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GIY: Secrets to growing your own juicy tomatoes

I have a cunning plan to try to reduce the workload somewhat for the season ahead, writes Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Grower

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.

Too much work, not enough time

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.

Thirsty plants

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.

Sorting other issues

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 into 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.

How to transplant the plants

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).

Recipe of the Week – Rhubarb and Custard Cream Pie

shutterstock_641141356 Source: Shutterstock/Tetiana Shumbasova

This Lilly Higgins recipe from her Irish Times column takes inspiration from the classic rhubarb custard pairing and the good old-fashioned American cream pie. It’s a glorious mess of custard and cream swirled together over a bed of pink roast rhubarb, all encased in a biscuity pastry shell. The perfect spring dessert.

Ingredients

  • 500g rhubarb, chopped into 3” pieces
  • 120g sugar

For the pastry

  • 150g cold butter, diced
  • 240g plain flour
  • 30g icing sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg white, for brushing the pastry case

For the custard filling

  • 450ml milk
  • 50g custard powder
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 250ml cream, softly whipped

Directions

Preheat the oven to 180C. For the pastry put the butter, flour and sugar into a food processor and blitz until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg and blitz until a smooth dough forms. You can also do this by hand. Flatten into a disc and cover with clingfilm. Leave to rest in the fridge for 30 mins.

Place the rhubarb into an ovenproof dish. Pour over the sugar. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Roll the pastry out on a floured surface. Line a loose-bottomed 12-inch tin with the pastry. It’s fine if the edges are messy. Line the inside of the pastry shell with tin foil, press the foil against the pastry so it stays in place.

Bake blind for 10-12 minutes. Remove the tin foil and brush inside the entire pastry shell with egg white. Bake for a further 10-12 minutes until completely golden. Leave to cool slightly then remove from the tin. Using a sharp knife trim the edges so it is neat and even.

To make the custard heat the milk until almost boiling. Mix the sugar and custard powder with a little milk until it forms a smooth paste, keep whisking in the milk until it’s smooth. Return to the saucepan and bring to the boil, whisking all the time.

Remove from the heat and cool quickly in an ice basin. Place clingfilm on top of the custard. Once the custard is cool swirl it through the whipped cream. You may need to sieve it if there are any lumps.

Place the rhubarb pieces into the pastry case and top with the custard cream mix. Serve right away.

Michael Kelly is founder of GIY and GROW HQ.

Click here for more GIY tips and recipes.

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Michael Kelly  / Grower

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