Growing Up Beside the Tomatoes in My Mother’s Garden

It’s Mother’s Day around here, and I promise you, this post is relevant to agriculture, you just have to wait for me to get to the point here.

Since the majority of the people reading this are my family and friends, than chances are you know or know of my mom.  She is the head cheerleader for this blog, single-handedly encouraging quite a few family members to become subscribers and to read what I write, as well as my deadline manager delicately reminding me that I have not kept up with my promise of biweekly posts (Sorry about that, everyone).

She also loves to garden. She has hand-drawn maps of the front and backyard, detailing where all the different plants are, what will replace the tulips when they finish for the spring, where there is space to move things around when they are ready to be transplanted.  We have special lights in the basement so that she can start seeds and then transfer the seedlings into the garden when they are big and strong enough.  A recent bylaw change means that no trees, bushes or shrubs can be within a certain distance of fire hydrants and since we have one on our front lawn, my mom diligently mapped out where the two little bushes were going to move to be away from the hydrant.  Dandelions that have the audacity to take root in our lawn will experience plant warfare as my mom rips them out of the grass. I am convinced that a few plants have grown out of my mom’s sheer stubborn will.

As someone who likes food, my favourite part of her garden is the vegetable garden. In there, you’ll find a rotating assortment of vegetables – tomatoes, arugula lettuce, Swiss chard, cucumbers, kale, snow peas, carrots, zucchini, garlic, and a medley of herbs and spices. We regularly joke about how our family lives on a “10-meter-diet” in the summer, with someone routinely popping out to the backyard before dinner with garden shears and a bowl to harvest some ingredients.

Sometimes the vegetable garden has been too much of a good thing. There was one summer my mom’s zucchini plants were too successful and we were having zucchini for every single meal for weeks straight (zucchini muffins, zucchini quiche, zucchini in our pasta sauces, zucchini lasagna, every possible zucchini side dish known to man).  Zucchini is not my favourite vegetable to begin with and after that, my sister and I managed to convince my mom to take a break with the zucchini for a year or two.

The snow peas were always my favourite and as a kid, I would occasionally go for a snack and eat them straight off the vine, standing barefoot in the dirt.  My sister did not like snow peas at all, so instead of turning her nose up at them when they were served, she got creative and trained our dog to go into the garden and eat the snow peas off the vine. When my mom saw the dog do this, she would end up running out to the back yard, yelling at him to get out of the garden.

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Here’s our family dog, Yoda, with his face in the snow peas, just the way my sister trained him

The tomatoes in the garden are my mom’s favourite. She will diligently stake up the tomatoes as they grow and when the summer starts to end, she will watch the weather to pull the last few green tomatoes off the vines before the first frost, allowing them to ripen in the dark in the basement. She absolutely loves them and asserts that no store-bought tomato ever tastes as good as the one straight from a garden.

She’s right.

As a crop, tomatoes can be challenging because they can bruise and get damaged easily during transport from farm to store to table.  Crop breeders have focused on breeding tomatoes that are hardier for transport and this includes harvesting tomatoes while they are still green. Breeding and growing that way means that some of the great tomato flavour has been lost in the tomatoes at a grocery store.  Heirloom tomatoes are very popular these days with farmers markets and backyard gardens because they have a better flavour but they will often go soft and bruise faster than a grocery store tomato will.

At the University of Florida, Dr. Harry Klee and his research team are working to try to resolve this problem, by breeding for tomatoes that are both hardy for commercial use as well as flavourful like an heirloom variety.  They currently have two varieties of tomatoes that, while not as high-yielding as commercial lines, are hardier than heirloom varieties and are well suited for a backyard gardener.  The genetic premise behind this is called hybrid vigor and it means that when two parent organisms have very strong but different traits, their offspring will have the best qualities of both parents, making the offspring a better version than the parents were.

For a donation to the lab, the Klee research team will send you a package of both types of seeds for you to plant and then they ask that you share how your small crop of tomatoes turned out.

I made a donation to their research program and got seeds for my mom as a Mother’s Day present. She started the seeds under her special plant lights in the basement, has been sending me regular updates on them and she has put one of each variety in a pot for me to take to my house so I can slowly accidentally kill them over the course of the summer (I inherited a lot of great traits from my mom, her green thumb was not one of them).

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Here’s what they look like so far – there’s one variety in the green pots and the other in the white pots

I think this is a really really cool project and I’ve been casually following it for years.  If you’d like more information or to donate to the project to get your own seeds, you should check out the lab’s website, the Facebook page for the Garden Gem Tomatoes, and this episode of the Talking Biotech podcast with Dr. Klee. This project is also mentioned in a really interesting book called “The Dorito Effect” by Mark Schatzker, which you can get from most independent and chain bookstores (like Canadian retailer, Indigo, here).

Happy Mother’s Day to everyone celebrating!

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