How to bring your baby toms out into the open
With yields from 10lbs up to 30lbs per plant, homegrown tomatoes are a great, tasty investment, says Michael Kelly
Hurrah! It's that time of the year again when we get the tomato plants planted out.
Having grown them from seed back in February and nurtured them carefully in the warmth of the potting shed or indoors, they are now ready to go out in to the big bad world (well, the polytunnel).
Of course if you didn't get around to doing any of that, you could still buy some tomato plants in your local garden centre – they will have done all the hard work for you.
Given that a healthy tomato plant will yield between 10 and 30lbs of delicious home-grown tomatoes, they are still a great investment.
If you don't have a polytunnel, you can still grow tomato plants in your greenhouse, or even in pots or growbags in a conservatory or sunny room.
Planting out the tomatoes is one of those jobs that I like and dislike in relatively equal measures – like it because it seems to signal the start of summer proper and dislike it because, well, I am a lazy sod, and it's quite a lot of work! The reason it's so time consuming is (a) I grow way too many plants and (b) because I do all the hard work of supporting the tomato plants and putting a watering 'system' in place in advance which saves a lot of hassle down the line (and results in healthier plants).
Tomato plants are spaced 50cm apart in rows, so in my large bed in the centre of the polytunnel I can fit 20 plants (in two rows of 10).
I dedicate pretty much the entire central bed to tomatoes, but I can squeeze in four cucumbers plants in the middle of the two rows of tomatoes.
Before the tom plants get too big, I also throw in some quick growing lettuces, radishes, coriander and basil around the edges of the bed – the polytunnel beds are prime real estate! This year I am growing eight different varieties of tomato: Tigerella, Sungold, Rosada, Matina, Indigo Rose, Berner Rose, Beefsteak and Shirley.
To be on the safe side I grew about 40 plants in total so I have a load of surplus (to be bartered at the next GIY meeting I hope).
I only have space in the tunnel for four each of Tigerella and Sungold, and two each of the others.
I have mentioned here before that Tigerella and Sungold are my two favourite tomato varieties – wonderful little balls of intense sweetness.
Up to last weekend the central bed in the tunnel still had oriental greens in it – these were sown last autumn and served us well all winter and spring, but they were long since past their best and in the last two weeks had bolted and run to flower.
I had been meaning to take them out for weeks, but I convinced myself that our bees were still enjoying the beautiful yellow flowers (which they were) and that I was still enjoying an occasional munch of the leaves (which I wasn't really – I had moved on to the fresher harvest to be enjoyed from new season greens).
Having cleared the bed last weekend, I got three big barrow loads of compost to rejuvenate the bed.
Tomato plants are hungry, so make sure the soil you plant them in is well fed with compost or well-rotted manure.
Regular feeding during the season with a comfrey tea or commercial liquid tomato feed will also be necessary to help those lovely fruits develop and mature.
So, here's my routine for planting tomato plants.
First of all, about an hour before planting, I give them a good watering to make sure the soil in the pots is nice and moist and won't crumble when I remove the plants from the pot.
I lay all the plants in their pots on the ground to decide on the spacing.
I am a neat freak, so I space them carefully to make sure they are in a straight line and use a tape measure to make sure they are 50cm apart (nerd alert).
Then, for each tomato plant I dig a large hole – I hang a piece of garden wire down from the polytunnel roof bar and drop it in to the hole.
Then the tomato plant is taken out of its pot carefully, placed on top of the wire in the hole, and the hole is backfilled with soil, burying the wire and anchoring it in place.
As the plant grows up it can be gently wound around the wire.
I find wire is better than twine for the job – a few years ago I used twine and found it to be weak when wet or if there's too much of a load on it.
It's not pretty when the twine snaps and a fully-laden tomato plant collapses in a heap on the ground.
The wire is reusable year on year if you wind it up again at the end of the 'tom' season (hopefully, November).
Having planted the tom plant, I also put the watering 'system' in place.
Now, listen carefully, because this tom watering system is a highly-technical and highly-expensive piece of kit – ok, well not really.
It's a two-litre milk carton, with the bottom cut off, and buried spout down in the soil beside the plant.
I've been collecting them for months.
When watering the plants, one simply fills the carton with water.
Tomato plants are deep rooting, so this will really help ensure they get two litres of water right down to the roots.
If you don't have milk cartons, you can sink a 10cm pot in the soil instead.
Repeat 20 times and you're done! It will probably be six to eight weeks before I get my first tom of the season, but at least we're on the homeward stretch now.
* Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces and Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.