GIY Weekly Column March 24th 2018

Tomatoes need a bit of TLC but they are so worth it.

This week's article mirrors this week's episode of GROW COOK EAT. Mick and Karen grew tomatoes from scratch, talked about soil fertility and visited a commercial tomato grower, Grantstown nurseries. Find out more about episode 2 of GROW COOK EAT. 

I’ve been taking some steps to sort out the big polytunnel and get it ready for the season ahead.  Regular readers might recall that two years ago we got a new, larger polytunnel to go in the field beside our house to supplement the smaller tunnel we have in the garden.  The acquisition of a commercial tunnel was ostensibly to satisfy my tomato growing fetish which is an increasingly alarming part of my overall growing obsession.

Last year I grew around 75 tomato plants there, but like most growers I was battling the twin evils of too much work and not enough time. Such problems are compounded considerably when you have a massive commercial polytunnel filled with tomato plants. We struggled with weeding and watering all season long (though I did seem to stay on top of the harvesting and sauce-making).  Thankfully we had some help from intrepid neighbours John and Bridget, who helped with watering and side-shooting duties in exchange for regular stashes of tomatoes, French beans and fresh eggs.

I have a cunning plan to try to reduce the workload somewhat for the season ahead.  Firstly, I am going to grow the tomato plants through Mypex (a tough weed control membrane that suppresses the growth of weeds by blocking the light but still allows water and nutrients to reach plants) which should eliminate the weed problem. 

Secondly, I am going to invest in a proper seep-hose watering system so that I don’t have to water each plant.  Tomatoes are thirsty plants requiring up to 11 litres of water per week (per plant).  Typically, I’ve done that watering every other day (a few litres to each plant), which is obviously tremendously time-consuming.  At HQ our Head Grower Richard turns on the seep hose system once a week instead.  This being Richard, he’s worked out how long it takes to deliver around 11 litres to each plant with the seep hose – it’s about 2 hours. 

Before I lay down the Mypex I have to sort out the fertility in the soil, adding some dried seaweed and poultry manure pellets to ensure the tomatoes have enough feed to see them through their 6 months in the soil.  Apart from an occasional comfrey tea feed during the summer, they shouldn’t require any other feeding. The dried seaweed and poultry pellets will be sprinkled on the surface, and raked in, before laying the seep hose and the Mypex on top.  Thankfully I have some time still to get this job done – the tomato plants were only sown in mid Feb and are still growing in the toasty warmth of the potting shed.  They will not be going out in to the polytunnel until May at the earliest.

I’ve also been sorting some other issues over the last few weeks.  I had a few tears in the plastic to fix (with an adhesive polytunnel tape – available from most good polytunnel suppliers) and a new door to put on (the old one blew off in storm Ophelia).  I also got a trench dug around the tunnel to fix a drainage problem due to really poor soil – after heavy rain the paths inside the tunnel would fill up with water.  I was always torn between feeling this was a terrible thing, and perhaps a good thing in terms of reducing the amount of watering needed!  All the work will be worth it when the first tomatoes start to make their way to the kitchen in around mid July..  It better be..

Things to Do This Week – Transplant Tomatoes

If you sowed tomatoes in pots in February they should have germinated and be ready to move on by now.  Though you can sow tomato seeds directly in to module trays, if I have the time I will generally start them off in pots (10 seeds to a 9cm pot) and then transplant them in to module trays about a month later.  The point of this is to effectively reset the clock on the soil fertility, bearing in mind that most potting compost only has 6-8 weeks of fertility in it. 

The best time to transplant a tomato seedling is just a few weeks after it has germinated, when it’s large enough to handle, but before the roots of the seedlings have started to tangle up in each other.  Half fill a module tray with potting compost.  Hold the seedling by the leaf, being careful not to touch or damage the root to stem, and ease it out of the pot from underneath using a plant label.  Pop the seedling in to a module in the module tray and then carefully add more compost around it, firming it in gently.  Don’t forget to label the module so you know what variety is in it.  Give it a gentle watering and leave it somewhere warm and sunny (a sunny windowsill indoors or a heated propagation bench).