I have devoted my working life to glorifying heirloom fruits and vegetables. Extolling their beauty, flavor, utility, and diversity. Heirlooms are standard, open-pollinated (OP) varieties that breed true from seed (unlike F1 hybrids), and can be passed down to the next generation. And they should be transmitted and used for breeding, as many are rare and endangered. Although I’m a seasoned vegetable competitor, though no longer practicing, and have grown some gigundos in my time, “monstrously large”has not been my priority. Now my attitude is more relaxed. Growing and appreciating giant tomatoes is life-affirming.
Most of us grow our tomatoes solely to eat, and get a kick out of the big ones that come along, with low input—or even no input at all. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) co-founder Diane Ott Whealy likes “giants on their own, without steroids” in her Iowa garden. A ball of twine and a stake, an old rusty Folger’s coffee can (with the lid and bottom removed) to protect tender ‘German Pink’ transplants from freezing, is about all Diane and her father, Dale Ott, do to coddle the plants. The aim is dinner-plate-sized glistening pink slices served up with a sprinkle of sugar. ‘German Pink’ is an Ott family heirloom beefsteak weigh-ing in at 1 or 2 pounds apiece, and it is celebrated as Tomato No. 1 in the SSE seed collection.
Tomatoes are tremendously diverse in size and shape, but only beefsteaks need apply for world records. Monster beefsteaks have a higher number of locules (seed cavities), a quality associated with increased weight and volume. Such fruits are often fasciated (eccentric, conjoined, misshapen); so too are the blooms that give rise to the fruits. The keen competitor knows to identify the big “king flowers” or “megablooms” and hand-pollinate them in hopes of pro-ducing a winner. (King flowers or megablooms are often described as large and conjoined, with extra “body parts”—i.e., sepals, floral whorls, multiple pistils—and are thus easy to spot because they are big and abnormal.) It takes an “extreme gardener” with extraordinary knowledge, skill, and determination to raise the world’s biggest. The rewards are plentiful: exhilaration, sense of achievement, cash prizes, fame, and glory. One hopes these valiant strivers can spare the occasional tomato for eating.
Competitive growers choose from among heirloom and F1 hybrid tomato varieties that possess an indeterminate plant habit (since big plants nurture the growth of big fruits) and the right genetics.
There are scores of varieties that will produce tomatoes weighing 1, 2, or even 3 pounds. Fewer yield fruits weighing in the 4-to-6-pound range. Two varieties—‘Delicious’ and ‘Big Zac OP’—are capable of producing 7-pounders.
I remember the excitement and hoopla when Gordon Graham of Edmond, Oklahoma, set a new world record in 1986 for growing the heaviest tomato. The prize fruit was the 7 3⁄4 pound ‘Delicious’. Key to success was technique and the right germplasm (seeds): Burpee’s ‘Delicious’, bred in 1964 after 13 years of intensive breeding and selection from the heirloom ‘Beefsteak’ (‘Crimson Cushion’). Luck was also on Graham’s side: Winds felled the sizeable plant onto his cantaloupe patch, where a singular tomato grew undisturbed to enormous proportions.
After 27 years, Graham’s record-breaking tomato has yet to be beat. But it’s not for lack of trying. The arena is crowded with sophisticated heavy hitters, yet only a handful have come within a pound of the goal in recent years. Utah tomato grower Dale Thurber is compiling competition statistics from around the world for all the largest tomato varieties. He says with confidence, “I expect to see a 10-pounder in my lifetime.” He’s 50 years old. I hope he’s right.
But it may become increasingly difficult in future to top Graham’s record significantly. High temperatures, particularly nighttime temps over 70°F, are apparently creating fruit-set problems across the country, and bigger-fruited varieties seem to be most vulnerable, according to seedsman and pollination expert Jeff McCormack at Saving Our Seeds. Tomato meister Marvin Meisner, author of the classic Giant Tomatoes (2007), adds that even if fruit set is successful, “high temperatures during the tomato-growing phase result in smaller tomatoes” because the warmth speeds ripening. We’ll have to adapt our varieties and technique—or start competing for the world’s tiniest tomato.
Tips for Growing Monster Tomatoes
- Everything you need to know to grow tomatoes successfully in general can be found in my book, The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table (Bloomsbury, 2008). The short course: Provide full sun, airy fertile soil, wide spacing, mulch, and caging. Reduce plant stressors.
- Select the right germplasm: Heirloom or open-pollinated varieties, known to be heavyweights, with indeterminate plant habit, are preferred.
- Use organic techniques such as crop rotation and good field sanitation.Test soil, maintain proper pH (optimal is 6.5), provide sufficient plant nutrients, and feed soil organisms.
- Select early for the biggest, strongest “king flowers” or “megablooms,” and pollinate by hand. Prune off all other blossoms to reduce competition once good fruit set is achieved.
- Prune suckers and secondary vines. Allow a minimal number of giant tomatoes per plant—some say just one (I like at least an heir and a spare).
- Pay attention, be deliberate, and remain vigilant.
Keep Reading: Giants I've Known & Grown, by Amy Goldman