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Tomato tall tales: Gardeners go big in their backyards

By Mark Saal - | Sep 22, 2014
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Kerry Robinson, of Kaysville, shows off his 9-foot-tall tomato plant in his backyard. Photo taken Sept. 17, 2014.

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Kerry Robinson, of Kaysville, displays one of the tomatoes off his 9-foot-tall tomato plant in his backyard. Photo taken Sept. 17, 2014.

KAYSVILLE — Kerry Robinson may need to hire a basketball team to pick his tomatoes this year. Preferably one with a 7-footer at the center position.

The 65-year-old Kaysville man has a couple of tomato plants in his yard that have grown unusually tall this summer. One is 9 feet tall, the other clocks in at about 8 feet.

“I’ve never seen a tomato plant this tall before,” Robinson said. “When the neighbors come to visit, I have to brag on it.”

Robinson says he has no idea how it got to be 9 feet tall.

“I’ve had ’em as tall as my wife before, but nothing like this,” he said. “I’ve whacked the top of it off three times, and I need to whack it off again.”

This summer, a man in Lawrenceville, Ga., has grown a 14-foot-tall tomato plant. The Guinness World Record for the tallest tomato plant is 19.8 meters — that’s 65 feet — grown hydroponically by a company in the United Kingdom.

Robinson says he planted three varieties of tomatoes in his yard this year — Big Boy, Early Girl, and Roma. The Big Boy and Early Girl grew the tallest.

To encourage vertical growth, Robinson cut the heads off of tapered golf clubs, and stuck them in the ground next to the plant. He also used concrete reinforcing mesh to create 42-inch-tall tomato cages. Once the plants reached the top of the cages, he’d add another section of mesh above it and stick another tapered golf club shaft in the top of the first one.

“And, I had to tie it all to a bush to keep it from falling over,” Robinson said.

Not only are his plants tall, they produce a goodly amount of tomatoes.

“We give away boxes of tomatoes,” Robinson said.

Karen Rigby, master gardener with the Utah State University Gardening Hotline in Farmington, was surprised to hear of the 9-foot-tall tomato plants.

“Oh my gosh,” she said. “That’s fairly unusual. I’m wondering what kind of fertilizer he uses.”

Robinson can’t recall doing anything special to grow his tall tomatoes.

“I didn’t hardly fertilize it,” he says. “This ground is a heavy clay, and I dug some sand into it last year, but that’s about all I’ve done.”

Over in Clearfield, Max and Ruth Owens have some fairly impressive tomato plants of their own. They have some vines that are pushing 7 ½ feet.

“I measured them, and they’re at 7-foot-4 inches,” Max Owens said.

Ruth Owens says their tomato plants were even taller last year.

“Last year, I had to get the step stool out of the kitchen to pick them,” she said.

Unlike Robinson, Max and Ruth Owens credit their plants’ super size to the use of turkey fertilizer.

“We go to Moroni and pick up NutriMulch by the trailer load — three yards — and spread it all over the garden,” said Max Owens.

The also keep down the competition from weeds by using a drip-irrigation system.

“The thing is, with a dripper system, it’s weed-free,” Max Owens said.

He says their plants would probably be taller, but he shut off the water a couple of weeks ago — which causes the tomatoes to ripen. They use the Big Beef variety of tomatoes.

Max Owens says there’s a practical reason for growing tall tomato plants.

“Tomatoes take up a lot less room when they grow up and not out,” he said.

The Owens’ say their yield has also been fairly impressive.

“Every couple of days she goes around the neighborhood, giving away tomatoes,” Max Owens said of his wife.

“And, we’ve started going across the freeway to give to folks we know over there,” said Ruth Owens, pointing to the west across Interstate 15.

Master gardener Rigby says she hasn’t been able to get her tomatoes to grow that high.

“Mine at home are about as tall as I am — and I’m a little over 5 feet,” she said.

Robinson says vertically is the only way to grow tomatoes, and that he’ll do it again next year.

“I ain’t going back to the ones that lay on the ground,” he said.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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