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Grafted Tomato Plants -- New thing for Gardeners

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Grafted tomatoes have gardeners' spirits soaring

 

By Virginia A. Smith, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED: April 01, 2013

 

For tomato-lovers, it doesn't get much better than this: a plant that combines the famous taste of heirlooms like Cherokee Purple and Brandywine with the traditional high yields and disease resistance of hybrids.

 

This dreamy marriage has brought forth the grafted tomato, which tests show has a longer, healthier growing season and tastier fruit, with as much as 50 to 75 percent more tomatoes a season.

 

"It's one of the hot issues, and it makes sense right here and now," said Chelsey E. Fields, vegetable product manager for W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the home gardening giant in Warminster, one of a growing number of companies that are jumping into the grafted-vegetable market.

 

This spring, for the first time, Burpee will sell 10 varieties of grafted tomatoes at garden centers in the Philadelphia/South Jersey region and across the country.

 

The process is simple: The heirloom top, or scion, is spliced onto the hybrid's rootstock using razor cuts. A plastic clip holds the graft in place until the two pieces have grown together. The resulting plant looks just like an heirloom, but with way more vigor.

 

Sounds great to Lyn Hecker, an experienced gardener in Southampton Township, Burlington County, who grows 70 tomato plants a year, many of them heirlooms she nurtures from seed.

 

"The problem is, heirlooms don't hold up as well as hybrids," she says. "Now if you graft them, they will."

 

Tomatoes are considered heirloom if they're at least 50 years old, often much older, and naturally pollinated. They're famous for their distinctive flavor and quirky colors and shapes.

 

With the boom in home vegetable gardening, and heightened interest in fresh, local food, they've become wildly popular at farmers markets and restaurants. But in the backyard, they are prone to cracking and disease, and not known for producing truckloads of fruit.

 

Hybrids are crossbred tomatoes. They're generally tougher, have a more uniform shape, and generate more fruit, although many - not all - tomato aficionados prefer the heirlooms' taste. (Three delicious tomatoes - Early Girl, Sweet 100, and Sun Gold - are all hybrids.)

 

Two other factors brought the idea of grafted tomatoes to the fore, according to Fields: weather extremes over the last few years that stressed or killed tomatoes and the late blight epidemic of 2009, which destroyed commercial and homegrown crops across the country.

 

"It really brought people's attention to how quickly you can lose everything," Fields said. "Not just that, but the increasing number of stories about plant diseases and viruses.

 

"Grafted tomatoes are just having their time now."

 

An ancient technique that dates to the origins of agriculture, grafting is now used around the world on a long list of vegetables and fruits, ornamental trees and plants. Heirloom tomatoes are a relative - but promising - newcomer.

 

For the last few years, Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, has been supplying hybrid tomato seeds for grafted rootstock to growers. And demand is building fast.

 

"It makes sense, especially if you're growing in a greenhouse, which costs so much to heat," said Johnny's researcher Stephen Bellavia, who's also experimenting with grafted cucumbers. "With grafted tomatoes, you get a much bigger yield."

 

Territorial Seed Co. in Cottage Grove, Ore., is selling grafted tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. "Customers appreciate the fact that grafted plants can be planted earlier, and withstand cooler temperatures and more difficult conditions like we have in the Northwest," said marketing coordinator Tim Russell.

 

Because labor expenses are higher - grafting is done by hand - consumers will pay a few dollars extra per plant or more, depending on the variety.

 

But early buyers haven't seemed troubled by cost.

 

In 2011, Burpee offered online only limited quantities of six grafted tomatoes. They sold out practically overnight. In 2012, more plants were added, the same six varieties, online and by catalog. By season's end, every plant was gone.

 

This spring, Burpee will sell its 10 "Bumper Crop" grafted varieties, three for $22.95 - online, in the catalog, and in garden centers: Black Krim, Big Rainbow, Brandywine Pink and Red, Cherokee Purple, Gardener's Delight, Mortgage Lifter, Rutgers, San Marzano, and Yellow Pear. (Garden centers are listed at www.burpeehomegardens.com.)

 

While none can withstand the airborne spores of late blight, the grafted varieties either tolerate or resist soil-based problems, such as spotted wilt virus, tomato yellows, tobacco mosaic virus, nematodes, verticillium and fusarium wilt, and several kinds of rot.

 

As wonderful as that is, and as much as she loves heirlooms, Hecker said she probably won't be buying any of the new plants for her South Jersey garden. The reason is simple: "I'm too cheap," she said.

 

So Scott Guiser, an educator with the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Bucks County, has a suggestion. "For my money, there are some relatively new hybrids that work just fine," he said, one being Burpee's Brandy Boy, a hybrid of the Brandywine heirloom.

 

"It gives you a respectable yield, it has a uniform shape, and if you lose a little flavor, it's still a high-quality tomato - and it's cheaper than buying grafted plants," Guiser said.

 

He thinks grafted tomatoes may be oversold but concedes they're bound to be the talk of the garden set in 2013.

 

"Home gardening is for fun," he said, "so if I see one of those grafted plants, I'm going to stick one in and see what happens."

 

Contact Virginia A. Smith

 

at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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This was on the front page of our local fishwrap, the Philadelphia Inquirer, yesterday. And it's an interesting story: could grafting be a way to get the taste of a true heirloom tomato, but with the yield of a hybrid?

 

I for one will be finding out this year: I will be planting grafted tomatoes next month. This is partly because of a desire to try something new, but is mostly because I've been a total slacker this year, and busy with other stuff, and never got around to starting my tomato seeds. We'll see if Burpee's grafted Black Krim and Mortgage Lifter varieties live up to the hype they've been getting.

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Grafting tomato plants has been around for quite a few years...... the rootstocks are becoming more available with a wider choice, but rootstock seed is VERY EXPENSIVE ( 50 seeds typically run $20-$30).  The process is not difficult but does take practice.  I have found the grafting clips pictured below to increase my success rate.



 



 



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I have seen grafted tomato plants used in greenhouse production much more than field production. In the field I have had more vigorous plants with slightly higher yields, but I did find that the season was extended.  The claims of disease resistance may be a bit overblown...as the late blight wiped out my grafted plants as well as non-grafted, it just took a little longer.  The additional cost to raise rootstock alongside preferred varieties and the added time and planning may be worth it....I will continue to graft a portion of my tomatoes as an experiment.  It is a new aspect to gardening............



 



Good luck with your grafted plants and please report back with your results!   


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The WR watermelon was grown on a grafted plant last year. Was grafted to either a giant pumpkin or long gourd plant can't remember which one. But at over 300lbs it seems their on to something.

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Quote:

Originally Posted by skinnywater View Post

The WR watermelon was grown on a grafted plant last year. Was grafted to either a giant pumpkin or long gourd plant can't remember which one. But at over 300lbs it seems their on to something.



 



 Hey Skinny,



      The world record watermelon was grown on a grafted vine... (Lagenaria sp.  a gourd which is distantly related) ... Some giant vegetable competitors believe in the "one plant from one seed without modifications" route for a true world record, but the governing committee says that grafting is not against the rules....partially because there is no way to enforce this rule.  



Another way to look at it is that the watermelon is genetically 100% watermelon so grafted entries should count, a watermelon is a watermelon no matter how it is produced.........



 



This is an on going debate among giant vegetable growers....



 



 But it does open up a world of possibilities for home gardeners!!!!!


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I've toyed with the idea, not so much with using disease resistant rootstock - no desire to have to start 2 plants for every 1. if I was goign to go through the trouble I'd just plant 2 tomatoes and probably get an even higher yield than a single grafted plant. where space is an absolute premium I got it, just not my situation.

 

i do like the idea of grafting a couple different varieties into a single plant though, like they do with some fruit trees.

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I've toyed with the idea, not so much with using disease resistant rootstock - no desire to have to start 2 plants for every 1. if I was goign to go through the trouble I'd just plant 2 tomatoes and probably get an even higher yield than a single grafted plant. where space is an absolute premium I got it, just not my situation.

 

i do like the idea of grafting a couple different varieties into a single plant though, like they do with some fruit trees.

 

I like it because my space is indeed finite. I have only one raised bed that I can use for tomatoes each season (we have a couple of beds, but we gotta rotate, to prevent the tomato wilts, and therefore I end up with only one bed per growing season for love apples).

 

And while I adore my beloved heirloom tomatoes, I have been disappointed in the yields from them the past few summers. This is partly my fault, as I tried to cram too many into too-small a space (when they're tiny little seedlings, it's easy to forget how big the mature vines will get). It's also been partly due to the lousy weather (too hot, then too wet) we've had in recent years. But much, perhaps most, of my disappointment is because with heirlooms, especially with the big beefsteak heirlooms with big flavor, getting fewer fruits per plant is the price you pay for such deliciousness.

 

If you have unlimited space, then this largely doesn't matter. Hell, I'd give one of anything I have two of to have the space to plant even a dozen tomato plants. But for urban gardeners like me, that's just not feasible, and a grafted plant might be a very viable alternative. If I can plant four or five plants that will produce heirloom-quality fruit in hybrid quantities, then I'm gonna be all over it.

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Belmo, you should give some of the Dwarf Tomato Project varieties a try - they grow 3-5 feet tall with one hardy main stem like a tree, yield very well, and have the great taste of the heirloom varieties from which they were developed. I'm growing 2 of them this year - Rosella Purple and Dwarf Sweet Sue - partly because I like sharing plants with friends and family but few people seem to have the space, time, or desire to adequately support and maintain the giant heirloom vines I like to grow for myself, and I worry that I've turned more than a few people off from real tomatoes by giving them seedlings only to have them tell me that by august their tomato cages collapsed under a forest of vines that took over half their garden and was so thick they couldn't even find the tomatoes in it. If you haven't planted yet and are interested, Heritage Tomato Seeds should still have some and ship quickly, if not I'd be happy top send you some next year.

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