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Family's 2-Pound Tomato More Than an 'Heirloom'

Coviello brothers saved and stored tomato seeds for more than 10 years until they developed an original and unique vegetable.

For Mike and Peter Coviello, the owners of Coviello Bros. on Main Street in Madison, horticulture is more than a way to make a living. It's also a passionate hobby.

On a tract of land the family owns in Florham Park, the brothers and their family members not only grow some of the products they sell at their Main Street storefront, but also do some personal growing for their own use and pleasure. One of the tomato plants they grow has created some buzz in the horticultural community.

Mike Coviello said he and his brother have grown an heirloom tomato plant each year for at least the last 10 years.

"Every year we pick up the seeds and store them for the next year," Mike said, though he declined to share how the brothers store the seeds.

Over time, Coviello's heirloom tomato has become its own original variety, which they have named Rose of Italy after their mother, Rosaria.

The Rose of Italy tomato has its own characteristics, including a larger-than-usual size and weight. One such tomato, picked on Friday, July 27, weighed 2 pounds, 5.2 ounces and measured 5.75 inches by 6.5 inches.

Photographs of the plant show tomatoes which have yet to ripen could be even larger than this first yield.

"Every year it gets bigger and bigger," Mike said, "and how do you know? Next year it could be even bigger."

When asked what the secret of growing such large tomatoes, Peter Coviello, a resident, said, "When you plant anything in fresh soil with good drainage, you have everything you need."

These tomato plants are grown in a planter with 18 inches of soil with drainage out the bottom. The plant stretches 66 inches high and 36 inches across. "They're growing like weeds," Peter said.

Peter Nitzsche is the county agricultural agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Morris County. He plans to take some of the seeds from the Coviello brothers' plant and grow them at Rutgers.

When a member of the Chatham Borough Community Garden told Nitzsche about the Coviello brothers' tomato, he agreed to include it in Rutgers' annual grow-out.

"We do a tasting each year where we grow both varieties and hybrids," Nitzsche said. Using Coviello's seeds from this year's tomatoes, Nitzsche said he will "grow some out and compare them, see if it’s a good variety, see if the large size has to do with genetics or if it’s the way he’s growing, as an environment."

The study will compare and contrast the Rose of Italy tomato with other heirloom varieties. "It’s not going to be a huge trial off the bat, we're just going to grow a few plants," Nitzsche said.

"For heirloom tomatoes, this is commonly how they’re kept or discovered. Sometone saves seeds over time, and it leads to a better fruit and people develop a better variety that way. So we do a tasting each year where wer grow both varieties and hybrids," Nitzsche said.

Heirloom tomatoes are often self-pollinated, though purposeful cross-pollination is also common. "However, there will be genetic diversity from that cross, so you’d have to save the better seeds from that cross," Nitzsche said. For example, "If there's medium and large plants [from the cross-pollination] and you pick only the large, over time you clean up that variety."

For Mike Coviello, his efforts over the years were "for love of tomatoes," he said, "for pride in what we did."

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