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Perfect for a picnic on a summer's day – my trick for growing sweet, delicious tomatoes

Tomatoes can be tricky to grow, but they’re well worth the effort.

TOMATOES CAN BE difficult to grow well, but I think a proper watering regime is one of the keys to an abundant crop. The secret to watering tomatoes properly is that you need to water ‘deep’. A healthy tomato plant is a thirsty beast, supported by a deep root system – so in other words, there’s no point in standing there with the hose and spraying the plant or the soil around it with water. You need to get water right down where it’s needed at the roots.

The more extensive the root system, the healthier and more productive the plant will be. There’s an added benefit to a deep watering system, in that by keeping water away from the plant itself, you minimise the chance of scorch on the leaves and avoid creating the wet conditions that could attract blight.

A few years ago I happened across a handy method of deep-watering tomatoes, which involves upcycling used 2 litre milk cartons. Use a scissors to cut the base off the carton and then bury the carton, upside down, in the soil beside the plant. You can angle it slightly so that it’s ‘aiming’ at the plant and bury it deep enough so that only an inch or so of the carton is visible above the soil.

I generally do this when planting the tomatoes out in the polytunnel around May (so as not to disturb the plant’s roots later on). Since I have 24 tomato plants in the tunnel, it means stocking up on empty milk cartons a few months in advance. I also drop some gravel or small stones in to the bottom of the carton so that the water is slower to seep down in to the soil (otherwise it can run through the carton so quickly that it’s hard to tell how much water you’ve put in). As an aside, the cut base of the carton makes a perfect beer trap for slugs.

I water the plants early in the morning, using a lance (so there’s no stooping), simply walking up and down the polytunnel and filling each carton. I don’t have any hard science to back this assertion up, but I reckon giving each plant two litres of water regularly is the perfect amount to keep them vigorous and productive.

Tip of the Week – More Tomato Watering Tips

Watering tomatoes is all about balance. Under-water and you can end up with weak plants and a poor crop. Over-water and you can end up diluting the lovely sugars in the tomatoes which give them their wonderful sweetness. Water irregularly and you can end up with split fruit.

As a general rule, water only when your plants need it. Don’t get freaked out if your plants look a little wilted on a hot summer afternoon in the polytunnel or greenhouse – it’s quite normal and they generally perk up again overnight. If they look wilted in the morning however, they probably need watering straight away.

In the early stages of growth, I water every two days to encourage the root system to develop. Later on in the summer when the plants are producing fruit, I will only water every three to four days. Because of the deep watering mentioned above, the surface of the soil looks quite dry, but that’s fine – there’s plenty of water underneath for the plant to survive between watering. Deep watering also prevents waste and cuts down on the amount of water lost to evaporation in a hot polytunnel. Watering early in the day also helps.

Recipe of the Week – Barley, Strawberry and Spinach Salad

I am a huge fan of barley, which I think is a healthy, crunchy, cheaper and generally more local alternative to the likes of quinoa and cous cous. This salad shouldn’t work on the face of it – strawberries and celery? But the dressing brings it all together. You could leave out the goats cheese if you want to keep it dairy-free.

The dressing recipe is my go-to dressing for all sorts of salads – it’s simple to slap it together, so I often make twice the recipe to have it in the cupboard.


For the salad:
200g or 1 cup of pearl barley
Large handful baby spinach, roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 red onion, finely chopped
Approx 8-10 strawberries, washed and sliced
100g soft goat cheese, crumbled
50g walnuts, crumbled

For the dressing:
60ml extra virgin Olive Oil
45ml balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp grainy mustard
1/4 tsp ground black pepper


Put the barley in a saucepan, cover with water and cook for 30 minutes or until tender. Then drain well and transfer to a large salad bowl. Set aside to cool completely. Then add all the dry ingredients – spinach, celery, onion, strawberries, goat cheese and walnuts – and toss gently.

Make the vinaigrette – combine all the ingredients in a jam jar, pop on the lid and shake well. Pour it over the salad and gently toss. Serve immediately.

Things to do This Week – Keep on Sowing

As we move in to summer, many would-be GIYers believe it’s too late to sow seeds for this year.

In fact, there are still loads of vegetables that you can sow from seed including: beans (French and Runner), kale, pea, spinach, spinach beet, summer broccoli, carrot, swede, leek, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, beetroot, chicory, endive, turnip, kohlrabi, fennel.

You may also be able to get your hands on the following as seedlings in your local garden centre: leeks, Brussels Sprouts, cabbage, autumn cauliflower, calabrese, sprouting broccoli, celery, celeriac, cucumbers, pumpkin, marrows, runner beans, aubergine.

GIY’s vision is for a healthier, more connected and more sustainable world where people grow some of their own food. Each year we inspire and support over 65,000 people and 1,500 community food-growing groups and projects around Ireland, and run food-growing campaigns, events and publications.

Michael Kelly is a freelance journalist, author of ‘GROW COOK EAT’ and founder of GIY.

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