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Growing heirloom tomatoes

So far, our spring on the prairies has been all about a mixture of everything. What is the summer going to bring? We don’t know.
heirloom tomato
A variety of heirloom tomato plants are available at Orchid Horticulture. Photo submitted

So far, our spring on the prairies has been all about a mixture of everything. What is the summer going to bring? We don’t know. Unfortunately, like farming, gardening is all about making the best choices in spring and hoping for the best production for our tables. As a great lover of tomatoes, peppers, herbs and salad fixings, my secret to a bountiful harvest is to grow both heirloom as well as my favourite hybrids.

To recap, heirloom or heritage plants are open-pollinated plants that are often handed down from generation to generation. They are a link to our past and to strong lines of successful plants. These plants are valuable for their nostalgic value alone not to mention for the plant itself. Often heritage plants have soft, more subdued colours, bold fragrances and flavours that are uniquely different than the bold colours and mild flavour of our modern hybrids that produce only when conditions are perfect – in the case of peppers and tomatoes – hot and sunny.

One other major difference that will be apparent when you grow heirlooms over hybrids is that when you plant a field of hybrid plants they will be almost completely identical like a brigade of soldiers. When you plant a field of heirlooms you will see subtle variations in colours and a form that is more free rather than extreme rigidity.

The team at Orchid Horticulture are doing their part in maintaining genetic diversity by growing a selection of heirloom peppers and tomatoes that will be for sale by the end of May in Saskatoon. Seeds come from many locations and both the seed and the plants are non GMO, untreated, non-hybrid and produced naturally. Read on for the inside intel on the tomatoes that could grace your garden this spring. For information on the sale dates for plants, watch our Facebook page and website.

The ultimate tomato winner for fast germination, amazing growth and a flavour that is seriously to die for is an unnamed variety that we call Nella, as we received plants from a lovely woman by that name. Nella had traded and saved seeds even after her immigration to Canada with her brother who lives still in the old country. Their family and friends have traded and saved seeds for many generations on both sides of the border between Croatia and Italy.

My experience with Nella (the tomato) is unparalleled as even after saving the seeds in a not ideal environment for more than a year or two, they all germinated and left all the other heirloom tomatoes we are growing behind. The fruit is a pinky red colour and these tomatoes should be picked when they are not fully ripe for the best flavour. In spite of having many favourite heirlooms, I really do think that Nella ranks at the top.

Our winner overall from two years ago was Black Krim followed closely by Cherokee Purple for both a bountiful and long harvest, amazing colour and sweetness of taste. Another winner from 2019 was Amish Paste for both fresh taste, bountiful harvest and a texture unbeatable for canning, sauces and salsa. We have all three of these varieties available this year.

Also this year we have available for sale, Harbinger, an early tomato with medium-sized terrific tasting fruit introduced in 1920. Burbank, another early tomato developed by the famous plant breeder Luther Burbank produces quality two- to four-inch red fruit on a determinate plant. Another small plant is Camp Joy with an abundance of two-inch fruit. Zieglers Fleisch is a mid-season tomato with bright red three- to five-ounce fruit with excellent flavour. It is also determinate, so is great for small gardens and containers. Last but not least, Bonny Best with an old fashioned flavour produces fruit up to 10 ounces, again on a medium sized plant.

Hanbidge is the Lead Horticulturist with Orchid Horticulture. Find us at; by email at; on facebook @orchidhort and on instagram at #orchidhort.