Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print
We have a winner!
The sixth annual Great Long Island Tomato Challenge was held with much fanfare Aug. 24, with gardeners from all around Long Island gathering in Newsday's Melville auditorium to spend a couple hours sharing jokes and growing secrets, exchanging seeds, tomatoes and phone numbers, and — above all — competing for the title of Long Island Tomato King or Queen.
Gary Schaffer of Lindenhurst took the crown for his 3-pound, 6-ounce Rhode Island Giant, the heaviest of 41 tomatoes brought up to the scale.
Coming in second was a 2-pound, 15-ounce Big Zac raised by William S. Boyziotis of Northport, who said he "provides the best of everything" for his tomatoes, including fossilized bird guano, a 50/50 mix of compost and topsoil, and most importantly, he added, "luck."
Ellen Papadopoulos of Jericho took third place for another Big Zac, but she wouldn't divulge how she achieved the 2-pound, 12-ounce beauty. "That's a secret!" she said, giving only one hint: "It's organic."
So, how did Schaffer do it? The retiree has been tending a garden for 60 years, since he was a child growing up on a farm in North Dakota. He has lived in his home for 38 years and started planting a garden there the day after closing on the house. He's been growing tomatoes there ever since.
This year, Schaffer, 67, grew more than 40 tomato plants of different varieties, including Lemon Boy, German Head, Giant Belgium, Big Boy, Early Girl and the winning Rhode Island Giant, grown from seeds gifted to him by former Challenge winner Billy King of Mastic Beach. Schaffer started all his plants from seed in February and plants some early varieties in a hothouse in his cellar. Some were ready for eating before Father's Day.
After treating them to generous helpings of homemade compost, mulching with grass clippings and fertilizing with Miracle-Gro, Schaffer noticed a malformed tomato sharing a stem with another fruit, so he clipped it off. The remaining tomato grew to champion size.
"I kept watching it every day," he said, hopeful it would be a contender.
In all, about 140 people shared in the festivities, among them Anthony Passela, 14, of Deer Park, who won in the kids' category for his 1-pound, 6.6-ounce Beefsteak, which he nurtured with peat moss and a 4-5-3 organic fertilizer. Rachel Haimowitz, 11, of East Meadow took second place for her 1-pound, 4.3-ounce Amana Orange tomato, grown with dehydrated cow manure, liquid seaweed and Dark Energy fertilizer. And Lucas Rios of Seaford, a mere 5 years old, rounded out the top three with his 1-pound, 3.5-ounce Big Zac. His was treated to dried cow manure and lots of peat moss.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was a three-way tie for smallest tomato — all weighing in at zero ounces. (This happens when an item weighs less than the scale can register, which, in this case is 1/100 of an ounce.) Sharing the Tiny Tomato honors were Tina Kraemer of Bohemia, Steven Sicurella of Bethpage and the 2011 King and Queen, brother-and-sister duo Angel and Peter Notarnicola of Massapequa.
I would be remiss not to honor the grower of the ugliest tomato because, as we all know, it's the ugliest ones that taste best. Vito Cottone of Commack didn't disclose the variety of his, aside from calling it "unusual." And boy, was it!
As for Schaffer's winning tomato? It met up with some bacon and lettuce a day after earning the honor.
"We sliced it up and made BLTs," Schaffer said. "I've had a lot better-tasting ones, though," he added.
If you'd like a piece of the action next year, brush up now with my tips for growing tomatoes at newsday.com/home.