Killer Tomatoes: Tips to Help You Grow Champions

Tomatoes tasty and fanciful are still weeks away from the table, but those eager to grow ones as good as those at the Great Tomato Taste-Off at Quail Hill Farm should consider chicken manure for their plantings now. Durell Godfrey Photos

    Talk about the taste of summer and the conversation will almost invariably steer straight to tomatoes. Thick-cut and juicy and served with fresh mozzarella and basil; simply sliced as a side dish with a splash of balsamic and olive oil so good you could drink it right from the bottle; puréed into a summer gazpacho or marinara, or sprinkled — in their tiniest, sweetest form — on top of an arugula and goat cheese salad, nothing is more evocative of the fleeting pleasures of the season than a tomato.
    The annual Great Tomato Taste-Off at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett will be held this year on Sept. 10. It may seem a long way off, but if you want to grow tomatoes as good as those at the farm, you have to get cracking now to get those babies in the ground.
    For those who grow tomatoes, it seems, there are as many secrets for raising the sweetest and biggest as there are varieties.
    Rick Broussard, the editor of New Hampshire Magazine and a longtime home gardener, was adamant about the top tip for stellar “love apples” (as they once were called, because of their supposed power as an aphrodisiac): “Use organic chicken manure. Chicken because it’s powerful, and organic for the bragging rights.”
    “Plant your tomato starts with most of the stems under the soil and buried at an angle to create a strong root base,” Mr. Broussard said. “Raise chickens. For the manure of course, but mostly because it’s so much fun to watch a chicken eat a giant tomato worm, picked fresh out of your tomato hedge. It’s a bit like watching sharks attacking a bucket of chum.”
    Georgia O’Neal, who has an organic farm, Tree and Leaf, in Unionville, Va., said, “We love to grow heirloom tomatoes, and the best are Cherokee purple, black prince, and striped German,” she said.
    “If you don’t have chicken manure, any compost will do. We like to avoid animal byproducts, but that’s just our farm. The biggest complaint I hear from customers at market is that their fruit does not ripen. Tomatoes need full sun, hot days, and warm nights. Also, water the root, not the fruits and the leaves.”
    Pamela Willoughby, the chef-grower of Le Farmeuresse in Southampton, said that her best advice comes from the gardening experts she works with. It’s best to plant “regular tomatoes,” she said. “Do not buy super-big kinds. You know that kind of soggy, icky tomato taste . . . that’s what you get with the super-big.”
    For best results, she said, intersperse tomato plants with basil. “Ever wonder why there are tomato and basil salads forever?” Ms. Willoughby said. “It’s because they’re companion plants. I have staked all [my] tomato plants, and everything is doing well! I am truly amazed.”
    All the experts suggested that beginners start with cherry tomatoes in their gardens, buy good, sturdy plants, and consider planting them in buckets on the deck or in the yard.
    On the East End, they all agree: What’s the most important element to help you get a crop like they do at the Quail Hill contest? A good deer fence.