Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print and online media. She has worked on Newsday's interactive endeavors since 1994, and currently is Deputy Editor overseeing's Lifestyle and Entertainment coverage. Jessica enjoys toiling in her garden -- a never-finished work in progress -- and helping local gardeners solve their horticultural problems in her Garden Detective column, which appears every Sunday in Newsday. Her Garden Detective column and blog have been awarded Press Club of Long Island Society of Professional Journalists Awards. Jessica lives in Glen Head, NY, with her husband John, daughters Justine and Julia, dogs Maddie and Miguel, and a whole bunch of perennials, vegetable plants and weeds. Ask a question Show More

If there’s one thing we should learn from the winner of the 2016 Great Long Island Tomato Challenge, it’s that even a ravenous raccoon can’t stop a true champion.

Peter Notarnicola of Massapequa — co-winner of the 2011 Challenge — was disappointed to visit his tomato plant days before this year’s event only to find his biggest contender had been chewed up. Disappointed, but not deterred, Notarnicola, 21, of Massapequa, weighed the Big Zac himself and learned that what remained of the terminated tomato weighed a hefty 4 pounds.

His Plan B tomato, a 3-pound, 6.5-ounce Big Zac, made the A-list on Aug. 19 at Newsday’s 10th annual competition, where it bested a field of 42 fruits vying for attention.

Notarnicola, who works as a museum attendant at Old Bethpage Village Restoration, where he takes care of farm animals and tends the gardens, also works at Restoration Farm at the same site, where he spends hours planting, weeding and harvesting. And unlike many of us, he actually likes to take his work home with him.

His strategy? “I started seeds inside in my bedroom on April 4th and grew them under shoplight bulbs in a fluorescent light fixture,” he said. When it came time to transplant them outdoors, Notarnicola, who has entered the challenge a few times over the years, mixed the soil with compost he made from kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings and manure.

“I did things a little differently this year,” he said, adding that for the first time he “pruned the suckers and only let each plant have two or three stems, max.” Apparently, that’s all they needed: Notarnicola went home with a $300 gift card and the admiration of his fellow tomato growers.

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Beauties large and small
Other impressive entries included Bill Jordan’s 3-pound, 1-ounce beefsteak. The Amityville retiree, 74, grew that beauty using liquid fertilizer and Sea Magic fertilizer. His friend Steven Babill, 58, also of Amityville, tried to best him with a supersteak raised on “rabbit poop and fish heads,” but the truck driver’s entry also weighed exactly 3 pounds, 1 ounce.

Maria Papagiannakis of College Point, Queens, brought an impressive 2-pound, 14.5-ounce beefsteak grown with “lots of loving care,” and two-time champ Gary Schaffer of Lindenhurst had an impressive 2-pound, 9-ounce entry. Jack Maguire’s tomato tree fruit, nurtured with fish carcasses, Epsom salt and Miracle-Gro, weighed in at 2 pounds, 5.5 ounces. Maguire, 52, of Kings Park, started his tomato from seeds.

I had to put on my reading glasses to measure Corinn Kraemer’s “Barry’s Tiney Tiny Tomato,” named for the late Barry Kaplan, who had been a regular attendee of the challenge and shared his seeds with her years ago. Now 17, Kraemer, of Bohemia, grew up with the challenge, and grew her tomato, which measured a mere 4 points on the pica ruler, in a pot using Miracle-Gro potting mix and organic fertilizer.

The younger set
Brothers Andrew, William and Harry Jos, ages 2, 3 and 6, of Smithtown, triple-tag-teamed it to take the top prize in the ages 6-and-under category. Their beefsteak, grown on the side of their driveway, weighed in at 1 pound, 10.3 ounces. Charles Kalinowski of East Islip won the ages 7-12 category with a 1-pound, 8.6-ounce beefsteak.

Funky fruit
Harriet Levy, 80, of Levittown, another return challenger, had the funkiest-looking tomato of the evening. The retiree grew the beefsteak with “TLC and lots of sun,” she said, and it was named the Ugliest Tomato.

Some of the contestants said they planned to celebrate their victories or commemorate their losses with tomato sandwiches and salads. But what does the future hold for the first-place tomato? “Soup,” Notarnicola said. “I’m going to make tomato soup and jar it up.”