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Titans from the vine

By: Gloria Young, Reporter
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What do you do with a six-pound tomato? It’s bragging rights for a Newcastle gardener, who describes his 5.91 pounder as one for the record books in California.

Austin Murphy recently harvested the Big Zac variety, which he has been tending since February.

“They have a genetic predisposition to throw a mega bloom,” he said. “It is a huge flower with many tomatoes fused together. That’s what allows them to get this large. It is one huge tomato, but should have been several. The flowers are sometimes the size of a golf ball.”

It was a labor-intensive process. Murphy began with 12 plants, after purchasing the seeds in an online auction at bigpumpkins.com.

“I started them indoors under high-powered LED lights,” he said.

After about a month, he transferred the plants to an outdoor domed greenhouse.

“(You need to plant) a lot of them because there is some failure rate,” he explained. “One or two will have a problem. They will rot in a weird spot.”

And timing is crucial.

“You grow one tomato on each plant,” he explained. “If you cut off the wrong one, you are done. You’ll find the one that’s most promising after letting it grow for a couple of days. If you let it go too long, it takes off energy and gives it to other blooms.”

Once he knew he had what he describes as “a keeper,” it was a matter of extreme pruning.

“Any suckers between the leaf nodes, you cut off immediately,” Murphy said.

He grew the tomatoes in 40-gallon fabric pots and used a “huge array of fertilizers.”

“Every week I’d make a big batch of fertilizer that had 15 different kinds,” he explained. “I put it on all the plants — a liter per plant. Then every other week, I put on a batch of compost tea.”

When the behemoth was full grown, Murphy took it to the Raley’s supermarket in Loomis to weigh and photograph it.

“It had to be photographed on a certified scale,” he said.

The previous official record in California was 4.99 pounds, with the unofficial state record at 5.71 pounds, he said.

He has submitted the form and photo to the Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth for authentication.

“I know it beats past records,” he said. “The results are posted at the end of the year. As of right now, (my tomato) is the largest grown in California.”

He doesn’t plan to eat the tomato. Instead, he’s going to extract the seeds for next year.

“Sometimes there are not many seeds and sometimes there are hundreds,” he said. “I just opened a two-pound tomato that only had two seeds in it.”

Although traditional tomato season runs from July into fall, that’s not the case if you are trying to  set a record.

“I started them early on purpose to keep the temperature as close to 85 degrees for as long as I could,” he said. “Now it is too hot for them (to reach optimal growth).”

He’s already planning for next year, with sights set on the world record of 8.61 pounds (grown by Dan Sutherland, Walla Walla, Washington, according to Guinness World Records).

“I have always been fascinated by giant pumpkins,” Murphy said. “I didn’t know growing giant tomatoes was a real sport until I saw on Amazon that there were books on how to grow them. I bought some books and read them and drew up my own plan to grow the biggest one in California. That was my whole goal.”

Murphy is a hobby farmer who works as a designer for a construction company. He grew up in the Antelope area and moved to Newcastle two years ago.