Year after year, they win contests, give away hundreds of pounds of fruit, and put the growers of ordinary tomatoes to shame. Who are these super-growers, and what miraculous methods, special seeds, and fantastic fertilizers do they use? Although this country boasts many great tomato growers, we've found four whose huge plants and giant tomatoes are worthy of special note. They have some growing techniques in common, but also have discovered special techniques that gives them a certain edge in growing "the big one.
Each year, he grows 25 to 50 plants of many varieties, selecting the best potential winners for extra attention as they grow. He starts with his soil.
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If that's not enough, he gathers leaves from the many large oak trees on his property, chops the leaves with a chipper-shredder, mixes them with horse or other manure, lets them compost for a year, and then spreads the compost on his raised beds, tilling it occasionally all winter long to bring insect pests up to the surface just before a hard freeze.
Another key to success is starting early. Although gardeners in his area near Oklahoma City USDA Hardiness Zone 7 generally set out tomatoes around April 20th, he sets out his first transplants as early as February and is practically ready to harvest by April. Between early February and April 20, he insulates his plants in an ingenious way. Then he strings soft wire through five holes punched through the plastic walls to create a radial cradle, and on that he sets a second water jackets inside the cage. He further protects plants by wrapping them in row-cover fabric.
With such dedication and ingenuity, it's no surprise that he's a regular winner for first ripe tomato in his region. Once these beauties are growing, he directs his efforts to producing contest-sized fruits. Like many gardeners, Gordon grows his tomatoes in 5-foot cages of concrete-reinforcing wire, but he piles the cages three high, supports them with recycled stakes, and anchors the whole tower to a permanent trellis. Harvesting requires a foot ladder!
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Minnie Zaccaria, of Long Branch, New Jersey zone 6 , is one of the few women at the top of the male-dominated big-tomato-contest world. Her winners come from a variety she developed herself, a hybrid of two 'Beefsteak'-type heirlooms. Its name? Her growing techniques include giving special attention to each plant.
Although she once grew as many as tomato plants, she has cut back to 30 so she can lavish more care on each one, starti with planting in clear plastic cups to monitor root growth. She waters plants individually with a watering can and brushes off aphids with a paintbrush. She notes wryly: "A lot of people just don't work as hard at it as I do.
Like Gordon Graham, she believes big tomatoes start with great soil.
She opens a trench, puts in a 6-inch layer of leaf compost, eggshells, manure, and other organic matter, covers it with soil, then turns the mixture with a spading fork. Next, she puts a layer of leaves on top and covers the whole bed with black plastic until spring. And she does this all herself.
To protect the fruits once they're set, Minnie carefully ties each plant to a scrounged 7- to 8-foot metal pipe, removing all suckers below the first flower cluster. If a fruit shows promise of developing to competitive size, she gently supports its branch with an extra strip of cloth. Ken Harper of Columbus, Ohio zone 5 , backed into tomatomania when his son decided to enter a few tomatoes in a county fair-and won a blue ribbon. We got up to in He has won prizes at the Ohio State Fair with flawless, 3-pound tomatoes. For each of his plants, Ken digs a foot-deep hole and fills it halfway with compost, lots of manure, and a little granular fertilizer.
Ideally the plants should be grown under cover. The soil has to be dug in the autumn with well-rotted manure. During mid February to early march, the soil should be dug and then rotovated mix compost, manure and peat moss. The moss is acidic and will help prevent fungus growth, since you are going to be watering more than usual.
I also use fertilizer to help promote good root growth once the plant is placed into its site. It should be left for a couple of weeks to settle.
Towards the end of march, the soil should be treated with a base fertilizer such as vitax gr and chicken manure pellets. Tomatoes should be grown on a large mound. If you start your seeds too early, the fruit will be ready too early. Most tomatoes only take 80 days or so to mature.
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So count back from your show date 80 days or so and add a couple days for the cool September weather. If your show date is the first week in October you should start them around the first of May. The tomatoes you plant for eating will be started around April 1.
I start the seeds on the 1st, 15th, and the 30th of May. I stagger the dates to hopefully have my tomatoes ripe for the show. A ripe tomato only has a shelf life of two to three days so it's the real guessing game. The seeds are to be planted close to the surface with a dusting of compost. The plants are to be planted out at the start of June when the soil has warmed and the nights are longer. As with all seedlings ensure that they are given adequate frost protection and guarded from those deadly slugs! Apply a handful of slug pellets to the area.
You must keep the plant evenly moist, not wet. If you water too much the skin of the fruit cracks.
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Care should be taken to ensure that the tomatoes are not allowed to dry out as differences in the moisture of the soil may cause the tomatoes to have blossom end rot. Three times a week I mix a small amount of water soluble fertilizer in with the water every time I water the plants.
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This keeps the plant fed at an even pace. Once the plant begins to flower, I pinch off the first couple of clusters to keep the tomatoes off the ground. Examine the new clusters that come up after that for misshaped and double blossoms. Sometimes you find 2 flowers on one stem, these ones have good potential. Thin the remaining clusters of tomatoes to 2 or 3 and watch their progress.
Eventually you will pinch off all the smaller tomatoes, and keep one tomato per cluster. You now have five or six tomatoes per plant. As time progresses you can cut them back until there is only one or two tomatoes per plant.
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