JESSICA DAMIANO The Associated Press
Tomatoes aren’t just my favorite garden plant—they’re also the most popular among American home gardeners. And no wonder: Have you ever compared a supermarket tomato with a backyard tomato? The scent of home alone puts you straight into summer.
Another benefit of growing your own tomatoes is variety. Seeds for yellow, black, pear-shaped, and even giant tomatoes—which you won’t typically find on the vegetable aisle—are available in catalogs and many garden centers. And since my favorite tomatoes are big and lumpy, I usually roll like this.
I’m so in love with them that while writing a gardening column for Newsday in New York, I created and for 13 years hosted The Great Long Island Tomato Challenge, a gathering of fellow tomato lovers in search of the biggest fruits of the season (yes, tomatoes are technically fruits).
Over the years I’ve encountered many beautiful, sweet-smelling giant tomatoes, including a 5-pound, 4-ounce beauty that was the largest to ever enter the competition — not to mention it was heavier than some newborn humans.
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I’ve also met and spoken to the competitive tomato growers who raised these champions and it wasn’t long before I noticed some commonalities in practice among them.
But first things first: Although tomato plants can be a little finicky, they’re not difficult to grow. Give them consistent watering (spray deeply and infrequently trumps daily), well-drained soil (add generous helpings of compost to beds or containers at planting time), plenty of warmth and light (direct, unobstructed sun for at least 6 hours daily is best) and a balanced long-term fertilizer for tomatoes.
Weeding beds well eliminates breeding grounds for pests and diseases while eliminating competition for nutrients and water.
Tomatoes do best in soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Test kits are well worth their $10-$20 cost and will last for many years. If the pH is below 6.0, add about 2 cups of dolomite lime to the soil for each plant and till about 8-12 inches deep.
So you want to grow a whopper? Follow these seven expert tips for success:
1. Select tall, vague strains like Big Zac, Porterhouse, Rhode Island Giant, or Bull’s Heart, all of which are genetically programmed to produce big fruit.
2. Start seeding indoors early and transplant seedlings into larger containers several times before taking them outside. Plant them deep each time, removing the leaves from the bottom third of the plants and burying the stems until the next set of leaves. This creates stronger plants.
3. Remove new flowers that develop at the top of the plant as older fruit begins to grow near the ground. This will force the plant’s energy to produce fewer but larger tomatoes.
4. Be alert! Monitor plants daily for pests and diseases – and respond to problems quickly so plants aren’t stressed.
5. Remove suckers — the small shoots that grow at the junction where the plant’s stems and branches meet — to prevent them from draining the plant’s energy and shading developing fruit beneath them.
6. Prune the plants to get just a main branch instead of allowing them to develop into shrub-like forms.
7. Be diligent: water, fertilize and weed regularly.