Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
January, 2011
Regional Report

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Grafted tomato plants may help you grow healthier heirlooms.

A Tomato is a Tomato

I looked at my first seed catalog the other day, and it seems one of the hot new things available this year is grafted vegetable plants. Grafting basically means putting two plants together, the top of one type and the bottom of another, to make a third type of plant. Sounds kind of "out there" doesn't it?

How Grafting Works
Grafting only works on plants that are compatible, so there is little chance of success with a cucumber vine growing carrots below ground. But there have been some instances where a tomato top grows potatoes underground. This was successful because potatoes and tomatoes are closely related -- they are in the same botanical family. However, these plants don't live long and they don't produce much.

Why Grafted Tomatoes?
The main plants that are being offered right now are tomatoes grafted onto tomatoes. Now you may ask, why exactly would someone want to do that? The premise is to find a rootstock with certain desirable characteristics such as disease resistance, cold hardiness, or dwarf size. Then pick your favorite tasty top to attach and you have the best of both worlds.

Disease Resistance
The varieties offered have extremely vigorous rootstocks that are tolerant of cold and drought, and most important, are disease resistant. This allows the gardener to grow the wonderful heirloom tomatoes that taste so good, but bypasses some of the more serious problems with soil-borne disease.

Higher Yields
Breeders who are marketing these grafted tomatoes also report a twenty to thirty percent increase in yields. The higher yields make sense because you are purchasing a plant that is already fairly good-sized, so you do get a jump on the season. Plants have to have certain diameter stems before they can be grafted successfully. And, you don't lose as many tomatoes to disease.

Is the Cost Worth It?
One of the decisions to make is whether the cost is worth it. They tend to run about $7.00, which is pretty expensive for one tomato plant. Grafting is a specialized trade and labor intensive, which is why they cost so much. But, if you get more produce, especially if you intend to take it to market, then perhaps the early cost gets paid back quickly.

Is an Heirloom Still an Heirloom?
The other decision or dilemma comes for those who want to grow only heirlooms varieties. Technically a tomato is a tomato botanically, but are the old varieties whose seeds have been handed down for sometimes hundreds of years the same plants when grafted onto something different? Again, biologically, the genes of the rootstock stay with the rootstock and the genes of the flowers and fruits come only from the top portion. But this may get murky. If you save seeds from the fruits of a 'Brandywine' (heirloom) grafted onto a 'Better Boy' (hybrid) rootstock, are they really 'Brandywine' seeds? Something to think about while perusing the catalogs this winter!

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