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Visitors to the Spearses’ home in Welcome want to know the secret.
How does Dennis Spears get his tomatoes plants to grow so tall?
The 25 plants, filling a patch off of the driveway, reach more than 8 feet tall, and they still have time to stretch bigger.
“You don’t need a lot of space to come up with a nice plant,” said Spears, who grows corn to make corncob pipes for his friends involved in living history events, along with kale, turnips and Roma tomatoes for the family’s meals.
The heirloom varieties of tomatoes he grows — Brandywine pinks and Florida giants — take 85 days to make it to fruition.
Spears, a retired construction worker, is happy to share his process but can’t really pinpoint why his crop is almost as high as an elephant’s eye.
He has been growing the heirloom varieties for about five years and starts the crop from seed in March — he and his wife Barbara remove, clean and dry the seeds of the biggest fruit produced by each variety, then store them away for planting in March.
First the plants are kept indoors near a picture window to get plenty of sun before they are transferred to an incubator-type box outside before they are planted in the garden.
“My grandfather grew Brandywine pinks years and years ago,” Spears said.
Arkansas transplant Amon Spears had a farm where the old Capital Center stood in Prince George’s County.
Spears and his brother would help harvest and sell the produce when they weren’t eating it right from the fields — Spears even carried miniature salt and pepper shakers with him just in case he came across a tomato he couldn’t resist.
He carries on the family tradition in his way by growing his own softball-sized tomatoes, which are given to family and friends and are canned and put up by Spears and his wife for use in the fall and winter.
“We try to eat in season and try to support local folks who sell locally grown” produce, Spears said.
His successful growing method was a lot of trial and error, he said.
Spears uses a posthole digger to ensure the seeds will be planted as deep as possible. Neighbors bring over year-old horse manure for him to use as fertilizer in the garden.
He packs lawn clippings around the base of the plants to help them retain moisture.
He makes sure the garden gets plenty of water and builds cages around each plant to help keep them growing up, not out. If a tomato rests on the ground, it rots.
“I take care of the soil and water them,” said Spears, who planted marigolds around the edges of the garden to help keep insects away and bring the bees in. “It’s a ritual.
“I seem to have the right combination down,” he said, adding that when he can’t come up with a solution he will call experts at the University of Maryland for advice, and he won’t plant before frost is out of the forecast.
“You don’t want to plant tomatoes too soon,” he said. “I never plant tomatoes before March 15. People just need to do the math. You can’t make them go faster.”
The wait is worth it, Spears said.
The varieties he grows are known for their sweet flavor.
“You pull one off the vine and taste it, nothing compares to it,” he said. “Once you’ve eaten these, you won’t want to eat any other tomato.”