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 Newsday.com'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

As the clock neared 7 p.m., local gardeners filed in one by one, many with precious fruits concealed beneath towels in boxes or contained in bags. Some, emboldened enough to open carry, proudly held up their bright red bounty. And although the air was thick with competition, it was apparent that it also held promise, and camaraderie was front and center.

This was the spirit that more than 60 attendees brought to the 11th annual Great Long Island Tomato Challenge Aug. 18 at Newsday’s Melville headquarters. Many of the names and faces present were familiar, to me and to each other, and over the years, seeds have been shared, phone numbers exchanged and a common passion enjoyed. But, as always, the crowd welcomed newcomers with open arms.

This year, the main attraction was a 3-pound, 7-ounce Diamante tomato grown by Alberto Oppedisano of Franklin Square. The hairdresser obtained 6-inch-tall plants last spring from a friend who grew them from seeds brought over from Italy. “I bought organic manure and mixed it into the soil before I planted anything,” said Oppedisano, 60. “Then, every two weeks, I put a 10-5-10 fertilizer 5 inches away from the stem and worked it in.” By August, he said, his plants were so heavy, he had to use steel beams for support.

It took “a lot of work, a lot of attention and a lot of love,” Oppedisano said, explaining that he “tied the plants up every couple of weeks, scratched the surface to let the roots breathe, and watched them grow. And finally, I got a beautiful surprise this year, none of them less than 2 1⁄2 pounds.”

Oppedisano, who grew up in Calabria, Italy, has been growing tomatoes for a few years but has never grown one as large as this year’s winner. He largely credits an abundance of sunlight for his success: “My neighbor cut a lot of trees down this year, and now I get sun from morning to night,” he said. “It’s like Africa over here!”

And all that sunlight resulted in the biggest tomato he’s ever grown. “When I saw this tomato, I sent my wife out to buy a scale, and when we saw it was 3 1⁄2 pounds, I said, ‘Let’s put it in the fridge — this is going to Newsday!’ ”

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Massive Big Zac

Only one other tomato tipped the scale at more than 3 pounds, a Big Zac grown by the winner of the 2016 and 2011 Challenges, Peter Notarnicola, 22, of Massapequa. The organic farmer and historic interpreter made an impressive showing with his 3-pound, 3.5-ounce specimen.

Another past double winner, Gary Schaffer of Lindenhurst, who took the title in 2012 and 2014, had the third-largest tomato of the evening, a 2-pound, 8.5-ounce Rhode Island Giant. Schaffer, 72, uses lawn clippings as mulch and stakes his plants.

Christina Kraemer, 53, of Bohemia, won first place in the Smallest Tomato category, with her “Barry’s Teeny Tiny Tomato,” which measured just 11 points on the pica ruler, a device used by printers to measure the size of type.

And the littlest growers in the field made a big showing, too. Alayna Gottesman of Farmingville was in prime form in her “Keep Calm and Grow Tomatoes” T-shirt and red earrings. She’s been growing tomatoes and attending the Challenge with her brother, Evan, for several years. This year, her lumpy, funky Big Zac tomato was deemed ugliest of all.

How did it get that way? “I make ugly faces at it!” the 8-year-old exclaimed.

And Wyatt DePace of Albertson came in first place in the 6 and Under youth category with his 2-pound, 1.5-ounce Burpee Supersteak. The 3-year-old clearly has a good role model, as his growing strategy is “water every day with Pop-Pop.” That mentor would be his grandpa, Walter O’Brisky of Westbury, who joined him at the event.

Bringing a tomato legacy full circle was Sophia Fasano, 7, of Deer Park, who topped the 7-12 youth category with her “Domingo” tomato. Sophia’s great-grandfather was Vincenzo Domingo, who won the first Tomato Challenge in 2007, before she was even born. This year, Sophia started her plant from a seed saved over the years from that tomato’s lineage. It yielded a 2-pound, 5.5-ounce beauty, and made the family, the community of growers and, no doubt, her great-grandfather proud.