Not your ordinary tomato|Del Halterman’s growing them big and tasty

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 15, 2009

For two years, I have heard from Donna and Wayne Thornton about Del Halterman’s success with tomatoes.

Their stories include pounds of delicious, extra-large tomatoes; vines that grow into fall so tall they are hard to harvest; and a unique planting and growing procedure that Halterman uses to achieve such results. With tomatoes being one of the most widely grown vegetables in home gardens, I was curious to learn his secrets to success.

Halterman was raised on a dairy farm in Iowa where they grew just about everything the family ate. They always had a big vegetable garden, and Halterman says growing tomatoes brings back pleasant childhood memories.

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Halterman predominantly grows a large hybrid indeterminate beefsteak tomato variety called Beefmaster. This disease-resistant variety produces large, bright red fruits that typically weigh up to 2 pounds each. The fruits are solid, meaty and quite tasty, says Halterman.

He also plants a few Big Zacs, a tomato that often yields 4- to 6-pound fruits. Big Zac was bred by a New Jersey gardener named Minnie Zaccaria who cross-pollinated two heirloom varieties to achieve this giant. It has won countless contests.

He grows all his plants from seed ordered from a Wisconsin company, Totally Tomatoes. He starts them in early spring in a cold frame that was constructed from an old window frame and Plexiglass. Each seed is planted in a small peat-pot six to eight weeks before he plans to set them into the ground. Cold frames have been used by farmers and home gardeners for decades and operate much like a mini greenhouse.

Halterman plants his tomatoes a little differently than most. He cuts plastic, 5-gallon paint cans into two rings. Each ring will accommodate one tomato plant, and Halterman staggers them at least 3 to 4 feet apart in the grass. He digs out the grass inside and right around the outside of each ring. He then digs down at least a foot and removes the soil. He mixes half of the garden soil with cotton boll compost and returns it to the hole. The ring is then positioned with about half the plastic inserted into the ground, the rest protruding from the ground. This allows him to cut his grass and trim weeds around each tomato plant all summer without damaging any stems.

He plants each tomato level with the soil. He inserts an 8-foot T-post stake into the soil to a depth of a foot at the time of planting. He added some extra height to these last year with re-bar because the vines got so tall. He picked tomatoes up until frost. Each plant is mulched heavily inside the plastic ring with cypress mulch. As the vines grow and start producing fruit, he removes the lower branches that are not producing fruit so that all the nutrients are directed to the developing fruit. He also pulls off all but a couple of the tiny set fruits in each cluster in order to allow two large fruits to fully develop rather than the three to five smaller fruits that normally grow per cluster.

Halterman thinks that one of his best strategies is to water the plants twice a day. He gives each a quart of water each time he waters. Miracle Grow is added once a week and is the only fertilizer he uses.

Halterman shared some seedlings and his unique tomato-growing philosophy with Thornton this past spring. Thornton has eight plants that are producing all the tomatoes his extended family can possibly use, says his wife. He uses the plastic rings for cucumbers, as well, and is still picking a few planted in the spring. 

The 9 inches of rain that most of Warren County received in 10 days late last month and early this month took a toll on Halterman’s plants.

Most of the larger tomatoes I have seen grown in our area were smaller than those recently harvested by Halterman — he calls them runts compared to earlier ones he picked.

If you want to grow seriously big tomatoes next year, his methods are definitely worth a try.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and master flower show judge, has been active with the Vicksburg Council of Garden Clubs for more than 20 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.