Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print
What does it take to grow Long Island's biggest tomato?
Vera DiCocco, winner of the 2015 Great Long Island Tomato Challenge, has been growing tomatoes at her North Bellmore home for more than 45 years, and she attributes her success to her family's special recipe. DiCocco's son, Anthony, 57, who lives a block away, brews the concoction by filling a barrel with water and adding chicken manure and cow manure, then stirring it well.
"It gives off a nice aroma," she said with a chuckle. "And flies!"
DiCocco, 77, credits the home-brewed fertilizer with helping produce the 3-pound, 9.5-ounce tomato that catapulted her to the top of the tomato heap, and earned her this year's Tomato Queen title, awarded Aug. 27 at Newsday's headquarters in Melville.
"I grew it myself from special seeds from Italy," she said, adding that her son turns the soil and rototills for her.
DiCocco, a first-time contender in the Challenge, said she picked her winning tomato two weeks earlier, and, fearing it might rot before the Challenge, kept it in the refrigerator to preserve it. "I wrapped it in a hand towel plus two plastic bags, and never disturbed it," she said.
In the meantime, she preserved 15 jars of tomatoes to enjoy over the winter. "I've got another 15 or 20 jars to go," DiCocco said, adding that on Challenge day alone, she picked 15 pounds of tomatoes from her plants. "It's such a short season, but I enjoy it," she said.
About 75 other readers -- many of them returning contestants -- attended this year's Challenge, including Janet Hart, 60, of Lindenhurst, who wore her signature tomato tank top for the ninth consecutive year. Her 3-pound, 5.5-ounce native Greek tomato came in a very-close second place.
Alayna Gottesman, 6, of Farmingville, sporting a "Tomato Princess" T-shirt and a tomato-red hair bow to match, earned first place in the children's 6-and-younger category for her 1 pound, 2.7-ounce beefsteak, which she grew from seed with "lots of Grandpa's love." Her brother, Evan, 10, also made a nice showing while sporting his own "Evan's Homegrown Produce" shirt with his 1-pound, 8.3-ounce entry.
Annalise Capasso, 11, of Wantagh, went home with two awards: Her 1-pound, 14.4-ounce Big Zac tomato, grown from seed and fertilized with bone meal and Epsom salts, won the children's 7-12 category, and her beautifully mangled and twisted Belgium giant was named Ugliest Tomato.
Corinn Kraemer, 16, of Bohemia, won in the Smallest Tomato category, with a specimen so tiny that it measured just seven points on a printer's ruler.
Several of the entrants' tomatoes were grown from seeds shared among contestants during prior years' events, and the camaraderie forged was apparent as old friends greeted one another.
Kathy Brudermann of Bay Shore didn't come with a tomato, but she brought a red hat adorned with a tomato, leaves and a green stem that she crocheted for the winner. "I was here last year, and I went home and decided I wanted to make a hat," she said. Brudermann presented it to DiCocco upon her victory.
Win or not, everyone got something from the Challenge. Sal Ferrante, 71, of West Islip, summed it up best: "If you can't get the largest, go for the smallest. If not the smallest, go for the ugliest. If not the ugliest, go for the fun!"