World-Record Tomatoes

Charles Wilber set a Guinness World Record with his  giant tomato plant. Could you be next?


of whom grow tomatoes, according to the National Gardening Assn.—you'll soon be trying to figure out what to do with all of the tomatoes ripening on your windowsill, in bowls on the countertop, and on the vine in your backyard. Salads will be more red than green. Your neighbors will grit their teeth as you bestow yet another basketful upon them. And you'll run out of jars for all of the sauce simmering on your stove. Imagine then how Crane Hill, Ala., gardener Charles H. Wilber must feel, eating, selling, and giving away the harvest from his plants, each of which produces an average of 342 pounds of tomatoes.

The California Tomato Growers Assn. estimates that commercial growers harvest roughly eight to 10 pounds of tomatoes from each plant. Mr. Wilber gets between 30 to 40 times as much from his. Does he use a secret lab's high-tech, super-grow fertilizer? Hardly. Mr. Wilber's methods are all organic. Does he plant a rare type of seed? Nope. His best yield—1,368 pounds of tomatoes from four plants, for which he earned one of three Guinness World Records—came from the widely known Better Boy variety. So how do you get tons of delicious organic tomatoes with common varieties and—best of all—avoid weeding and hoeing altogether? Just pay attention.

IN ORDER TO BECOME A THREE-TIME GUINNESS WORLD Record champion, it helps to set your sights high. Say, 275 feet. When Mr.Wilber visited California's Sequoia National Park, he stared at the giant tree known. as General Sherman for a long time, "You could see very readily that what nature provides is very simple," he says. "And it was all right there." The obvious elements included air, rain, fallen leaves and limbs, weeds, grass—and no weeding or hoeing. Mr. Wilber decided then and there to try to replicate nature's system and unlock such growth potential in his own plants. The tomato was his favorite vegetable, so he concentrated his research on the red beauties and soon set himself a goal of growing a lo-foot-tall plant bearing tomatoes from top to bottom. Mr. Wilber named his first giant General Sherman.

In the years that followed, Charles Wilber netted three Guinness records; the tallest okra up to that time (17 feet, 6' 1/4 inches), the great­est average yield from tomato plants 342 pounds per plant), and the tallest tomato plant (for a 28-foot, 7-inch-tall cherry toma­to)—a record that still stands. "I'm through with breaking records," says the 85-year-old grower, who now uses his expertise to help

Pruning these tall 342-pounders presents special challenges, but Charles Wilber rises to the occasion.


commercial growers improve their yields. "I'd like to help someone else break one now."


Charles Wilber says of growing tomato plants. "It's just like with a person—the more stress you get, the worse shape you're in." Pests, diseases, or improper nourish­ment or moisture will limit growth. To reduce stress, you need to monitor your plants and their surroundings;

Inspect seeds and seedlings before planting, watch for bugs, squeeze the soil to check the  moisture content. In addition, Mr. Wilber gave us these pointers;

1. Good Seeds Wafer-thin seeds are a recipe for disaster. Look for plump, rounded seeds of an indeterminate vari­ety (which bear no gene-driven growth limits). He prefers a disease-resistant hybrid like Better Boy VFN.

2. Good Plants Mr. Wilber recommends a plant six inch­es tall with a good, solid base—at least 1/16  inch in diam­eter at the soil line. When you set your plants, pinch off all of the leaf stems except for the top pair. '    \

3. Food and Water Plant a green manure of rye or hairy vetch in the fall and till it into the soil a month before setting the plants in the spring; start a compost heap the previous season, as well. Shredded kudzu is a key ingredient in Mr. Wilber's remarkable recipe. Apply the compost in a ratio of one part compost to three parts soil. When watering plants, use rain- or pondwater—not treated town water, which Mr. Wilber believes can kill beneficial soil microbes. Water the plants every morning.

4. Control Diseases and Insects Treat the garden like an operating theater: For instance, wash your hands with antibacterial soap and prohibit smoking. When pos­sible, water and soil should Inot touch leaves so as to pre­vent soil-borne and, fungal diseases. Cover bare soil with mulch. For insects, 3 1/2-inch-tall cardboard collars protect young plants from cutworms; Austrian peas planted at the garden's perimeter distract aphids while attracting more than enough ladybugs to patrol both the peas and the tomatoes. The best defense against tomato worms is persuading birds to hang around your garden—in other words, feed them.

5. Proper Pruning The magic number is 18 branches. For the optimal yield, six lower suckers are allowed to grow and split once (12 branches) while two upper suckers are each allowed to split into three (six more branches). Pinch off unwanted suckers twice a week. Train the vines up a circu­lar cage made from concrete reinforcing mesh with six-inch squares—five feet tall with 18 vertical wires, one for each branch. Stake cages to the ground using concrete reinforc­ing bars. Additional cages can be added at the top as the plant outgrows each one (Mr. Wilber had to stack six cages for his record-breaking cherry tomato).


Tomatoes grow well in barrels using Mr. Wilber's methods, but stresses like cramped roots generally limit the plants' yields to 100 pounds or less per vine.

Never Weed Again!

STRAW MULCH IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT COMPONENTS of Charles Wilber's process. It shuts out weeds, keeps the soil underneath cool and moist, and, most important, alleviates the need for hoeing, which can destroy the root system. Here is how Mr. Wilber sets about mulching:

1 Visualize the area as a tic-tac-toe board with the center square left open.

2 Lay down large squares of wheat straw—each layer a few inches thick and about a foot square, just as it peels off the bale—in the imaginary board's outer spaces.

3 Push the blocks tight together so that weeds cannot infil­trate along the seams.

4 Set the tomato plant in the center square and cover that soil with finely chopped hay mulch about 1/2 inch deep.

SOME PEOPLE MAY THINK THAT MR. WILBER'S PROCESS requires too much effort. Mr. Wilber says that, aside from the compost and the green manure, preparing the site as he's described takes only about six hours. The rest of the season's work includes mere watering and pruning. So the next time you're pulling weeds in the hot summer sun, con­sider the double benefits of following Charles Wilber's wise counsel—a bountiful harvest and less backache. 

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