Last week, as I wrote a column about Dean Bevan's humongous tomato plant, I wondered whether readers would share my admiration for this extraordinary specimen or, gardeners being a somewhat competitive lot, whether the tomato growers among you would try to trump the Mortgage Lifter sprawling across the Bevans' deck.
My readers never let me down. When I checked my e-mail a few hours after that column was published, I found a detailed description of the tomato plants growing in Richard Ballard's backyard. In addition to photos, in which his plants towered over his wife, Wilma, Richard sent along three years of harvest data to back up his assertion.
Allow me to paraphrase: Richard believes his Brandywines can mop the floor with a Mortgage Lifter any day of the week. Intrigued by the fact that for both Dean and Richard, an heirloom tomato - not a new-fangled hybrid bred for size and disease-resistance - had inspired such devotion, I made an appointment to view the Ballards' rival tomatoes.
While I was eager to assess the size of the plants (I had estimated that the Bevan plant would have been 9 feet tall if it had been staked vertically), I also was intrigued that the plants in the photos appeared to be growing in the Ballards' lawn. Indeed, in his e-mail. Richard reported that for each plant he merely digs a hole in his yard with a trowel and calls it good. No tiller, no mulch.
This is gardening sacrilege. Every gardening manual I've seen preaches tilling or digging to some depth to loosen the soil and provide room for the tomato plants' roots to grow.
Experienced gardeners also have special techniques they think will spur their plants to produce a bounty of tomatoes. Some bend the stems at a certain angle; others water the hole before they plant; a few probably do a tomato dance next to their transplants. This year one of my correspondents has an enormous harvest after warming the planting hole with hot water. A woman told me last year that she has good luck when she drops a banana peel into the hole with a transplant.
Not Richard. When I entered the Ballards' backyard, there they were: nine tomato plants springing up from the lawn, the grass trimmed neatly around their stems and cages. And these were gorgeous plants - tall, lush and laden with fruit.
Richard is aware that he is defying conventional wisdom.
"I read all these horror stories about tomatoes where you have to dig a 20-foot hole and fill it with marinated bat guano, but I think water seems to work best," he quipped.
He does do his plants one favor, and that is to add a teaspoon of Osmocote time-release fertilizer to the planting hole when he sets the plants out in April. Even so, the results are astonishing.
For the past several years, the Ballards have grown nine plants in their lawn, and Richard is convinced that the Brandywine, a pink-fleshed, pucker-stemmed heirloom, is the best for size and flavor. The evening I visited, he picked Brandywines that weighed 17 and 21 ounces.
"We had one about two weeks ago that weighed an even 3 pounds," he said. "It was like a pumpkin almost."
The Ballards also grow Better Boys and Yellow Boys, alongside the Brandywines. From the harvest data Richard has accumulated, the Better Boys clearly are the most prolific variety so far this year, although they can't match the size of the Brandywines.
His one attempt at growing a Mortgage Lifter, in 2006, was a failure. The plant produced just six tomatoes and died.
From personal experience, I know that some varieties grow better one year than another. While I have had good luck growing Brandywines, I also have been skunked a time or two.
Of course, I've never tried planting them out in the middle of my yard. Maybe that's the secret.