LITTLE SILVER: VYING FOR TOP TOMATO

tomatoThe stakes are high once again, as three-peat champion (and top-seeded competitor) Michael Mansfield prepares to defend his crown in the 2015 Biggest Tomato Contest, scheduled for Saturday at Sickles Market.

It’s fast becoming one of the most highly anticipated homegrown competitions of the summer season — an annual event that’s been dominated by a single champion whose reign is ripe for a challenge.

This Saturday, August 29 marks the 2015 edition of the Biggest Tomato Contest, sponsored by Sickles Market and hosted for the fourth consecutive year at the garden center of the Little Silver landmark. With weigh-in time at 1 pm, this is scarcely your run-of-the-mill county fair contest, as three-time winner Michael Mansfield is expected to make another bid for dominance and heavyweight bragging rights. The Oceanport resident’s current record holder of 4.4 pounds pasted the competition last year; leaving all other tomato growers to stew for another season (and vow to ketchup this year).

According to Mansfield, his most important secret is connection to an 88-year-old Long Branch woman, Minnie Zaccaria. Mansfield’s winners were all grown from seeds that she successfully crossbred from two heirloom beefsteak tomatoes several years ago to create the giant tomato hybrid Big Zac. She later sold the rights to the hybrid to the seed company Totally Tomatoes. Zaccaria, who also took part in last year’s Biggest Tomato Contest, was a seven-time winner of the now defunct New Jersey Championship Tomato Weigh-In, entering giant tomatoes that weighed over six pounds.

After he selects his seeds, Mansfield (who is happy to share “some of” his secrets with his fellow enthusiasts) starts them indoors, and plants them in his backyard after the threat of frost. Once the vines start growing, he watches for the largest flowers and hopes that they will get pollinated — and there’s a good chance that pollination will take place, since his neighbor is Gary Parent, a beekeeper for Sickles Market’s beehives, which were established last year and are producing honey for sale for the first time this season.

“When the fruit starts growing I keep my eye on the ugliest tomatoes,” added Mansfield. He protects his top tomatoes from the sun with paper plates to slow down the ripening process. Mansfield stakes his tomato vines on a single pole, and “nips off the suckers” as the vines grow. Mansfield, who started competing in friendly competitions with friends and cousins about 15 years ago, says there are other key factors to growing mega-tomatoes, such as weather, soil and proper watering — and that winners or losers, the tomatoes are as juicy and delicious as a beefsteak tomato.

Judging will take place in two age groups (adults, and kids aged 5 to 13), with the winning junior champ awarded a Sickles Market Gardening Kit, and the adult category winner presented with a $100 Sickles gift certificate.

Got a potential record-breaker calling to you from the backyard garden? There’s still time to register your entry in the Biggest Tomato Contest, by emailing adietz@sicklesmarket.com with full name and telephone number. No entry fee is required, but contest rules mandate that a tomato must be presented by the grower, with entries judged by weight only.

“We encourage our community to get as close to their food source as possible,” explained Bob Sickles, third generation owner of Sickles Market. “Growing your own fruits and vegetables is very rewarding and in the case of the Biggest Tomato Contest, some great fun.”