Calgary gardeners love their tomatoes, and can get pretty competitive over size and yield and all sorts of other categories. With our short growing season here in the Chinook belt (on average May 25-Sept 15), not to mention cold nights, days that may be warm to sizzling, moisture from drought to drowning, wind and Oh yes, hail, a bumper tomato crop is no sure thing. So, why bother? You can buy tomatoes of all sizes and shapes in the grocery store every day of the year. They come from greenhouses and fields as near as Medicine Hat and as far as California and Mexico. Plant breeders have focused for years on developing a fruit with thick skin, symmetrical shape, disease resistance and toughness to travel from field to store shelf. But in all this hybridization, the one thing that has been neglected is FLAVOUR. Do tomatoes today taste like they used to taste when you were a kid? Not likely.
What is flavour? It is a combination of about 25 volatile chemicals that make up the mouth taste and nose smell, including acids and the #1 chemical – sugar. Let’s compare flavour to a classical musical symphony. If you pull out a single instrument, you many not notice. But pull out another, and then another, and at some point you will definitely know that something is missing. This is what has happened in commercial production, and now there are scientists working on identifying the genome sequences of hundreds of tomatoes, trying to figure out how to selectively put back the pieces that will improve flavour, without messing up all the lovely thick skin and great travel-ability. This is no small feat, but the researchers, producers and customers are all eagerly awaiting success.
If you have a garden, or even space for large pots, and a sunny location, you too can enjoy the sumptuous taste of a real tomato. There are varieties in the seed catalogues that are amazing; just reading about them is an adventure. What you must remember, though, is our short season, so choose varieties that will mature in less than 70 days. (Gardeners with greenhouses already know this doesn’t apply to them as the steady heat in the greenhouse makes for a different growing environment). Cherry tomatoes in particular, are well suited to a Calgary garden, as they ripen earlier than larger ones. There are some medium and large ones that will also ripen here, in a good year, before frost necessitates a move indoors. Many gardeners rely upon Heirloom types for flavour, as they are originals that have not been hybridized. Lois Hole’s book Tomato Favorites is an excellent source of information. Here are some she recommends both for their taste and for early maturity:
Tumbler – 49 days (everybody seems to love this one, which is designed to grow in a tall pot and tumble over the rim, producing fruit all the way to the ground.
Early Girl – 52 days
Champion – 62 days
Big Beef – 73 days
Celebrity – 72 days
If starting seeds indoors with lights and all the associated paraphernalia isn’t your thing, just choose your seedlings from the local nurseries with care, keeping FLAVOUR as your first criteria. When reading the labels, sometimes the name will give a clue, such as Ultra Sweet (52 days). By the way, some yellow and orange varieties can be just as tasty as red, if you close your eyes. I tried little yellow pear-shaped cherry tomatoes one year, but although they were super cute in a salad or on an appetizer tray, they were so mild tasting I won’t do it again. It is flavour first in my kitchen.