“Why would anyone want to pay the price to grow a grafted tomato plant?” was my initial reaction to the newest vegetable rage with home gardeners. Then a South Carolina summer hit hard and my tomatoes drooped low down. For the first time I have what I consider a crop failure, except for one tough plant.
Some gardener friends and I spent a lovely day on the “other” side of Columbia last spring visiting garden centers we seldom get to from our area. One of these friends, Mary, noticed grafted tomato plants for sale. They were not the .99 apiece kind or even the $4.99 apiece with tomatoes already set kind. They were very pricey. These were on the short side of $10 apiece for a normal size bedding plant. When she put one in her basket, I said, “There is no way I am paying $10 for a tomato plant.”
A couple weeks later, my seed-grown tomato plants were looking puny, in fact the worst I had ever grown. Granted, I had started them late so the heat had caught them way too early. Mary called to say her grafted plant had set tomatoes and looked great so she was going back across town for more. “Do you want any?” Well, after all, I do prefer being on the cutting edge of vegetable growing technology, so, “OK, get me one plant.” They were Cherokee Purple heirlooms, after all.
My Better Boy and Celebrity tomatoes have been very disappointing so far this year with mostly small, even stunted, fruit. The largest tomatoes in my garden have been set on a German pink. Heat has pretty much stopped most of the tomato production. But not the grafted plant. It is setting beautiful very large, tasty fruit.
I have learned that grafting an heirloom onto a hybrid rootstock gives the plant the vigor and disease resistance of the hybrid and gives to the fruit, the delicious flavor of the heirloom. It also seems to speed up fruit set, as heirlooms are usually late in setting their fruit but the plants in my and Mary’s garden have set large clusters.
Depending on the rootstock, grafting also increases the plants ability to withstand heat and drought. According to the World Vegetable Center, “Vegetable grafting is extensively utilized by farmers in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.” It is interesting to read that not only tomatoes are grafted to bring resistance to soil-borne diseases, but so are some other vegetables, including watermelons.
There is one critical difference when planting a grafted plant versus the seed-grown regular plant. Do not bury the graft. We normally plant tomatoes deep down because they will root all along their stem. You don’t want any roots to appear above the graft or you defeat the grafting purpose. Just plant the root ball as deep as it was growing in its pot, no deeper.
Would I recommend spending $9.99 on one tomato plant? Heck, no. At these prices, I might even learn how to graft some myself. Would I recommend buying grafted plants when they are offered at reasonable prices? You bet. Next year there will be more grafted tomato plants in my garden.
There's really no better time to visit the great public gardens than spring into summer, but why not get off the horticultural highway and see a few lesser known gardens, too! Dotting the country are some truly remarkable places that you may not have heard of but that you need to see.
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