Thursday 22 March 2018

Toms need daily care now – but the effort is worth it

The summer sun has heralded in the heavy-duty maintenance phase for our flourishing tomato plants

Tomato plants can demand daily prunings and at-depth watering sessions
Tomato plants can demand daily prunings and at-depth watering sessions

Back in early June I wrote at length about planting tomatoes. It seems appropriate to come back to toms, to talk a little more about maintenance of the plants, because the 'maintenance' phase of their growth has well and truly kicked in.

At this time of year, it feels like my polytunnel is basically a tomato house – ok, so there's other stuff growing too, but it's really all about the tomatoes.

They take up almost half the tunnel, and probably more than half the time I spend in the veg patch each day too.

Tomatoes need almost daily minding once they get a growth spurt. To my mind however, they're worth it.

Half a dozen well-maintained plants will keep a family supplied with tomatoes from July to early November. So it's worth getting it right.

And of course, then there's the flavour – once you've grown your own toms, there's no going back.

The tomato plants have taken off in the last few weeks and are now up to three feet tall, and growing by the day.

There are even some early signs of green tomatoes appearing on the vines and the plants are now in need of regular maintenance.

We are weeks away from the first ripe tomato of the season, which is one of my favourite moments of the GIY year.

At this stage, tomato maintenance is about two things: regular watering and sideshoot-pinching.

I've talked here before about the need for consistent watering with tomato plants – because they are a deeprooting plant, it's not effective to spray water at the soil (or worse, at the plant itself). The key is to get water right down to the roots. The best way to do this is to sink a container into the soil beside the plant and water that.

I use upturned two-litre milk cartons with the bottoms cut off them and the spout facing down. Watering becomes a job of simply filling the container, confident that the plant is getting exactly two litres of water where it needs it most.

Watering 'at depth' also means the plant is less vulnerable to drying out in very warm polytunnel days, because the water won't evaporate as easily as it would from the surface of the soil.

I use the same system for cucumbers.

I water the tomato plants in the tunnel this way every other day – as a rough guide, you want to give the plants about 10 litres of water per week.

Irregular watering causes fruit splitting in tomatoes – I don't know how this happens, but I do know that you want to avoid it if at all possible. So make sure to water your toms regularly.

I can get up and down the two rows of tom plants with the hose, filling each milk carton, in about five minutes. I do this first thing in the morning.

The other big maintenance job with tomatoes is 'side-shooting' – it sounds more 'gangsta' than it really is.

Sideshoots grow in the angle between the main stem and the leaf stem. They are effectively the beginnings of a new tomato plant and while that might seem kind of cool, all it does is channel the plant's energy away from tomato production.

Sideshooting, therefore, is the process of removing these sideshoots.

Letting sideshoots grow also creates a messy, dense jungle of foliage which prevents light from getting to your toms and creates an ideal environment for fungal disease.

When small, you can 'pinch' the sideshoots out with your fingers – bend them backwards and then forwards and they should break off clean.

If they are larger, use a secateurs.

A tomato plant should only ever have three core components – the main stem, leaf stems and fruit trusses.

At this time of the year, sideshoots seem to appear almost overnight and should be pinched out as soon as possible.

If you find it hard to identify the sideshoots, check out the video at, which shows how to identify and remove them.

As the plants grow, wind them around the wire or twine you are growing them up – do it carefully, as if you are too rough the stem could break.

Three other jobs of note in terms of maintenance, though it's a little early for them yet.

I generally remove the growing tip of the plant when seven fruit trusses or vines have formed. You're pushing the plant beyond the limit of its endurance if you allow it to get taller.

I also remove leaf stems below the lowest fruit truss – this helps air circulate around the base of the plants.

Finally, I give the plants a bi-weekly high potash liquid feed (comfrey tea is good) once the fruit start to set.

* Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

Irish Independent

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