Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print

Are you in?

I've been asking that question for a few weeks now to encourage entries for the Eighth Annual Great Long Island Tomato Challenge, which is happening Friday. As the final weigh-in approaches, contenders share some of their growing tips and (hopefully) winning strategies.

Returning challenger Theresa Lawrence of Farmingdale has planted several tomato plants this year; one she grew from seed from last year's entry. She said she started all her plants indoors in late March, and now they're growing by leaps and bounds.

Chris Schlesinger of Bohemia also is making another bid for the crown this year. "Again, I shall claim that at the end of this season I will be crowned Tomato King," he wrote back in June. "Thwarted by deer late last year, this time actions shall be taken to ensure my hands only will harvest the prizewinning tomato," he said confidently.

By mid-July, however, he was singing a slightly different tune.

"I feel like I should've started earlier, as they are just starting to produce," he lamented. "But I still have faith: With a little help from above, I believe I can still be a contender." Schlesinger signed the more recent communication: "The (not quite as confident) Future Tomato King." Only time will tell!

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Janet Hart of Lindenhurst, who has been participating in the Challenge since its inception, is growing eight varieties of tomatoes this summer, and she might have an edge.

"I teamed up with last year's winner, Dr. B. [William Bouziotis of Northport], and he shared some plants and secrets with me," she revealed. "I may finally have some potential winners and I am so excited!"

Diego (Dick) Rio of Lake Ronkonkoma says his strategy is simple: "I start by tilling the soil with a blend of organic fertilizer and lime. After planting, I only water at the base of the plant, never using a sprinkler."

And Sal Ferrante of West Islip is helping his grandson, Evan Gottesman, 9, of Farmingville, get ready for this year's Challenge. The pair planted seeds in paper cups in March and set them under fluorescent grow lights, heated by thermostatically controlled mats.

"Not wanting to disappoint my grandson, I planted what seemed to be every conceivable vegetable that he ever heard of: tomatoes -- Big Zacs, Sicilian Saucer and SteakHouse -- corn, radishes, pumpkins, lettuce, cucumbers and watermelons," Ferrante said. He admits he didn't expect all the seeds to germinate, but they did.

"Evan and I planted the best prospects for the Tomato Challenge in his garden, hoping for a tomato larger than last year's entry," Ferrante said. There were so many left over that Evan's mother, Lynette Gottesman, gave plants to her co-workers at Udall Road Middle School in West Islip, and Evan gave plants to his teachers at Lynwood Avenue Elementary School in Farmingville. Then Evan and his sister, Alayna, 5, held a plant sale in front of their house.

"Next year, I think we will scale down a bit, or buy a house with a very large backyard!" Ferrante said.

Nunzio Stanco of Glen Cove, a first-time competitor, takes pride in his "haven," according to his daughter, Debbie DiLeo. "My dad has lived in the same house since he was born, and his garden is over 65 years old," she said. Stanco's garden is organic, and his use of horse manure, fish heads and banana peels to amend the soil results in a bumber crop.

Hank Schirmer of Oceanside has been growing tomatoes -- and canning tomato sauce -- for many years. This is his first year in the Challenge. "I have been giving them a lot of TLC and full sun, but timing is a big part of the challenge," Schirmer said.

Julie Graff of Roslyn got a late start this year, but with a lot of TLC she said she is hoping for success. This is her second year growing tomatoes, and her first in the Challenge.

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Colleen Kirkpatrick of Lynbrook is teaching her daughter, Delia, 5, how to grow Burpee Supersteak Hybrid tomatoes in organic soil with organic compost. She waters daily with a soaker hose and is hoping for a winner in her first year in the Challenge.

WE'RE IN THE FINAL STRETCH!

This year's Tomato Challenge is Friday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. at Newsday headquarters (235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville). Bring your biggest, heaviest tomato and you might be crowned the next king or queen!