By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Bright yellow tomato blossoms burst forth in the lush, vine-laden garden of Marvin Meisner. They are the season's stragglers, destined never to fruit and ripen.
They do, however, offer some lessons in growing a freakish four-pound tomato. Meisner, a retired cardiologist, searches for a bloom that is fuller than the others, picks it and then plucks all of the petal-like anthers from the flower to reveal not one pistil -- the organ whose base swells to become the actual tomato -- but two fused together.
A regular tomato has just one. Beefsteak varieties sometimes have two. When you see three, four or more fused pistils, you know you have hit pay dirt in the world of giant tomatoes. Such a flower may produce a tomato for every pistil, all of them morphing into one big, ugly lobed fruit that in weight and appearance resembles a small pumpkin.
The pumpkin, as it turns out, is an apt model for the giant tomato. Over the past 20 years, growing enormous gourds has become a cult in North America among Type A backyard gardeners.
Meisner is also a giant-pumpkin gardener and last year raised a gourd weighing 1,060 pounds, a personal best. He is among a cadre of giant-pumpkin growers who believe that the same methodical approach to raising gargantuan gourds can be applied to the tomato, with killer results.
He has just written a book laying out the techniques: "Giant Tomatoes" ($19.95, Annedawn Publishing, http://www.giantpumpkin.com). It was edited and published by Don Langevin, another big-pumpkin guru who believes the action is shifting to tomatoes.
"There are 25 million people growing tomatoes in this country," Meisner said, leading me around his garden, sun-bathed but cooled by an elevation of 1,300 feet. "Everybody wants to grow a big tomato."
Indeed, the world of giant-tomato growing already has a few legends. In 1986, Gordon Graham, a gardener from Edmond, Okla., was cleaning up a tomato vine that had spilled into his melon patch and found a lone fruit that changed his life. At 7 pounds 12 ounces, it became -- and remains -- the world's heaviest recorded tomato. The company that makes Miracle-Gro fertilizer created an epoxy replica of it and paid Graham to tour the country to talk about his giant-tomato efforts. Graham, now dead, may have happened upon the fruit but was heavily into giant-tomato cultivation.
Meisner now possesses the replica of the world's biggest tomato, which was 26 1/2 inches in circumference and could have made more than 20 tomato sandwiches. Meisner believes this jumbo fruit was formed from as many as five fused pistils. Tomatoes, by the way, are berries, botanically, but are classified as vegetables.
In the New Jersey seaside town of Long Branch, Minnie Zaccaria has been raising big tomatoes for more than 40 years. Her biggest have exceeded six pounds. But her lasting contribution to mega-tomatoes is a hybrid she made by crossing two heirloom beefsteak varieties, one red, one pink. She declined to name them, noting that she has sold the rights to the hybrid to Totally Tomatoes, a seed company in Randolph, Wis. ( http://www.totallytomato.com). The company will send out next year's catalogue in late November, when Big Zac seeds will sell for $2.75 per packet of 10, a spokeswoman said.
In his garden, Meisner relies on a number of beefsteak varieties, among them Brutus Magnum, Giant Belgium, Slankard's, Todd County Amish and Tennessee Britches, of which one massive fruit measured eight inches across. Graham's monster was a variety called Delicious. Meisner is clear about which variety will define the future of this sport. "Big Zac is number one," he said.
Giant tomatoes have definite cultural requirements: deep soil, a site in full sunlight, adequate supports and a spring start for the seeds to give these long-ripening fruits plenty of time to mature. A giant tomato needs about 70 days from pollination to harvest.
Meisner uses an automatic drip irrigation system to provide each vine with a gallon of water per day under a thick layer of straw mulch. By keeping the leaves dry, he cuts down on fungal diseases.
He suggests a high-phosphorus feed at the start of the season to promote root growth. After the fruits have begun to grow, he uses a fertilizer formulated for tomatoes (avoid high-nitrogen types, he advises) and a biweekly foliar feed using a fish-and-seaweed emulsion. Zaccaria applies a foliar feed every week.
Pruning is important. Suckers are removed to allow only two vining stems per plant, and only two fruits are allowed to develop. They must be supported with surveyor's tape or twine to prevent them from bending and kinking their stems.
Meisner asserts that Gordon Graham's world record will be beaten, particularly as more gardeners join the chase. The more vines, the greater the chances of a new champ. But the winner will need good cultivation techniques, the right seed of big tomatoes producing fused blossoms, "and luck," Meisner said.
Already, growers are nipping at Graham's heels. One of the major trophy tomato contests in North America is held every Labor Day weekend at a housewares store in Toronto. Last year's Great Tomato Hunt was won by Gianfranco Sarin, with a tomato weighing 7 pounds 7 ounces.
A dry, difficult growing year reduced the weights this year. First place went to a tomato weighing 4 pounds 12 ounces grown by Giuseppe Spatari of Toronto. Meisner placed third with a fruit weighing 4 pounds 9 ounces.
The obvious, and so far unasked, question is: How do these tomatoes taste?
Meisner said their extra water content makes them less flavorful than smaller tomatoes. However, he gave me a three-pounder that was everything you'd want in a homegrown tomato: flavorful, firm and sufficiently acidic to be interesting. It sits on the kitchen counter like a Smithfield ham, to be picked at.
The second question is: Why?
"I think people who grow tomatoes don't set out to grow a giant tomato," Zaccaria said, "but if they do, they're so happy. It eggs them on."