KINGSTON - Most drivers passing by the pristine Sisters of Providence buildings on Princess Street here would never guess some important horticultural history is being made on the premises.
In behind the buildings where the nuns make their home, gardening wizards Carol and Robert Mouck can usually be found tending to what they call Heirloom Tomatoes.
It's a labour of love which has lasted the better part of 30 years for the couple, who both feel strongly that the true plants should be preserved. At a recent tasting open to the public, some 44 varieties were laid out on tables just next to a long greenhouse.
That number has since jumped even higher as the Mouck's received another five varieties from someone who knew they were looking. "This is really exciting," said Robert, of the important package which arrived from Ohio. "We're also hoping to get another two soon - varieties we've been looking for for years."
In truth, much of what the Moucks finally get their hands on has been the result of a long search and an even longer wait.
"We write to all the universities if we get a lead and they send us all their literature," says Robert. Most of the lucky breaks come from American universities, though, because they "still love letters and they love to talk tomatoes." Robert compares the attitude to Canadian universities where, he says, people only seem to want to talk to computers, a piece of equipment he and Carol don't ever plan to own.
Evidence of the years of research and waiting is all there in the many tidy rows of plants, each carefully labeled with a small stick giving the name and date. The oldest, called Yellow Pear, dates back to 1805. Robert says the year is significant because tomatoes supposedly "weren't developed until 1850." He says in that year at a "big congress meeting" in the US Department of Agriculture, the tomato was designated a vegetable, not a fruit.
Robert goes on to explain the date of 1805 is significant for another reason. Further down the row he points to the Red Pear which first starts appearing in 1861. "In theory we know it was earlier because the color red is dominant, it has to come first." He says he and Carol realize that no matter how much information they uncover, questions like this one may never be answered.
The relationship between the Moucks and the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul is one that goes back several years. Robert says the Sisters approached them about five years ago looking for some guidance on running their greenhouse organically. At that point, he says, he and Carol were running a market garden outside the city and couldn't commit to anything else. But when they sold the operation a year ago, the opportunity came up again and they gratefully accepted, knowing it was a perfect place to raise their tomatoes.
"They're a great group," says Robert, "very bright and very sensitive about what's going on in the world. They don't want to use any chemicals."
Growing the plants is a job both say takes a huge amount of time, particularly early on. "We start planting in the Sisters' greenhouse around the first of April ... from then on it's 24 hours a day for a month," says Robert.
They first take seeds from this year's crop, making sure they're "true to type." Robert explains they cut the tomatoes open, squeeze the seeds out and give them a thorough wash. They're then laid out on brown paper bags for two weeks before being stored in small packages. The seeds remain in a "dark, quiet place" until planting season. This year after putting 4,000 seeds in the ground, they ended up with 2,000 plants. That may not sound like a good yield, but Robert says it's actually quite remarkable since they were working with an "old seed collection," seeds which had been around for three or four years.
People who came to the Moucks' open tasting day saw tomatoes they likely had never heard of before - among them, Tiny Tim, from 1945, an old English tomato called Tigeralla, Fireball, Starfire, Lemon Drop, Urbanite and Glamour. While many of the rows are identified by name and date, Robert says in some cases they're just referred to as "rare" since no date can be found.
As the tomatoes start to grow he and Carol meticulously check them to make sure the plant has stayed true to the variety. Beforehand they will have taken pictures, and in some cases, will have other documents which tell them exactly how the plant should look. He says they pay careful attention to whether the seeds have crossed, resulting in a variation from the previous year. He and Carol have learned how to be patient as the process is a long one. "It takes seven years to
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stabilize a tomato. After seven years we can grow it and it will stay true."
Since the task of growing Heirloom Tomatoes is time consuming, the Moucks realized some years ago they had to cut down on their own record keeping. "We quit making diaries after a while, but we still have about 20 years of them." Now, says Robert, "we just jot down the important things."
They also have to find time for their crop of old potatoes, a project mostly administered by Carol. And although there aren't as many varieties in this adjacent bed, she's managed to produce 16 plants, again dating back to the 1800s.
Both Carol and Robert agree they are probably a stage beyond organic gardeners, instead referring to themselves as "very purist and old order." Packaging for vegetables is done in wooden baskets ordered at a considerable cost from the Wellington Basket Co. in Wellington, Ont.
"We try to avoid plastic," says Robert. And tossing around ideas like bringing in Dorset Horn sheep to replace lawnmowers at the Providence Motherhouse, they admit to being a little out of step with the rest of society, and loving it.