Ten Steps to Giant Tomatoes

By Deborah Wechsler

If you want to join the ranks of supergrowers in your area, follow these 10 steps.

1. Chose to grow only known a large-fruited, 'Beefsteak'-type variety. Gordon Graham and the previous world-record holder won with 'Delicious'. Other varieties known to produce giant fruit include 'Big Beef', 'Big Rainbow', 'Dinner Plate', and 'Giant Belgium'.

2. Build your soil with lots of organic matter in a 2-foot radius (at least) around the plants' future sites so they'll have an ample, natural food supply throughout the growing season. Strive for a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5. To warm the soil early in the season, mulch with black or infrared- transmitting (IRT) plastic.

3. Start plants indoors at least two months before the time to plant them outdoors. Keep seed pots slightly warmer (70? to 80? F) than average indoor temperatures. When the height of the seedling is three times the diameter of the pot, transplant it into successively bigger pots. With each move, plant the seedling deeper than its previous depth to encourage a strong, full root system. Give seedlings plenty of light and food to help them stay healthy when you set them out.

4. A week or so before transplanting outdoors, harden them off, stop fertilizing and watering, and put plants outside each day to help them adjust to new growing conditions. At outdoor planting time, poke holes in the plastic mulch and set the plants either in a deep hole or a horizontal trench to encourage roots to form along the stem.(Some gardeners prefer to lay the transplants horizontally in a 1-foot-long trench to allow roots to form along the stem.)

5. Give your plants room to grow; 3 to 4 feet apart is about right. Until air temperatures are consistently above 60° F, cover them or enclose them with cloches, Wall O' Waters, clear plastic, or floating row covers.

6. Feed diligently during the growing season with weekly applications of a liquid supplement such as a complete soluble fertilizer, manure tea, or fish emulsion. Provide enough water so plantroots never dry out.

7. Support your plants with cages, stakes, or trellises. The fruit's weight can tear the branch away from the main stem, so support branches and large individual fruit with ties made from old pieces of cloth (wire or string ties tend to cut the stems).

8. Prune all suckers and remove the smaller flower clusters so your plants put all their energy into just a few tomatoes from the largest flowers. The largest fruits tend to develop on the lowest branches. Hand-pollinate selected flowers with a small paintbrush or by shaking the plants gently.

9. Be overprotective and obsessive. Hover. Protect your plants from damage caused by frost, wind, pests (aphids, hornworms, potato beetles, slugs, and snails), diseases (Fusarium wilt, early blight), animals, hungry or mischievous kids, and jealous neighbors.

10. Enjoy your harvest!

Deborah Wechsler of Pittsboro, North Carolina is a frequent contributor to National Gardening.

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