Monday, October 22, 2012

Grafted Tomatoes: Scary Franken-Fruit?

Brandywine tomato in my greenhouse this summer could have been even
 better if I had grown it grafted on to a hardy root stock.
Everyone who has eaten a store bought tomato has eaten a grafted tomato.

I have been humbled. My garden wisdom suddenly seems feeble, lacking and inadequate. After 30 years of reading, writing and speaking about gardening I found out there was a huge whole in my brain bank.

I found out about grafted tomato plants last week, and after hearing loads of testimonials,  life for me, as a gardener and tomato grower has changed forever. I found out why grafted tomatoes are not the weird Franken-food I had considered them. I found out they are better in every way than seed started heirlooms or even the latest hybrids.

So just as I finish eating this summer’s harvest, I am already planning for big changes in my garden next year. And I am excited about it.

What are grafted tomatoes? Well, just like grafted apples or pears different tomatoes are now pieced together.  Yes, two distinctly different plants with different features are cut and connected.

One plant is grown for its hardy vigorous disease resistant roots. The other plant is grown because of its luscious, delicious fruit. Maybe your favourite tomato is the super sweet Sungold cherry tomato or maybe it is the always reliable heirloom Brandywine.
Sungold tomatoes are super sweet. They
could produce more fruit if they were grafted.

Either way the fruits and the roots no longer need to be the same. We can combine what we like to eat with all the benefits of hardy tomato genes from the wild. The top of a grafted plant can be anything. Preferably it is something you have grown and loved. The bottom of a grafted plant is turbo-charged, frost resistant, disease fighting and drought tolerant.  Grafted roots are not susceptible to disease so they are huge compared to seed started plants. And bigger roots mean bigger top-growth and – yes- more tomatoes.

Over 3,000 different types of tomatoes are grown today but many of them came from the same or closely related parents. That is a lot of inbreeding.

Think of past royal families in Europe. Weren't Queen Victoria and her close Austrian relatives Hemophilic? Think of  specialized dog breeds. You have to be careful your labrador has good hips or watch out for high vet bills.  When the gene pool is limited  weakness follows. Now think of heirloom tomatoes. We have to baby them just to get 5 fruits per plant.

With inbreeding, it doesn’t matter if you are a royal or a dog or a tomato.  Disease builds up and weak traits multiply.  With tomatoes the roots are susceptible to disease and are smaller; fewer fruits are formed and plants are feeble. Its no surprise. We have been breeding from the same few original plants for 200 years.

I had 5-7 fruits per plant on my heirloom Brandywine tomatoes this year. That’s normal, said John Bagnasco , of Garden Life, a large California-based online store, who spoke at the Garden Writing Association Annual General meeting in Tuscon last week . Graft old varieties on to a new genetic stock and suddenly you get 50 instead of 5 tomatoes.

Grafting is done by people or by robots. The idea is to grow, cut and match-up two different tomato plants preferably when they are very small. Ideally growers combine an old favourite with a newly discovered hardier plant. Favourite fruits on hardy roots.

Over a billion plants are grafted annually. Most large commercial farms work only with grafted tomatoes because they produce so much more fruit. They are so common. I am guessing everyone who has eaten a commercial tomato has eaten a grafted tomato. But we don’t want to grow those bland commercial tomatoes in our home gardens – so why am I yacking about grafted tomatoes? Because growers are now producing many of our favorite home varieties on sturdy roots and they are producing more fruit than ever because they are grafted.

Grafted plants are not glued or tied the way woody plants like apples and pears are. Instead, a small plastic tab holds the two pieces of plant together and they are kept in the dark and in 100% humidity for three days. After a week the grafted plants are back on the greenhouse shelf among friends.

Have you felt like a failure when you have tried to grow tomatoes? Here’s a tip:

Don’t buy seed started tomatoes from me or anyone else at the farmer’s market. Instead, seek out and buy your favourite tomatoes grafted onto a hardier, disease resistant root. Or better yet, see for yourself by trying one grafted heirloom like Brandywine next to a seed started plant of the same kind.  

A new variety of tomato found in the wilds of Mexico is being tested for its frost and drought hardiness right now. Yes- you’ve heard right.

In the future we may not need to water or worry as much about cold weather when we grow tomatoes. This is not because of hybridization or weird GMO breeding. This is because hardier stock, found in the wild, is replacing shop-worn inbred varieties in the soil while we continue to enjoy our favorite types of tomatoes grafted to the hardy roots.  

Don’t be the last to grow these fabulous new tomatoes. I understand Superstore sold out in one day last year, so I am not taking any chances. I am ordering early from a wholesaler. I am also on the list to get the latest greatest roots from John before spring fever hits and I start buying all kinds of crazy seed.

Next spring I will get as much fruit from one plant as I normally get from 10. My only problem is - what am I going to do with all the empty garden space?


Jane Marsh said...

You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found a lot of people will go along with your site.

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