Column: Growing for flavor, not quantity


Commentary by Stephanie Sullivan

Our neighbors are probably questioning the incriminating glow of ultraviolet lights coming from our basement windows. If they think we’re trying to grow our bank account through illicit means, I am here to assure them, we’re growing something much more important: heirloom tomatoes.

I love to garden. Cultivating vegetables not only feeds my family, it feeds my soul. Fifteen years ago I started gardening with a couple of tomato plants in containers on my patio. When I wanted more yield, I built raised beds and filled them with vegetable plants I bought at the hardware store. These plants were standard, faithful varieties, and they were productive.

As my skills grew, so did my conviction that heirloom variety plants produced the best tasting vegetables. While modern-day hybrids offer a lot in the way of disease resistance, all of that muddling around with genes has bred out the most important attribute: flavor.

Inspired to grow for flavor and not just quantity, I poured over heirloom seed catalogs. I was agog at the riches: dragon tongue bush beans, Parisian pickling cucumbers, violet jasper tomatoes. Many of these varieties are centuries old. The same DNA that thrived in Tuscan kitchen gardens 200 years ago could be here in my humble Carmel back yard!

So here I am, the proud mama to a flat of heirloom seedlings I’m nurturing in my basement. They are growing on a simple metal bookcase under shop lights we picked up at Home Depot. Each day I visit them and marvel at how they’ve grown since the day before. Their names thrill me: Amish paste, Grappoli D’Iverno, brandywine red. Even as seedlings, their leaves are distinct, hinting at the uniqueness they will show in full bloom.

My garden will always have plants from the hardware store, but this year they’ll grow alongside their older, more worldly cousins.