Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden - Chinese proverb

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Grafted Tomatoes et al.

I first came across grafted tomato plants in the seed and plant catalogues a couple of years ago, but completely dismissed them as a bit of a gimmick and rather expensive for most vegetable growing mortals like me at around £9.95 a pop for three plants. Come to think about it, it must be grafted plants I've seen on sale at our local garden centre sometimes. It would explain their rather hefty price tag (around £4.99 for one plant).

Then a couple of weeks ago Geoff wrote over at his GardenForum about how he's going to try them out this year. We got chatting in the comments, as you do:

VP: I'm glad you mentioned grafted vegetables, because I can't get my head around what on earth you graft a tomato or pepper plant onto?

And having shelled out your £9.99 + p&p for 3 plants, do you get sufficient extra crops to justify the expense?And are the tomato grafts just as vulnerable to blight, bearing in mind I've lost my (albeit outdoor crop, not having a greenhouse to hand) to blight 3 years in a row now.

As you can see, I've been giving these quite a bit of thought!

Geoff: Just like fruit, the vegetables are grafted onto rootstocks of the same species/related species that have been bred to provide specific characteristics.

For the vegetables these characteristics include healthier, more robust plants with greater pest & disease resistance (the plants aren't blight resistant as such, but are more vigorous and should grow through the disease), larger yields (up to 15-20%; the rootstocks put more of the plants' energy into fruit production and less into overall growth) produced earlier and later, less susceptibility to nutritional disorders and less susceptible to poor weather/cooler conditions.

Around 60% of all commercial tomato crops are produced on grafted plants, as is most aubergine production and the majority of organic peppers and cucumbers. So, if they're good enough for the professionals - they should be good enough for us!

Hope that helps - and stops the brain ache!

Since then I've researched this technique a bit more. It's used extensively in Asia and there's a lot of information about it coming out of North America. It's not new: our own Allotments4All forum mentions it being popular during the 1960s for greenhouse grown tomatoes, particularly before varieties (like Alicante) suitable for coldhouse growing were available. Another A4A member tells how he's grafted tomatoes onto potato rootstock and vice versa. It seems grafting potatoes onto tomato rootstock is a good way of obtaining lots of potato seed especially when breeding them (note to self: must ask Tater Mater if he's tried this technique).

I haven't found much in the way of grafting being used outdoors (which is what I'm interested in) and I still wonder whether blight years like those we've had lately would still decimate crops. The references I've found talk mainly about soil borne disease prevention, which is only part of the story as far as blight is concerned. Also the varieties available aren't that well known to me - I wonder if they're the ones usually grown commercially? In which case they may not have the characteristics home growers value, such as taste. So I don't think there's much of value to me yet, though I'll be watching the results of Geoff's experiment with interest. He's also keen (as I am too) to hear from anyone who has tried them before or is going to this year, or has tried the grafting technique themselves.

If you'd like to try it out, then this YouTube video gives a detailed account:



Update June 2012
: Since writing this post I've also seen how grafted plants are grown commercially. There are also varieties available now which are suitable for growing outdoors.

15 comments:

  1. I have also been reading about graphed Tomatoes with interest. I think if I see a plant in the garden centre I will buy one to try. Like you I lose my plants to blight most years, though I have found growning them in a small lean too green house is much better but it doesn't get so much sunlight. I think with a good summer I would get a few more tomatoes. Also my tomatoes (the few I get) are tasteless, even gardener's delight and sungold - not sure what I am doing wrong.

    Each year I say I will not grow any but then I get some free seed or see some plants! Best wishes Sylvia

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  2. For what it's worth, I have direct experience of growing grafted tomatoes: did it last year in my greenhouse as a trial for Suttons.

    I grew two plants of Tomato 'Elegance', one grafted, one not. The growth of the grafted plant was phenomenal - about twice as fast as the non-grafted one (which was right next to it). This meant it started cropping earlier - I probably got about two weeks' more tomatoes out of the plant. However once the non-grafted plant caught up, the number of trusses was the same and the size of the plants were the same.

    Qualifying factors were that it was a particularly bad summer that year (ah... the deluge of '07... swiftly followed by the slightly damp of '08... doncha love a British summer?) so I might have got better results from the grafted plant in better weather.

    For my money, it wasn't a dramatic enough difference to justify the extra £9 or so - with the caveat above that you might find it worth it in a sunnier summer.

    I'm trying peppers and aubergines this year (same trial deal) with some optimism as I'm usually rubbish at getting them started and they tend to sulk with me - so I reckon if they're grafted to start with they'll be away quicker and I'll get better results. I'm pretty good at starting tomatoes (who isn't?) so the quick start for grafted plants doesn't make so much difference.

    I'll stop warbling on now - if you want to know any more about grafted veg (god forbid) you know where I am....!

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  3. PS sorry I said I did it last year - not true. It was the year before, 2007 :D

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  4. ... or even three years ago. Where does the time go? And why won't they let you edit comments after you've posted them?!

    sorry I'll go away now...

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  5. Kiaora from New Zealand. grafted tomatoes have been for sale in New Zealand for over 20 years now and are a regular feature of spring sales at about NZ$5 each. My wife works in a large commercial nursery here and they graft up to 2 million a year for both the retail and the commercial tomato growers.

    The required variety is grafted onto a fast growing seedling variety with a high degree of resistance to problems and a big root system.

    Cheers

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  6. Interesting. I suppose grafted plants more resistant to pests and diseases + higher yields are useful to commercial growers who are essentially growing in an unnatural intensive manner. I can't see it appealing to ordinary gardeners, what with the extra cost and restricted varieties - unless they solve the dreaded tomato blight problem. I wonder if a grafted plant would truly 'grow through the disease'. I would like to test that out as I miss growing outdoor tomatoes!
    BTW - Thanks for telling me about Malvern - unfortunately I won't be able to make it this year. I'm sure you will all have a great time.

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  7. My thoughts are this: Other grafts are perennials where the long-term combination makes sense. For tomatoes, which are annual (at least in my climate), I don't see the need. The heirloom tomatoes I start from seed are pretty disease-resistant in my organic garden. Plus, as an individual, not a professional grower, I don't need more tomato yields... LOL, I probably need less! Just my thoughts.

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  8. Hi VP

    i have seen many comercial tomato set ups over the years. and have come to the conclusion that grafted plants are great for mass production or growing on hydroponic systems but for the amature grower they dont have any extra merit to standard seed raised plants. you may gain a few weeks on cropping but the but there is no monetry gain due to the cost of the plants when you buy them. the best grafted tomatoes i have seen is when some one grafted a tomato plant on to a potato. great use of space you get a good crop of spuds on the bottom of the plant and a good crop of toms on the top.

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  9. Thanks for your comments everyone. There's plenty of useful views and information which I'll also pass onto Geoff.

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  10. Thanks for a cracking post and the links, too.

    I was at the RHS Trials Advisory Meeting yesterday and the vegetable specialist there told us that grafted crops will become very much more widespread in the future.

    My personal view is that flavour and quality are more important than yield, for private gardeners, so given the choice I'd always go for the tastiest varieties, grafted or not.

    But - £4.99 for a single tom plant? That's a bit racey, isn't it??

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  11. What would be really great is if everyone who is growing grafters this year would let us know how they get on with them. Doesn't have to be scientific results, but if you notice any good/bad points or differences between grafted and non-grafted plants post a comment
    Geoff

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  12. PMN - racey just about sums it up! Home growers also want smaller amounts of crops in 1 go, but with an extended cropping period. Not something that commercial growers usually want and hence affects what's actually available.

    Geoff - glad you called in to see what's been said. There were some useful comments over at Gardenersclick too. Here's hoping you get some further results to add to your own - whether they're anecdotal or more scientific

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  13. I have grown tomatoes for years with a good deal of success but saw some grafted tomatoes in a small nursery last year and bought some and had phenomenal crops. I have tomatoes from early July and if my wife hadn't thrown away the last ones I was ripening indoors in the pre-festive season tidy up would have had some on Christmas day with my bacon and eggs.

    I didn't have any to make chutney out of and I had 8 plants in total. I think the cost issue is a bit of a red-herring when you think how much time and effort you put in to growing tomatoes! If economics were the only factor you'd gte them all at the COOP!

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  14. Am giving grafted tomatoes a go this year after a visit to New Zealand where they seem to grow nothing else.In tne absence of any plants available locally I have grafted Ailsa Craig onto a vigorous rootstock 'He Man'. I am growing one in the greenhouse and one outside with an ungrafted Ailsa Craig for comparison.
    watch this space!!
    Brian West Sussex

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  15. Brian - fantastic that you're giving it a go. Let me know how you get on...

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