Grab the ladder, dear, it's tomato picking time

Jack's beanstalk has nothing on Charles Wilber's tomatoes. One of the cherry tomato plants in his Crane Hill, Ala., backyard topped off at 28 feet, 7 inches, a mark that made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, a distinction he's held since 1985.

Mr. Wilber's tomatoes aren't your Aunt Mildred's backyard beefsteaks. These juicy gems can weigh as much as 2-1/2 pounds. One summer he got four plants to yield 1,368 pounds of fruit.

What kind of person is driven to grow sky-high tomatoes? A competitor, that's who. "I always loved a good contest ...," says Mr. Wilber in his book 'How to Grow World Record Tomatoes' (Acres U.S.A). "When I couldn't find someone with whom to compete, I would simply compete with myself."

So how do you grow something that makes neighbors jealous and has university scholars questioning your methods?

Cookin' with compost

Wilber's crops are the result of a compost recipe so precise in detail it would make Julia Child blanch. He lets a mixture of green waste (hay, weeds, and grass clippings, along with kitchen scraps and fresh manure) heat up to a steamy 160 degrees, which kills most diseases and weed seeds. The heat comes from the correct mix of ingredients and letting the covered compost warm in the sun. Wilber says the anaerobic method of composting, using air-tight containers, preserves 90 percent of the nitrogen whereas aerobic composting preserves only 60 percent. He never adds tomato plant waste material to his compost as it might pass on fungi. Tomato refuse, he says, should be burned.

Watering is not taken lightly either. Wilber prefers rain or pond water and eschews chlorinated city water that is chemically treated. He also says most people underestimate the length of tomato plant roots, which can extend laterally several feet from the plant and should be watered there.

Wilber and weeds aren't best friends either. After long hours hoeing during his youth, he's now developed a way to avoid weeding altogether. After planting, he places sections of a hay bale together around the plants. He does not break up the slices to allow in air, but keeps them intact to prevent weeds.

He lets the bale rot outside for a few months before using it, so the plant's roots will benefit more quickly from the decayed straw.

Start with big, plump seeds

Wilber says it all starts with selecting the proper seed or seedling and with more than 1,000 varieties, it can be daunting. He's found the Better Boy variety to be the most disease resistant and productive.

The Better Boy VFN was the seed he used to grow plants that yielded 343-pounds of fruit apiece. To grow some of his monstrosities, he used "indeterminate" varieties - those that continue to fruit throughout the summer. Wilber buys his seeds from commercial growers and believes bigger is definitely better. "Look for plump seeds, most seeds look like rolled oats," he says. The more robust the seed, the better start the plant will have. If you choose to buy seedlings, Wilber says to look for short, stocky plants with no buds.

Linda Sapp, co-owner of Tomato Growers Supply Co. in Fort Meyers, Fla., suggests planting several varieties at the beginning of the season to ensure that fruit will bear all season long (see box, below). And to place plants a good distance apart for optimal fruit production.

Maryanne Comly, horticulture-products specialist at Burpee Inc., says watering can be tricky. "You don't want to get water on the leaves because they are prone to fungal disease," says Ms. Comly. She recommends using a soaker hose or sinking a can with tiny holes in it into the ground beside the plant. When the can is filled, water will seep to the roots.

For the best tomato flavor, water and fertilize lightly in the last few weeks before harvest says Sapp. Once the fruit grows to a sufficient size, watering only dilutes the flavor.

But Wilber, who pooh-poohs traditional fertilizing and has researched organic gardening, prefers mulching. "That's nature's way of doing business," he says. "Nature never had synthetic fertilizers."

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