I received an e-mail a couple of weeks ago from Dean Bevan, a retired English professor who is not given to exaggeration. In this e-mail, Dean claimed to have the largest tomato plant in Lawrence growing on his very own deck. My curiosity aroused, I made an appointment to view this extraordinary plant.
Dean has always had a green thumb. Years ago he had a lean-to greenhouse on the south side of his house in which he grew a variety of herbs and flowers and harvested lemons and bay leaves. In more recent years, in a different house, he and his wife, Judy, have become container gardeners.
The tomato plant that prompted the e-mail was a Mortgage Lifter, a variety developed in the 1930s by M.C. "Radiator Charlie" Byles, a West Virginia radiator repairman who was in financial straits because of the Depression. According to several accounts, Byles crossbred his four best tomato plants to produce this variety, which sold so well that he was able to pay off his mortgage. The legend was born.
The plant growing - more like sprawling - on the Bevans' deck lived up to its hype. It has long since outgrown its cage and has extended fruit-laden tentacles in all directions but up. I estimated that the longest vine would measure 8 feet if it could be extended vertically. The Bevans have positioned cages and patio furniture nearby to support the roving vines, which cover a 6-foot-by-6-foot patch of the deck.
The fruits on this plant were plentiful, and some were especially plump. One that Judy placed on a digital scale weighed 13 ounces. She believes they have eaten one that weighed a pound. The tomatoes are firm, juicy and a solid deep red. I had to concede the one I tasted ranked as one of the best vine-ripened tomatoes I had eaten.
For the past five years the Bevans have been growing their tomatoes in an EarthBox, a remarkably inexpensive plastic contraption the manufacturer claims is foolproof. You can read about it at www.earthbox.com; the price, including delivery, is $44.90. In a world of grossly overpriced garden gadgets, that's dirt cheap.
Dean believes this plant owes its success to a combination of the Earth Box and the variety of tomato. While the EarthBox has produced tomatoes in the past, this Mortgage Lifter is off the charts.
The EarthBox, which also can be used to grow other garden produce, has a water reservoir and overflow mechanism that regulate watering and an internal ventilation system that aerates the roots. The container, which is 30 inches long and 15 inches wide, holds 2.3 cubic feet of potting soil. It also comes with a black mulch cover to keep weeds down and warm the soil.
It's important to note as well that this is a case of better gardening through chemistry. Dean's system also depends on the application of two cups of hydrated lime and another 2 cups of time-release fertilizer. Barry Bonds has nothing on this tomato plant.
Presumably, the container also would produce results with an application of compost and organic fertilizer.
As I watched the juice run down Judy's arm as she sliced one of these tomatoes, I had to applaud. There's no reason anyone who has the desire to garden and access to sunlight can't be growing their own vine-ripened tomatoes.