tomato grafting: a tactic for heirloom success?

ICOUNT TOMATO GRAFTING AMONG MY NEWEST OBSESSIONS. I know, I know; did I need another obsession—and particularly one that offbeat? But after a season of widespread tomato troubles and my generally leery feelings about counting on a plentiful crop from heirlooms in particular, why not considering turning to grafting for an edge? Growing a desired though perhaps less vigorous variety on tougher rootstock has been the trick in many crops (think roses, fruit trees, and many other ornamentals). Tomatoes, it turns out, are no exception. Into the world of grafted tomatoes we go…

It was a recent email from Johnny’s Selected Seed, which sells not just seed for tomato-rootstock varieties but also grafting clips to hold the freshly connected plant parts in place, that piqued my interest.

It alerted me to what is apparently a commonplace tactic in greenhouse tomato production, where soil infected with fusarium, for instance, would otherwise have to sterilized in a costly manner before planting again. By grafting the crop whose fruit you want (called the scion) onto resistant rootstock, you can limit the effects of such troubles as corky root, verticillium, and crown rot, plus most common nematodes—and also just get bigger yields from relatively weak-growing but favorite varieties.

“Grafting is an increasingly popular technique among tomato growers who have had disappointing yields and disease problems,” said the note from Di Cody of Johnny’s. “It’s especially helpful for heirloom, greenhouse, and hoophouse tomatoes.”

The note linked to a 2008 article in the trade publication “Growing for Market,” in which one farmer said: “I will not grow an heirloom tomato that is not grafted anymore,” and that grafted rootstocks are an “heirloom grower’s best friend.”

For heirlooms, choose the tomato rootstock Beaufort, said Di’s email (others are better geared to greenhouse production of hybrids). One thing that scares me, even more than the slice-and-dicing itself with a razor or Exacto knife: the price of seeds for the rootstock. Fifty seeds of ‘Beaufort’ cost $20.95, and I still need the grafting clips. Hmmm…what price tomatoes? But I remain fascinated.

I read about how to graft by three methods in “Grafting Tomatoes,” Johnny’s useful pdf, and watched the University of Vermont Extension how-to grafting video (above).  Soon, in typical Margaret fashion, I started even farther down the research rabbit hole, and was reading things like these:

grafted tomatoesIn Hanoi, where the hot, wet months mean tomato diseases flourish, grafting is a tactic used to produce a valuable cash crop anyhow. In Japan, an Ohio State project reported, about 95 percent of watermelons, oriental melons, greenhouse cucumbers, tomato and eggplant crops are grown as grafts.

Also at Ohio State, there was information (and even a video, up top) of the advantages of grafting for field-grown tomatoes—not just those in the greenhouse. Even Wikipedia has a good page on tomato grafting, with various photos (including the one a bit above).

I even found grafted tomato plants for mail-order sale—but in the UK. So what do you think? Would you try your hand at grafting in the pursuit of a heavy crop of your favorite tomato, or maybe start nudging your local nursery to press for grafted plants from their supplier? I have a bumper crop of sauce in mind over here.

chopped tomatoes for making sauce

  1. LexyC says:

    I wonder if you can grow the root stock seeds as their own plant and then save seeds from the fruit. That would cut your costs significantly in future years.

    1. Les says:

      LexyC, that is what I am planning. Grow a few Estamino Rootstock or which ever you prefer only Tomato Plants for Seed starter Rootstock grafting. Place a row cover Agribon-AG-17 over the Plant to prevent crosspollination and get yourself a painters paintbrush and pollinate flowering rootstock by hand.

      Good luck

  2. judith dalmas says:

    many years ago in the New Yorker magazine there was an article ( a series actually) about trying to discover why a group of people with no connections were dying and it turned out that one man in the area had grafted a tomato of his unto Joe Pye Weed. He did not eat tomatoes and passed them out in great numbers and people shared them. They were poisoned because of the Joe Pye stock.. It was a great mystery story but I never thought of grafting tomatoes after that. Be careful what you graft them unto………….

    [editor’s note from Margaret: see my comment below correcting this — it was jimson weed, or Datura, not Joe Pye, that the plants were grafted onto.]

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Judith. The article is here (from I think 1965 in the “New Yorker”) but it wasn’t Joe Pye (Eupatorium) because you can’t graft plants that aren’t somewhat closely related. It was another Solanum, like tomatoes and potatoes and so on: It was Jimson weed, or Datura. Datura is poisonous. All the grafted tomato work currently in greenhouse and field culture is of course being done with tomato as the rootstock for the tomato scion — two tomatoes grafted together, not some other genus.

  3. Doug says:

    A week ago I did some practice grafting with Beefsteak, most I just took an inch out of the middle and a few I put 2 together. I just brought them out of their “CCU” and all my grafts are growing roots above, on, and below the grafts. I know I did something wrong for this result, any ideas, maybe too much humidity? I was misting the plants a couple times a day, but they all seem to be doing ok otherwise. I thought it better to use cheap seeds and get my methods right before I use the expensive rootstock.

  4. Linda says:

    I grafted Big Boys onto Maxifort, Mountain Magic, and eggplant rootstock. The Maxifort and Mountain Magic are doing good, but the eggplant ones are slow. I just picked up a pack of cheap Walmart eggplant seeds so the variety probably wasn’t the best suited for this. The rootstock did not grow and widen like the tomato ones so I have narrow bottom stems and thicker stems above the graft. They are growing and getting tomatoes, but much slower. I have one unique plant that has both tomato and eggplant on one stem! It has tomatoes on it but only eggplant blossoms so far. We’ve had cool nights this year, many times in the 40’s.
    The first batch I tried this year all failed so I tried doing it again on younger plants. Most of them survived. The tops of some of my grafted tomato plants had tightly curled branches. I think it might have been an overdose of fertilizer. It is working itself out.
    Last year aphids wiped me out so I’ve been using Neem oil spray that I mix with seaweed extract and I’ve had no problem.

  5. Shannon says:

    As I read about the discussion about costs of the rootstock seed for grafting ,it seems to me that people are forgetting some basics about how tomatoes grow, at least indeterminate varieties. If you start both the root stock plant and the desired scion plant early in a greenhouse or light warm place, then use the “suckers off the rootstock to root new plants , you could get numerous plants to use for rootstock. Further, if the scion plant also has suckers that are used scions, then you get numerous plants from 2 stock plants, say started at Christmas in a greenhouse. Several people could share the seed costs and defeat the seeds companies who are price gouging.
    Furthermore, if you have a greenhouse, tomatoes are perennial, so a rootstock stock plant could theoretically be maintained for several years.
    For myself, I would never plant a bought transplant into my soul. I did this with our original garden space. With in 3 years it was infested with root knot nematodes. We garden old style with compost and as organic as possible in an area with bramuda grass. I am a plant science major and my spouse is an agronomist. We have no visible evidence of root knot nematodes in our new garden space. We have no intention of bringing them in

    1. Jens says:

      What great advice!!! The high price of the seeds were holding me back from starting to graft. Rooting the suckers from the root stock plant seems like a great idea. I plan on trying that this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.