Local teacher shares his passion for gardening
Walking into Jeff Casey’s westside Airdrie backyard is a surreal experience.
Stepping through the gate, one is immediately flanked by raised beds filled with heirloom onions, asparagus and Japanese carrots.
Investigating further, one will find a large, well-organized garden brimming with traditional Irish Cobbler potatoes, protein-rich broad Windsor beans, purple string beans and Japanese long green onions.
But it’s the 80 to 90 tomato plants peppering the south-facing backyard that stand out. The plants fill the property’s three greenhouses and are scattered in raised beds around Casey’s backyard. The outside plants are wrapped in vapour-barrier plastic, firmly rooted in Rubbermaid containers that have been transformed into complex planters, complete with a water reservoir and fertilizer strip. Each bares fruit of all sizes, shapes and colours.
The multitude of tomatoes, which dominate Casey’s yard from May to September, help feed his family and support his heirloom tomato business.
Casey’s Heirloom Tomatoes offers more than 100 varieties of tomato seeds for sale. Orders stream in from around the world, with people from as far away as Asia, Europe and Australia taking advantage of Casey’s hard work.
“Every tomato has its own story,” said Casey, while showing off his seed packs, ready for shipment, with names such as Goose Creek, Kellogg’s Breakfast and Sweet Orange.
Casey picks out a couple of seed packs to showcase including Casey’s Pure Yellow, a potato-leaf variety with yellow fruit that the George MacDougall teacher named.
“This mutation happened in my garden, so I got to name it,” said Casey, noting he had a huge role in developing another variety, Maya and Sion’s Airdrie Classic.
He grew the variety in his garden for seven years, helping stabilize it by selecting each year for the largest, earliest and tastiest tomatoes.
Casey, who grew up in Calgary and moved to Airdrie about 14 years ago, first became interested in gardening while teaching English in Japan about eight years ago.
The teacherage Casey stayed in was home to a small garden in the back, where he learned to produce vegetables. While living in Japan, Casey also met his future wife.
The couple moved back to Canada, where Casey continued his love of gardening.
A vegetarian, Casey started his business by growing Japanese vegetables and selling them to the couple’s friends.
“I couldn’t find any Japanese greens in general, so I started growing them,” he said, adding many of the vegetables are from the Brassica family, of which cabbage and broccoli are members, and can tolerate Airdrie’s short growing season.
In his greenhouses alongside the tomatoes, Casey grows peppers, eggplants and other vegetables, many of which are Japanese hybrids.
“In Japan, they are very good at producing high-quality fruits and vegetables,” said Casey, adding he picks up seeds and growing advice on his frequent trips to Japan. “Japanese consumers prefer quality over quantity.”
Casey shows off his many varieties of tomatoes, pointing out the numerous colours of the fruit, which include black, striped, yellow, orange and bicolour. Casey grows tomato for every use, from slicing to saucing and the 50 to 60 varieties meet his every need.
“In Japan, you can buy tomatoes with a certain percentage of sugar,” he said, adding the fruit can fetch prices up to $35 per kilo.
Casey’s growing season starts indoors in February. Growing his seedlings under lights, he prepares his produce to go both in the garden and greenhouse. Once the ground is thawed, Casey’s first crop of spring greens goes in.
In mid-May, tomato seedlings go into the unheated greenhouses, and the bulk of Casey’s work begins. The crop, which produces fruit for selling and to extract seeds from, is mature in mid-September. Once the tomatoes are complete, Casey plants his fall vegetables, including leafy greens. His final crop is done between the last week of November and the first week of December.
“A lot of people think you can’t grow vegetables beyond the frost,” said Casey. “You might have to come out and cover them, but it is possible.”
For more information on or to purchase Casey’s tomato seeds, visit www.caseysheirloomtomatoes.ca