtured under grow lights in his basement.The tomatoes take up 10 months of the year and his wife, Yuko, and children indulge him while he fits his farm work around his teaching time.When the plants are flowering, he taps them to spread pollen. He has even used an electric toothbrush to buzz each plant so the pollen touches the stigma of the flower. He covers plant blossoms with tulle fabric bags to prevent cross-pollination.Seeds are packaged in envelopes and filed in boxes.The seeds should last up to 10 years if they are stored in a cool, dark place. However germination is reduced over time.Casey said the enterprise is time-consuming but pays for itself.