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Pastimes : Gardening and Especially Tomato Growing

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From: Julius Wong4/9/2022 10:45:58 AM
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He grew 1,269 tomatoes on a single stem and broke his own world record

Douglas Smith, a British gardener, with his record-breaking cherry tomato stem. (Courtesy of Douglas Smith)

Douglas Smith is a competitive guy. So when he turned his attention to the vegetable garden behind his home, he committed to it. So much, in fact, that his hobby grew to epic proportions.

Smith tended to his plants and produce until they became colossally outsize, landing him in what he calls “the competitive vegetable scene.”

The British gardener has harvested a nearly 7-pound tomato, a 624-pound pumpkin and a 20-foot-tall sunflower. Recently, though, he has shifted his focus from size to sum. It’s been a grand success.

Twice in a row, Smith broke the Guinness World Record for the most tomatoes grown on a single stem. Originally, he shattered the previous record of 488 tomatoes — which had been in place for more than 10 years — after he grew 839 cherry tomatoes on one stem in September.

Then, on March 18, Guinness World Records declared that Smith had actually beaten his own world record, growing 1,269 tomatoes on a separate, single stem.

He was in it to win it: “It was a very deliberate attempt to go for a Guinness World Record,” said Smith, who works full time as a product manager and lives north of London in Hertfordshire, England.

Smith has long had a green thumb, and at one point, he supplied fresh vegetables from his garden to local pubs and eateries.

“I’ve always been a gardener,” he said.

In 2014, he decided to take his hobby to a new level. He was particularly interested in ginormous produce, and pumpkins became his starting point.

Growing huge vegetables presented an enticing opportunity to “push your horticultural knowledge to do something a little bit different,” Smith said. “I like growing vegetables for the house, but if you’re trying to grow for a competition, you learn an awful lot more about how to grow them successfully through an exercise like this.”

As he started exploring the world of massive vegetables and fruits, Smith soon saw his interest was not as unusual as he thought. In the United States, of course, showstopping displays and competitions for extra-large produce have been commonplace at state fairs for decades. In other places around the globe, he learned, people proudly grow colossal crops, gathering accolades for their enormous pumpkins, potatoes and tomatoes.

Recently, a New Zealand couple stole the spotlight for growing what they believed was the world’s largest potato, only to be told by Guinness World Records that their mammoth mass was not actually a potato at all.

Far beyond the prospect of earning prizes and praise, what intrigued Smith most, he said, was the intense learning process and the strong sense of camaraderie among fellow giant-vegetable growers. Although it’s competitive in nature, the community collaborates.

“Competitive vegetable growing is an active community in terms of knowledge sharing,” Smith said.

When he pivoted from pumpkins to tomatoes in 2017, he reached out to Peter Glazebrook — a veteran vegetable farmer who was then the U.K. record holder for the country’s largest tomato — and Glazebrook kindly sent Smith some seeds.

In 2020, after growing a nearly seven-pound tomato, “I went on to beat Peter’s record, and then I sent him the seeds of my U.K. record,” Smith said.

Around the same time, his 6-year-old son, Stellan, told his dad he wanted him to grow a giant sunflower, which became a pandemic project for the family.

“Small kids want stuff that grows fast or things that grow big,” said Smith, who gave some of his giant tomato seeds to an American giant sunflower grower named John Butler, who sent him some sunflower seeds. “He had declared that he had an interest in growing a sunflower as big as the house.”

Following the success of the sky-high sunflower, “I was looking around for other horticultural challenges,” Smith said. “I decided to have a go at the most tomatoes on a truss.”

In the world of gardening, a truss is simply a stem that holds tomatoes. Typically, Smith said, a stem carries anywhere between 12 and 30 cherry tomatoes, and, in very strong growing seasons, perhaps 50. He was determined to multiply that number at least 10-fold.

For Smith, the process of growing supersize produce is scientific. To prepare for his tomato-growing operation, he spent countless hours reading research papers, sending soil samples to be tested in laboratories, trying out various seed varieties and investigating the many tomato types.

The work of extreme gardening, he said, is “both nature and nurture. There are no easy manuals.”

“It all starts with the variety selection,” Smith explained, adding that choosing the right type of tomato is the “nature” portion of the process. “The second step is the environment. You can manipulate the temperature of things like the air and the soil. You’re using all these little bits of knowledge just to kind of make them grow bigger, better and more of them.”

Smith’s extensive research and analytical approach paid off last fall, when he discovered a truss in his greenhouse with 839 perfectly plump cherry tomatoes dangling from it. A few weeks later, he found one that had 1,269 — allowing him to beat the world record, twice.

Not only did Smith surpass his initial record by 430 pieces of fruit, but his unprecedented tomato count was 10 times higher than the original record of 121, which was set in 1997.

Though Smith is tickled by the title, he already has his sights set on a new mission. He hopes to win the record for “most tomatoes on a single plant.” He also intends to take a shot at growing the world’s heaviest potato and eggplant.

“We’ll be having another crack at a couple of records later this year. Fingers crossed,” he said.

While he likes to compete and win, he tries to keep perspective about the fantastic food he grows.

“It’s just a bit of fun,” he said.

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