Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print
Who's growing tomatoes? Funny you should ask, because readers all over Long Island are fertilizing, watering, tying and staking, and -- finally -- harvesting the ripe, red, plump, juicy fruits of their labors.
With The Great Long Island Tomato Challenge less than three weeks away, let's check in with some of the contestants.
Chris Schlesinger of Bohemia has high hopes of "being crowned Tomato King 2013." He is growing Early Girl tomatoes, but said he fears they will not produce fruit large enough to compete. So he has started more plants, which he calls his "secret weapons." His strategy?
"I don't want to divulge my 'trade secrets,' " he said coyly. "The nutrients given are all organic, and I have even added some Town of Islip compost that's provided free by the town."
Schlesinger added he hopes to be "carrying a tomato of hefty weight, worthy of royalty" when he attends the Challenge at the end of this month.
Theresa Lawrence of Farmingdale is 82 years old and still enjoys her garden. Last year, she had so much success growing Super Hybrid Beefsteak tomatoes that she decided to enter this year's Challenge. In early March she started plants from seeds on a sunny windowsill, and she mixed a bit of organic soil into her garden bed at planting time.
Lionel Mailloux of Manhasset credits "a combination of the weather and luck" for his towering 8-foot-tall tomato plants. The cherry and Big Beef varieties are producing fruit, he said, and "the plants are growing uncontrollably."
Return challenger Patrick Dean of West Islip isn't taking any chances: If these cages won't adequately protect his Great White tomatoes, his guard dog dachshund will! Dean said he got a "late start due to weather this year, but it's OK, as they hit 5 feet tall." Last month, he reported spotting 60 tomatoes on the plants.
Burt Tarcher of Great Neck sends an update from the "Tarcher Victory Garden": "These babies were germinated from seeds and are San Marzano tomatoes. And yes, I'm very proud! These amazing, meaty tomatoes are wonderful for sauce." Tarcher gives his plants water, sunlight, organic feedings, coffee grinds and eggshells. "They are overgrowing their 6-foot bamboo stakes and are still flowering with multiple layers of fruit," he said. Tarcher added he is expecting to start harvesting at the end of the month, just in time for the Challenge.
Bob Clark, of Setauket, has tried a different approach this year -- and it appears to be working. He writes, "I never realized how much less work, and more fun, you can have with container vegetable gardening. This year I have tried growing everything I could in containers -- corn, eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, carrots and various herbs. We have had great success -- you cannot tell the difference from in-ground plantings."
SAVE THE DATE
Are you in? This year's contest will be held at 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Newsday headquarters (235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville). To participate, bring your biggest, heaviest ripe fruit to the event. I'll be on hand to weigh your tomatoes personally and crown the 2013 Tomato King or Queen. In the meantime, send a photo of yourself with your tomato plants, along with details about your growing strategy, to firstname.lastname@example.org, and you might be featured next.