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A Spring Gardening Sampler | Tomatoes

Staking Out Summer Giants

Key to growing whoppers is planting early and picking tomato variety that's bred for size.

April 01, 1999|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

This summer, how would you like to grow tomatoes so big that one juicy slice smothers your biggest homemade hamburger?

Commonly called beefsteak tomatoes, there is no true "Beefsteak" variety, but there are some "really big tomatoes out there," tomato aficionado Bill Sidnam told me.

Before moving late last year to Auburn, near Sacramento, Sidnam had grown about 700 varieties of tomatoes in his Santa Ana backyard--which must be a record of some sort--including most of the so-called beefsteak varieties.

He knows tomatoes better than most people know what's on television.

During the last seven years, he has grown 75 varieties of giant heirloom tomatoes. Fruits often weighed as much as 3 pounds each, and averaged 1 to 1 1/2 pounds. A center slice might measure 6 inches across.

"These were the hugest of the huge," he said.

The plants produced quantities of fruit as well. One amazing variety produced 100 to 125 tomatoes on a single vine. And they were strong, big growers, so vigorous that they outdistanced disease, at least in his clean garden soil and in the warm Santa Ana sun.

You can get even larger tomatoes by keeping only the central stem, ruthlessly pruning off all other branches, but production drops quickly. A plant that would produce 30 fruits will make only five on a severely pruned bush, but they'll be really big.

The world record tomato, a 7-pounder grown in Oklahoma, was grown this way. Plants will also need an extra shot of fertilizer when fruit is beginning to form.

Fertilizer, however, is not the secret to big tomatoes.

"The key to growing really big tomatoes is variety, period," Sidnam said. "No matter how much fertilizer you give them or how much TLC, a tomato variety won't grow any bigger than it was bred to be."

A small- or medium-size tomato will always be small or medium. If you want a really huge tomato, you have to plant a variety bred to be big.

Sidnam has kept careful notes through the years and can quickly list his favorite big tomatoes.

Most of his favorites are also heirloom, or antique varieties, which he thinks tastes markedly better than big, modern tomatoes. Remember, Sidnam has grown 700 kinds, including nearly all the modern varieties, so he knows what he's talking about.

Sweet little cherry tomatoes often win taste tests, but they are seldom pitted against heirloom varieties of big tomatoes, which "taste great and a little different," Sidnam said. "Some taste almost smoky, or like they've already been salted."

The highly touted heirloom variety named "Brandywine" was not one of his favorites because it's a poor producer in Southern California, but one named "Sandul Moldovan" produced more than 100 tomatoes.

"Sandul Moldovan" is probably Sidnam's favorite, "with a super balance of sugars and acid, consistently producing 1- to 2-pound fruits." He suspects that this variety might do better near the coast than some of the others because he knows of one gardener who has grown it in a foggy locale.

Like many of the giant heirloom varieties, this one has a pink skin. The flesh inside, however, is always red.

His wife Judy's favorite had an orange skin and was named "Colossal Golden Burgess." It had a "really mellow flavor," producing 1- to 2-pound fruits that lasted longer on the vine than others.

Then there was "Delicious," which happens to be the variety that produced that world-record 7-pounder. And "Aunt Ginny's Purple," which is a pink-skinned tomato with 1-pound fruit and "terrific flavor."

Most beefsteak-type tomatoes are flattish, but "German Red Strawberry" has heart-shaped fruits that are almost seedless. They were also pink-skinned and some weighed more than 3 pounds! This variety produced the largest tomatoes in his garden, even larger than the catalog claimed.

"Giant Belgium" was another tasty biggie, with pink-skinned fruit that weighed in at 1 1/2 to 2 pounds each, although it took longer than most to mature.

To grow any of these big tomatoes, you need to put in plants at the beginning of April--early June at the latest. They take time and warmth to mature. If you order seed and sow soon, plants will be ready to transplant by June 1.

They'll ripen their first fruit in August and will produce big crops in September, lasting until the first real cold kills them.

Plant the transplants so only 3 inches of growth remain above ground. Pull off leaves lower than that, and bury the stem and roots. Roots will form along the buried stem.

Sidnam likes to bury slow-release fertilizer tabs with his plants. You can also fertilize one additional time, but don't fertilize more often or the plant will be all leaves with little fruit.

Tie the plants to a sturdy 6-foot stake and then put a hefty tomato cage over the stake. These big plants need lots of support. Sidnam's cages are 5 feet tall, made of concrete reinforcing mesh, and the plants still spill over the top. Or use lots of sturdy stakes if you don't have a big wire tomato cage.

Chances are you won't find these heirloom varieties as transplants at the nursery. Tomato Growers Supply, P.O. Box 2237, Fort Myers, FL 33902, (888) 478-7333, has the largest selection of seed.

If you want to buy big varieties at a nursery, look for the modern hybrids named "Beefmaster Hybrid" or "Burpee Supersteak." Both have 1- to 2-pound red fruit. Neither will be as tasty as the heirlooms mentioned by Sidnam, but he says, "They're better than a lot of stuff out there."

The tomato sold as a beefsteak, by the way, is usually an older hybrid named "Ponderosa."

Reaping Good Health

You'll want to stay healthy so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor in the spring garden. For a roundup of tips, including the dangers of poison oak as you clear away brush, see Monday's Health section.

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