Eat This

What’s That You Say? Grafted Tomatoes?

I've been hearing about these newfangled grafted tomatoes.  The promise of an heirloom tomato grown on modern, disease-resistant rootstock sounded almost too good to be true. And more than one tomato variety grafted onto a single rootstock?  Whoa.  

Here's Ann Lovejoy to tell us more.  And yes, there's a giveaway–tell us why YOU would most benefit from grafted tomatoes and Log House Plants will ship you some!  Yes, it's a little late in the season, but come on, you can make room for a few more tomatoes, right?  Have an adventure! OK, here's Ann:

Gardening here in the maritime Northwest is fabulous if you want to grow perennials. For years now, my favorite hobby has been orchestrating year-long sequences of bloom involving everything I currently find appealing, from calendulas to the geekiest of Latin-only rarities. That is very pleasant indeed, but growing food can be really challenging unless I stick with cool climate crops like Black Dragon kale and broccoli raab. As it happens, we eat a ton of greens, which appreciate our chilly springs, delayed summers, and early autumns. We also look forward all year to homegrown tomatoes, which just hate our cold nights and foggy mornings. Even using water-filled cage wraps, I'm most successful with fast-ripening cherry and grape tomatoes, or modestly sized slicers like Oregon Spring or Stupice (if it ripens in Siberia, where it was hybridized, it had better ripen here). Some years, I end up with lots of chutney and fried green tomatoes no matter what I try.

That's why I jumped at the chance to grow grafted tomatoes, which until this summer have only been available in the U.S. to commercial growers. Grafted grapes, roses and fruit trees are familiar to most gardeners; grafted tomatoes may sound weird, but they make total sense. Since the most delicious tomatoes are often weak and disease prone (especially in iffy climates), grafting partners those awesome heritage varieties with productive, disease resistant rootstocks. Now we get bigger, great tasting crops on healthier, vigorous plants with greater tolerance for seasonal temperature swings, extending the growing season in both directions.

Grafted tomatoes

That gives backyard gardeners like me a chance to produce enough tomatoes to can our own sauce, the way you could in, say, Ohio, where summer means something. Commercial organic growers also appreciate the robust health of grafted tomatoes, since they crop more heavily and need little or no pesticide treatments. Grafted tomatoes are also less susceptible to heat, cold, flooding, air- and soil-borne diseases, and salt damage (a seaside and sometime soil issue) and resist the revolting early and late blights that thrive in maritime climates, including mine. In Asia and Europe, grafted vegetables are so common that commercial growers use plant-specific grafting robots to match the tiny scions (the top bit) with the baby rootstocks.

Tomatoes are usually grafted when both scion and rootstock seedlings produce their first set of true leaves, which makes for extremely fiddly work. Each tiny stem must be sliced at the proper angle, then neatly mated with its partner. Next, they get clamped with a wee bit of tubing to hold them together as they heal, which takes days (sometimes weeks) in carefully controlled environments. Its not at all surprising that the first grafted tomato plants available to American gardeners come from Log House Plants, a wholesale nursery in Cottage Grove, Oregon thats been run as a multi-family coop for thirty years. Co-owner Alice Doyle is renowned in the nursery industry for innovative ideas and her world-wide researches (tough job, no doubt) allow Log House to introduce a lot of the coolest new plants.

After seeing grafted tomatoes growing on Crete, Alice decided that Log House Plants had to offer them in the States. No robot are involved, and through thoughtful trial and error, Log House folks have developed grafting, healing and acclimatization procedures into a lively art.

Graft closeup

If you give grafted tomatoes a try, do not follow the usual practice of deep planting or mulching, since roots formed on the scion lack the advantages the rootstock brings to the union. Keep the graft well above ground and pinch off any shoots from beneath the graft. Handle grafted plants gently and cage or stake them well, providing ample support to avoid damaging the graft. Feed and water as usual, pruning off excess foliage to direct more energy to fruiting. I favor a combination of liquid kelp extract, guano, and a moderate (5-5-5) fertilizer, with an occasional dose of fish emulsion. This year, I'm also taking a tip from Rutgers University and giving my tomatoes a single dose of seawater (inlanders can use SEA-90 instead).

I'm trying out a pair of grafted combos–meaning two varieties grafted onto one rootstock–with Rose and Moonglow in one pot, and Brandywine Red and Brandywine Yellow in another. I'm eagerly tracking the ripening of the first tiny fruit (none of my ungrafted tomatoes have even bloomed yet). Now if the sun would just burn through the clouds….

Grafted moonglow combo

Okay, folks!  Want to give grafted tomatoes a try? Log House Plants wants to send you some! Dazzle us with your cleverness–or your desperation.  We'll pick a winner by this weekend.

Posted by on July 14, 2010 at 5:16 am, in the category Eat This.
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26 Responses to “What’s That You Say? Grafted Tomatoes?”

  1. Jeane says:

    Every year I battle disease on my heirloom tomatoes- I’d love to try a grafted one!

  2. Kaviani says:

    I would benefit because I haven’t been able to keep a single tomato plant that actually fruited alive for more than 4 months since 2000. I DO have one very lush brandywine growing marvelously, but it won’t fruit! Tomatoes are the one nightshade that hate me.

  3. Jade Rubick says:

    This probably is not that difficult to do yourself. I’ve seen a lot of YouTube videos on it.

    The basic strategy would be the same as if you are grafting trees, but probably the closest analogy would be grafting the new growth of grapes.

    The idea is that there is a little layer of cells underneath the “skin” of the stem, called the cambium layer. If you can get the cells to match in the rootstock and the new variety, and can prevent the plant from dying in the process, it should “take”, and grow.

    I’ll probably give this a try next year, and blog about it on Plantworking.com

    You probably could still graft the tomatoes even when they got larger (not just at the seedling stage). The advantage of that approach is you could use a newly emerging shoot, and if it didn’t work, you could fall back on the “rootstock” variety.

    I imagine this surgery does set back your growth a week or two, so you would probably start your tomatoes a few weeks earlier than usual.

    It’s cool that they’re offering these grafted tomatoes for sale.

  4. Carol says:

    I grew up and garden in Indiana so until this fancy thing called the Internet came along and I started to correspond with other gardeners not from around here, I had no idea that everyone couldn’t grow tomatoes like we can. We just plant ‘em, wait a bit, then pick ‘em. So easy… unless of course we have a dry summer, or a late blight infestation, or don’t watch for tomato hornworms, or have fluctuating rain/dry spells causing blossom end rot, or some critter takes a bite out of each one before we can pick them. Other than that, tomatoes are relatively easy to grow here.

    BUT… if you would like a control group to compare grafted to not grafted, I’m your gardener!

  5. Susan Sims says:

    Well, it’s too late for this season. Oh well. I’ll have to keep this in mind for next year, especially if they have a plant with Rose grafted on it. Rose is sooo yummy. There is sooo much potential here. Last year I sharecropped a part of my Aunt’s nearby garden and planted out 8! Brandywines for the purposes of canning. At first, it was terrific, Brandywines! Yay! Yum! But soon, it became pretty tedious a pickin’ and a skinnin’ those funky little Brandywines. And the sauce was kind of one dimensional. Fortunately, a neighbor had overplanted some cherry tomatoes and others which I readily picked and used to add dimension to the sauce. I determined to buy several packets of seeds and only grow a couple of plants of each, but there are so many tomatoes and so little space around here. My Aunt’s garden is a 5 minute drive away, and I can only grow two or three plants on my postage stamp sized space here. But when you are canning 30 quarts of tomatoes, you need a lot of tomatoes. And who wants to pay for them when you can grow your own? I will definitely look these folks up.

  6. Matt says:

    Ooh…I’d love to give a frakenmater a try in the garden. July is round two of tomato planting season here in Austin, TX. It’s a little tricky getting the starts through the 100 degree heat of the summer – I wonder if the better root stock would be an advantage?

  7. Pat says:

    Ann Lovejoy makes a reference to “Ohio where summers mean something.” Yes, we have tomato-friendly summer here, but we also have every extreme in heat and moisture, disease and pest that are decidedly tomato-unfriendly. The benefits of tougher rootstock, could help even us.

  8. Benita says:

    There once was a gardener named Benita
    Whose tomatoes couldn’t be sweeta,
    Except that they grew
    with a Puget Sound view
    So fruit, NOT blossoms, she needa!

    My very bad limerick aside, I live in Bellingham, WA, and we typically don’t get hot until 7/5 and then it rains on 7/9, 12, 20, etc. so it’s hard to get a great harvest. If you could kindly send me some plants, I will be so very grateful–and so will my family, who is tired of handing me a hankie every time it rains.

  9. anne says:

    Holy Cannoli, you may have solved one of my biggest problems in trying out different types of tomatoes: Not enough room in the garden. I too live in the Pacific Northwest, but slightly east of the Cascades, so my “tomato machine” kicks in around August, and if I’m lucky it produces ripe tomatoes into October. But I don’t have enough room to devote to many different types of tomatoes, so I have to make difficult decisions in the Spring about which to plant, if I want to grow other vegetables too. A “combo graft” or 2 makes great sense–I would love to give it a whirl, anyway!

  10. Alexson says:

    Wow! As a gardening amateur, I was shocked to find out about grafted flowers. Grafted tomatoes is, like, blowin’ my mind, man! Gotta try some!

  11. Tibs says:

    “frakenmater” Snicker-Snort. I “grafted” a tomato plant back in my early teen years. I was hoeing the family garden and knocked over a tomato plant. It looked like it was bowing, hanging by a thread upside down. What to do what to do. (You would think I had the meanest parents in the world the way I was totally freaking about this accident, not the case at all). I ran into the house, grabbed a piece of scotch tape and taped it up. It grew and produced. Wonder if this would work as a grafting technique?

  12. Hoover says:

    If I win I will promise to donate ALL the fruit to the local food bank. There are a lot of people in trouble these days and some fresh tomatoes will always cheer people up.

  13. Laura Bell says:

    Would I love the season-extension in my home garden ? And increased disease resistance on yummy tomatoes to boot ? You bet your sweet marinara I would ! But alas, I don’t have a spot for them in my teeny-tiny garden.

    However …

    I’m coordinator for the garden at my kiddos’ K-8 school. And though the current space is brimming with veggies, we’ve just been told the building is unsafe to occupy (earthquake safety-wise) & must move the entire school to a new location.

    Poof ! There go all my plans for introducing the school children to the joy of homegrown tomatoes (our budget is toast at this point). Unless, of course, I won these “frankenmaters” (priceless, Matt !). I could get them in the ground before the first day & we’d be well on our way to that teaching garden we’ve dreamt of. Since we can often harvest tomatoes into mid-October or later, the kids would indeed get to observe & enjoy them for a long time.

    We could use the grafted tomatoes to teach students about plant structures & reproduction, soil health, the importance of knowing what you are eating … the possibilities are nearly overwhelming.

    Added bonus : Many of our staff are avid gardeners. Seeing the success of grafted tomatoes in the school garden would certainly make them want to seek out & purchase the same for their home gardens !

  14. luise h. says:

    I would love to try them.Last years Tomato crop was THE worst ever.Between the blight and a supersize population of whiteflies I decided that heirloom Tomatoes are not for me.(hand me the Kleenex,please)The fruit,all five of them,were barely edible.But,if I could grow them and actually have edible Tomatoes…..For that I would even take fieldnotes on a daily basis.

  15. ann lovejoy says:

    Alexson is right that homemade grafts can work; I’ve used duct tape, stretchy electrician’s tape, and even old pantyhose (OK, that was long, long ago) to keep grafts together on a wide range of plants over the years and most of them work fairly well surprisingly often.
    You can certainly give tomato grafting a try, and if you check out the Log House Plant website, you’ll find a terrific collection of links and articles that will be very helpful. The issue is matching the root stock with the scion; not all partnerships are compatible, timing is important, and plants are quite vulnerable during the healing period.

    It’s so embarrassing to be an American gardener who can’t ripen tomatoes, so having grafted plants available is a huge gift. Good luck, all!

    Ann

  16. In Florida, our tomatoes usually stop producing fruit at the beginning of July, because the night-time temps are above 70 degrees, but we can grow a second crop in the fall, but I’ve not been successful in producing a fall crop. Maybe a grafted tomato would be just the ticket!

  17. Daisey says:

    My husband and I are trying to become more and more self sufficient in the food category.Being I’m disabled due to health constraints every little penny counts. Every year we try to get the veggie garden to be bigger with the hopes we’ll have enough to freeze/store to last through our long winters here in the New Hampshire. This is the first year we did our plants all from seed being it is cost effective. Well, to our dismay, everything seemed to be going well enough except the tomato plants. The cherry tomato plants still look like bonsai plants…and the big tomatoes..never made it to seedling stage. Don’t know what went wrong… The grafted tomatoes sound like a great idea. Strong root stock is what the tomato plant we ended up buying really needs. Even being supported on both sides the branches are breaking with the weight of the tomatoes. I doubt the plant will last long enough for a decent harvest.
    I’d have to truly see it to believe it that this whole grating thing really works and works long term. You see, I have bought other plants that were grafted…Rose bushes were among my favorites. After 2 years of blooming beautifully I got the shock of my gardening heart. This year both bushes had loads of buds on them(I was so excited about seeing them in bloom) but, when they bloomed, they were not the bushes I had bought but some completely different plant. One had white flowers which at least smelled like roses but my favorite, the violet rose bush, turned into an ugly really ugly red colored rose which doesn’t have even a hint of rose sent. And these were roses from reputable growers… So, it would be interesting to see if, in fact, this grafting thing can really work…Will all the tomatoes be the grafted variety or would the rootstock take over…Make me a believer and I’ll tell everyone.

  18. air jordans says:

    Experience is the child of thought , and thought is the child of action. We cannot learn men from books.

  19. Kay S says:

    Although I have not tried it yet, there is an article in the June/July 2010 Mother Earth News on tomato grafting. The article also mentions that North Carolina State University has a guide to tomato grafting.

  20. Christiana says:

    I’d love to try them! My tomato plants were savagely attacked by our neighbors cat. Why? I have no idea :(

  21. K says:

    Can we vouch for somebody else’s need?

    I live in Chicago now, working for a horticultural company, but I volunteered on an upstart organic heirloom farm last summer called Happy Cat Organics out of Kennett Square, PA.

    These past couple of years, late blight has ravaged their crop EARLY in the season. It has really crippled their company’s growth and I, among many others, would love to send any opportunity to thrive their way.

    A chance to try hardier, grafted heirlooms could provide them with a viable production option to test.

    I’d never eaten a tomato like an apple until I got my hands on their green zebras and black krims. I don’t want the heirloom producers to disappear from our communities!

  22. Jackie says:

    I would love to try a grafted tomato! Living on the central coast of CA really limits my ability to grow them, so a grafted variety might work. I couldn’t find any for sale on the Log House website?

  23. Ingrid Griffin says:

    I would love to try these tomatoes. I’m relatively new to vegetable gardening and grew my first heirloom tomato this year. I didn’t realize it was an heirloom till I noticed the color and sizes of the tomatoes and did some searching on the web. Those are absolutely without a doubt the most tastiest tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. They may not be the prettiest, and did give me some trouble, but YUM! I could eat them plain or just have a tomato sandwich. No need for the BL in a BLT, not with heirloom tomatoes. I’ve saved some seeds to try again this fall, but would love to experiment with other types too. I would especially love to try a grafted one and compare to see the differences. Great article, thanks!

  24. Lorrie says:

    Thank you Log House Plants for working on this project. I am hopelessly determined to grow some heirloom tomatoes in my newly fenced (and deer protected) garden in the foothills of southwest Washington. We have endured record rainfall this year, cooler weather in my higher elevation, and I hope to have finally amended my horrible clay soil enough to support a happy harvest.

  25. carpetbag_garden says:

    Oh heck, I live in South Carolina, ’nuff said!

    Seriously, though, I have 8 heirloom tomato plants in my community garden. They’ve been planted since April. Not a SINGLE tomato yet. The plants are pathetic, barely growing and the leaves are all curled. You can’t blame it on drought–we’ve had so much rain my melons are splitting before they ripen. My melons are great–I’ve got 4 different kinds of cantaloupe in my fridge now–and I’ve got cucumbers coming out my ears. Why, then, do the tomatoes just suck?

    I’m guessing it’s nematodes because my soil report came back from the Extension Service and it said pH and nutrients were excellent. Or it could be the 95+ degree heat we’ve had every day for the last 2 months (they say high heat shuts down tomatoes).

    People warned me not to try to grow tomatoes in South Carolina, but there is nothing better than eating a ripe tomato right off the vine and still warm from the sun!

  26. I just wanted to say: I MISS ANN LOVEJOY’S COLUMNS!!! Ann, please tell us where we can find your work on a regular basis these days, since the PI’s garden columns are history, and your personal blog went poof. The world needs your writing, even still.

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