I’ll admit it. I probably wouldn’t have bought my grafted tomato plant if it hadn’t been on sale. Grafted tomato plants are pricey. Like $12 for a plant, compared with $2 or $3 for a regular tomato transplant. But I found this one at half price, around $6, so I figured I’d give it a try.
Grafted tomatoes have been growing in popularity and availability over the past few years. Even the New York Times caught the buzz of grafted tomatoes and recently gave the practice a full defense. I planted my Mighty ‘Mato branded Cherokee Purple plant in mid April and started harvesting juicy maroon-colored tomatoes about a week ago, in late May. That’s a really good (and delicious) turnaround considering that we just started having warmer days in the 80s and nights in the 50s in east Tennessee a couple weeks ago.
What is a Grafted Tomato?
Grafting may be all the rage these days, but it’s not a new process. Growers of fruit trees — everything from apples to grapes to plums — have been using this technique for generations to increase yields and disease resistance of plants. But what does it mean? Basically, the top (called a scion) of a plant is chosen for its superior taste and grafted onto the roots (called the rootstock) of a plant chosen for traits like resistance to diseases or overall productivity. The result is a plant with a really, really strong root system that can take up water and nutrients from the soil like a champ.
Typically, the rootstock used for grafted tomatoes comes from a hybrid plant and the scion is often an heirloom (though not always). If you’ve ever grown heirloom plants alongside hybrids, you may have noticed that while your heirloom plants produce interesting, flavorful tomatoes, the hybrid varieties often produce more fruit for longer. That’s because hybrids were developed by tomato breeders to be more productive and to resist tomato diseases, pests and climatic conditions like heat or cold, while heirlooms were hand-selected for their gorgeous, colorful and tasty fruit, as well as their suitability to certain local conditions. Since grafted tomato plants aren’t pure heirlooms, they’re probably not an option for die-hard heirloom-only gardeners. If you’re totally confused by the whole heirloom and hybrid thing, you can read more about the difference between heirlooms and hybrids to get a clearer picture.
Can’t find a grafted tomato plant in your local garden center? You could order one or more online at several sources — well, you could’ve a month ago, but now they’re all sold out. (Proof of their rise in popularity.) Here’s a rundown of potential sources for your late summer to fall crop (in milder gardening zones) or for next year. Burpee carries a few grafted varieties, including Rutgers and Cherokee Purple. Territorial Seed offers a bit more selection (including Sungold, a personal favorite) and also has grafted pepper plants and eggplants. White Flower Farm sells a 3-plant grafted collection including Cherokee Purple, San Marzano (a good canning variety), and Mortgage Lifter. If they weren’t sold out (you can get on the list for when more are ready), this would be a great starter kit for trying grafted growing.
Planting a Grafted Tomato is Different!
Forget what I told you before. When planting your tomatoes, don’t follow the rule of planting deep or in trenches with your grafted plants. To get the results you’re after — the properties of the rootstock combined with properties of the scion — you must keep the graft above soil level. If the graft touches the soil, then the scion (the top plant) will start rooting and the plant will get all confused.
Thus far, I’ve managed to keep my graft above ground and my plant’s properties intact. My only complaint about my grafted tomato plant? I don’t know what the rootstock is. Mighty ‘Mato info calls it “Super Natural rootstock” but I don’t know, specifically, what that means. So in a way, I don’t feel like I really know this plant. I’m not as connected to it.
I’ve grown Cherokee Purple — an heirloom originally from the area where I live — several times, and while the fruit coming from my grafted plant looks just like Cherokee Purple fruit, the plant doesn’t look like any Cherokee Purple plant I’ve grown before. It’s still early in the season, so this may change, but for now, the plant is short and stocky. Normal Cherokee Purple plants grow to about 5 feet and are less hefty. So it’s just a little odd.
Maybe it would be a different story if I’d grafted the two plants together myself. If you like to dork out on gardening techniques like I do, watch this video from Johnny’s Selected Seeds on how tomato grafting is done. Fair warning: This video is meant for experienced tomato growers learning to graft. It’s doubtful that I’ll be doing my own grafting anytime soon, but it’s nice to know how the process is done.