Vegetables on steroids?
From the Davis Enterprise, August 23, 2007
My plan had been to write a nice
informative article about late summer blooming perennials. Salvias, Echinacea,
Asters lots of descriptions and lists.
Then my editor dropped on my desk
a new book: Giant Tomatoes, by Marvin H. Meisner, M.D. I started thumbing
through it. My limbic system kicked in. My Y chromosome started quivering.
Giant vegetables! Competitive gardening! Summer perennials will have to wait.
Growing giant vegetables has been
a sub-culture of the gardening world for many years. Pumpkins and hybrid squash
get the most press: the current pumpkin record stands at 1502 lbs., grown in
Rhode Island in 2006.* This is not a project for the average backyard gardener,
though. A single plant of Atlantic Giant pumpkin will cover several hundred
feet! A lot can go wrong as the fruit develops, and then there's the issue of
disposal after the season (this is not a pie-quality pumpkin).
(* update: 2014 champion 2,323.7 lbs. Records tracked here: GiantPumpkin.com)
This year we decided to grow giant
corn. I've seen this variety advertised by seed companies for years: 12'+
stalks, with giant ears, and I happened upon a supplier this spring
(www.seedman.com). This is field corn, not sweet corn; perhaps we'll roast the
ears, or make our own corn meal. It was really for the fun of it. But again, it
takes a lot more space than the average backyard gardener has.
But giant tomatoes? Anyone who has
room for normal tomatoes can try this. In fact, I've grown extra large
tomatoes, mostly by accident. You take a large-fruited variety and reduce the
number of fruit on the vine, give the plant optimal care, and you may get
One year I grew Burpee Supersteak,
a hybrid beefsteak type. We don't recommend beefsteak tomatoes here, because
they won't set fruit above 85F. But this one did set one fruit early on. It is an indeterminate type, which means the plant kept growing and growing - eventually more than 10', and still with just one fruit. I estimate that tomato was 2.5 - 3 lbs., just by comparison with others I've grown since....
Holy moly! A 7.4# tomato! That thing is bigger than the guy's head!
I've just come to page 149, where
2006 prizewinner Gianfranco Sarin is posing with what looks like a lumpy red
version of The Blob (excellent 1958 movie featuring Steve McQueen in one of his
first film roles).
Ok, these are not attractive
fruit. The all-time record of 7.75 lbs. was set by Gordon Graham of Edmond,
Oklahoma, who was then hired by Miracle-Gro fertilizer company to travel the
country. They provided him with an epoxy 'replica' of his fruit, which looks
like a miniature version of Gerald Heffernon's sculpture in front of the Davis
Food Co-op. But that isn't what your average mammoth tomato looks like. In
fact, it is doubtful it is what Gordon's tomato looked like.
Why? As Dr. Meisner puts it:
Formula for a contest winning
tomato: Any large fruited variety + a megabloom + some special attention = a
√ Start with the right genetic material. Varieties such as Delicious, Giant Belgium, Burpee
Supersteak are among the best common varieties for large fruit. Gordon Graham's
tomato was the variety Delicious. But serious competitors always grow Big Zac,
a hybrid tomato bred by Minnie Zaccaria, the Danica Patrick of tomato-growing,
7-time winner of the New Jersey Tomato Championship with a personal best of
√ Give the plant lots of water and fertilizer. We generally don't recommend heavy feeding for normal
tomato production, but your goal is to have the biggest, most vigorous vine
possible in order to enrich the growing fruit. Nearly all the growers use
soluble fertilizers and seem to prefer foliar feeding. Fish/seaweed emulsion is
popular, as are myriad commercial plant foods. Deep soakings are the best way
to water, regardless of whether you are aiming for yield or size.
√ Stake the plant.
Actually, this isn't strictly necessary: Gordon Graham's record fruit formed on
a plant which had toppled over into his melons, He was looking for cantaloupes
when he noticed the 'rather large' tomato. But the vine was over 15' long. Fruit
close to the ground is at risk of rot and damage from pests.
√ Look for megablooms, the secret to growing a monster
tomato. Big Zac has a strong tendency to produce megablooms: a
single blossom made up of two or more blossoms that have fused together into
one. Each blossom forms a fruit, but they are conjoined with each portion
forming its own bulge. Says one grower: the world record.is rumored to have
been the result of five blossoms fused into one. Now you know why all the big
ones are so ugly.
√ Be the bee.
Tomatoes are self-pollinating. The flower contains both female and male parts,
and the simple act of vibrating the flower brings them in contact to transfer
pollen. But growers have observed that the extra-large blossoms may abort due
to inadequate pollination, so many of them supply extra pollen. Pluck a flower
during the middle of the day, and rub the anther cone against the stigma of
your special blossom. Or use your finger, a vibrating toothbrush, or a small
paint brush. Remember: this is not necessary for normal tomato production.
√ De-fruit. Through
June and July you allow fruit to set, but remove smaller blossoms in each
cluster. By about the first of August you remove all fruit except your largest
- hopefully, one which set on a megabloom.
√ Prune your plant.
Gardeners in areas with short seasons do this all the time, to focus the energy
of the vine on the earliest fruit that sets. We don't bother here, normally.
But the champion growers interviewed in the book all recommend pruning, either
to a single vine or to one main stem plus one secondary branch (apparently the
secondary vine, which is trimmed to about 3 - 4', provides foliage that helps
shade the fruit). This is done in July or August. Most growers also remove
foliage from the bottom foot or so of the vine, to reduce disease problems.
Some growers top the vines at 6 - 7'.
√ Measure your fruit.
At the peak of growth a giant tomato can increase up to a half-inch a day in
circumference. It is possible to estimate the weight of the fruit from the
measured circumference, and the book has a handy chart. The reason to measure
is to note when the fruit stops growing, as it will rapidly begin to ripen and
may deteriorate. In fact the fruit will continue to ripen at room temperature
after picking. So you pick the fruit before it is completely ripe. If
necessary, you can store it in the refrigerator at 50F for up to three weeks.
Normal refrigerator temperatures are lower than this, and damage tomato fruit
(never store tomatoes in the fridge!), so you may need to adjust your
refrigerator temperature for a short period, or have a special one set aside
just for this purpose.
Unlike the giant pumpkins, you can
actually eat these things, though the fruit is likely to be more watery and
less flavorful than your normal fruit. Most of the varieties listed are
available in garden centers or from mail-order seed companies. Big Zac Hybrid
is exclusively available from Totally Tomatoes (www.totallytomato.com).
Giant Tomatoesis a
nice, compact book at 150 pages, lots of very high-quality photos, great tips
for high yield production as well as size, and some nice recipes. The style is
folksy, with quotes and comments on all topics by nine growers around the
country. Annedawn Publishing can be reached at P.O. Box 247, Norton, MA, 02766,
and the book is also available online at www.giantpumpkin.com.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
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