The political and entertainment news headlines may be more glamorous than the latest developments in the green industry, but what happens in our home gardens and the commercial growing business can have a greater impact on the world than some of the more glitzy current events making the news. The way we treat our gardens, landscapes and horticultural businesses impacts the planet itself. And when it comes to edibles, we are talking about our health and even feeding the hungry.
A lot of attention and concern has centered on genetic engineering. There are many questions about the consequences of GEOs and other methods of manipulating cultivation. Most recently, however, there has been an alternative focus for growing more productively without any questionable or dangerous side effects. This latest approach is quickly growing in popularity and not only offers potential to help with world hunger, but can enrich the experience of growing edibles in the home garden. We are talking about grafted vegetables.
The concept is pretty simple and has been used for a long time. For decades fruit trees have been grafted onto stronger root stocks and even multiple varieties can be grafted onto the same fruit tree offering a selection of different fruits on different branches. Recently, due to new lines of grafted tomatoes with rootstocks that are naturally resistant to many of the diseases that threaten our favorite tomatoes, grafted tomatoes are creating gardening headlines. By uniting the rootstocks of these resistant tomatoes to the stems (scions) of high quality but less strong-growing varieties — like many of the heirlooms — the vulnerable varieties are becoming healthier and remarkably more productive. Because the grafting requires intensive labor, plants are currently two to three times more expensive than ungrafted plants. Still, having a much higher percentage of surviving plants that grow faster, offer higher quality and much larger crops (from double to ten times the harvest) can easily be worth the initial expense. There are a number of these grafted plants offered in garden centers, online and even at some of the big box stores.
To produce these grafted plants, delicate tomato varieties are carefully clipped and are attached to the young roots and stems of strong growing, disease-resistant varieties. The stems of the two different plants make tight contact and grow together to make one fast-growing plant. You can order rootstock to graft your own homegrown favorite varieties at Territorial Seed Company and Johnny’s Selected Seed among other sources.
Because tomatoes can grow roots from their stems, it is a common practice to plant them deeply. But with grafted tomatoes it is critical that they are never planted above the graft or the weaker upper growth will send out roots – bypassing the powerful root system and losing the advantage of the whole grafting concept.
I am currently testing out a half dozen different grafted tomato varieties. So far they are thriving and outstripping the growth of my regular, ungrafted tomatoes. The grafted plants are already setting fruits and it looks like the crops will be heavy.
Tomatoes are the hottest of the grafted vegetables right now but there are also eggplants and peppers being introduced into the market with improved root systems. There are other vegetables currently in production which should soon be available for the home gardener.
It will be interesting to see if the grafted vegetable plants will overcome the resistance of most home growers to spend a little extra money for their plants. If production really is successful, the grafted vegetable may be a better solution for small-space gardening, more ease for the average gardener and maybe even a genuine weapon for combating hunger around the world — safely.