Graft, Without The Corruption

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It’s not very often that there’s interesting news on the vegetable garden front.

Yes, there are the newest hybrids, claims for the greatest tasting tomato in years or a fantastic non-bolting spinach but these claims rarely pan out much past the hype.

For some, the good news has been the blitz of heirloom vegetables being brought back to seed racks and grocers. And for many home gardeners, the resurgence of heirloom vegetables and fruits has been something of a reawakening. It seems to have accelerated the recent boom in home vegetable gardens.

There’s one caveat: if you haven’t noticed yet, heirloom vegetables may be great on taste, but they can be pretty poor on productivity. Another reason why heirloom vegetables became a garden remnant is because they are also prone to diseases and lack the genetic resistance that modern breeding has brought to the likes of peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and cucurbits.

But now, there’s a good chance we can have our cake (so to speak) and eat it too (at least most of it). Welcome to the world of grafted vegetables.

As a very brief primer, the art and science of grafting is when you take a rootstock (the roots) that has superior qualities—such as hardiness, vigor and disease resistance—and you mate it to a scion (the shoot) that has the needed attributes of the plant desired, such as great taste.

Virtually all of our fruit trees are grafted. Commercial growers can specify the root stock they want for their trees based on the diseases present in their area and the hardiness needed. It’s also the grafting process that brings us a single apple tree that can produce multiple different types of apples on the same tree.

Grafting has also become critically important to the grape and wine industry for the same reasons. The process is critical for the production of wine grapes, enabling vintners to work around a myriad of soil- and disease issues as well as adapting the vines to differing soil conditions.

When it comes to our home flower gardens, most of our roses are grafted, which became an issue years ago when inferior rootstocks were used by discount rose growers. Many used to use inexpensive and marginally hardy rootstock and during very cold winters the rootstock would die.

Conversely, it can also happen that a marginally hardy shoot is used on a very hardy root and the result would be a dead rose plant from the ground up. In this case, the rootstock sends up its own shoots, resulting in a lackluster rose we weren’t expecting.

In the 1920s, Asian farmers began to experiment with grafting various vegetables for the same reasons. They were seeking to increase yields on vegetables that had superior taste but were commercially unproductive. They also sought a way to increase disease resistance.

They began a selection process to choose rootstock that was disease resistant and vigorous and graft it to a scion that had superior fruit quality and taste. As a result, nearly 90 percent of all the watermelons, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants grown in Japan are grafted.

I became aware of grafted vegetables about five years ago when reading about them in a horticulture journal. They’re becoming an important part of market and farm gardening in this country. But even more exciting is that grafted vegetables are also becoming available to home gardeners.

This year a number of mail-order firms began offering grafted vegetables (Territorial Seed Company, Burpee and others) but they’ve been very hard to find at local garden centers. Lynch’s Garden Center in Southampton will carry them this year, and hopefully others as well.

They’re not cheap though. In fact, they’re expensive. But I suspect they are worth every single penny.

By mail, grafted vegetables are going for about $8 each (plus shipping) for small plants. I’m guessing Lynch’s will be selling 1-gallon plants for about $11.

Why do they cost so much? The seed that’s used for the rootstock is very expensive and can cost nearly 50 cents a seed. Additionally, the actual grafting process has to be done by hand, and then the grafted plant has to be grown in a greenhouse for several weeks while the graft takes. It’s not as simple or as cheap as just putting a seed into the ground or into a pot.

So, why spend so much? Well, for starters most of these, especially the ones with the Mighty ‘Mato (a California-based company that sells a variety of grafted veggies) branded are certified organic.

There are about 20 varieties of tomato that are being marketed and most of them are heirloom varieties. This means that now you can grow an heirloom tomato that will have superior disease resistance, will need less water, will produce for a longer period and will have a yield per plant that may be twice that of the same non-grafted tomato. Now, that 11 bucks is looking like a pretty good deal isn’t it?

You can buy grafted eggplants and peppers by mail but I suspect that in a year or two those too will also be available locally. They will sport the same attributes of the grafted tomatoes: superior disease resistance, greater yields and possibly a shorter growing season.

If you’re lucky enough to snatch one of these plants for your vegetable garden, keep in mind that they aren’t grown like your usual pot-grown or cell-pack tomato. Most important is to remember is that unlike traditional tomato plants, grafted tomatoes can’t be planted deep.

The point of the graft must always be a few inches above the soil level. Bury the graft and you’ll probably lose the plant.

Keep in mind too that you’ll probably need larger stakes and cages for grafted tomatoes, as they will be much more vigorous than the traditional plants. Feed them with organic or time-release fertilizer to get even and gradual nutrient release. Fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro are not recommended as they are too rich in nitrogen and result in excessive foliage at the cost of fruit production.

There’s also a great opportunity here for a little home experiment. If you find a grafted tomato plant of Beefsteak, Beefstake, Early Girl or similar heirloom, try to get the same variety that’s not grafted and grow them side by side. I’d love to know your results. Some have claimed yield increases of 70 percent or more but I suspect 40- to 50 percent will be more common.

So forget about all this corruption in Albany. Get some grafted tomatoes and show the politicians how it’s really done. At home and in the garden. Keep growing.

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