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. MichelleB says:

    I’m going to use Celebrity and Juliet as rootstocks. Juliet is one of the few tomatoes I’ve found resistant to Septoria leaf spot which is a real problem in my garden. Celebrity has wide resistance. And I’ll graft on Opalka, Purden’s purple ( it’s an early brandywine type) and Roma. Can’t wait to get started.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sheryl. I am trying to get my neighbor with the greenhouse interested in a combined effort…we shall see. Thanks for saying hello, and do stop in again soon.

  2. Kathy says:

    How many plants does one have to graft to get the hang of it? 10 or more or less? It looks interesting enough to try but I don’t know if I have the dexterity. When learning how many plants does the average person use until the result becomes acceptable?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Kathy: I have not tried yet (we start tomatoes here at tax time, mid-April). If I do it, I will start a whole flat (like a whole packet) of both seeds (scion and rootstock) and figure that’s the cost of on-the-job training. I may fail; am asking a keen gardening friend to try it with me. We shall see, but I expect it will take some practice to make perfect, as they say. Nice to “meet” you; see you soon.

  3. Peter N. Steele says:

    I am so much interested in the tomato grafting method. It’s very much beyond my imagination about the simple method its done. Ti’s my first time visiting your site.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Peter; fascinating, isn’t it? I hear that more growers are going to do this for commercial tomato transplant production, too, so someday we may be seeing grafted babies in the garden center too. See you soon.

  4. suzanne says:

    i have tomato and eggplant growing together….
    now my eggplants are a nice orange color – mixed on their own…
    don’t know if that is a turkish/italian eggplant or not — any comments

    1. Margaret says:

      @Terryl: I planted some of the grafted babies, as did my friend, and they are growing nicely, but no harvest yet (on them or non-grafted plants) so not sure the final results.

      I did take photos of the grafts and the grafted plants at transplant time, so just awaiting some kind of harvest moment to compare.

      Amazingly the grafts took (my friend Andrew did them as top grafts, which seemed easiest) even though at first you would have thought all you had done was decapitate the poor plants and how in the world could they possibly recover from it.

  5. terryk says:

    Margaret, I know I asked earlier and the plants had not set fruit. Now that the garden season is winding down, can you tell report if you found this successful? Will you do this again?

  6. Nan says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I’m wondering what the final result was of last year’s grafting experiment? Did you have a bountiful crop from the graft-lings or were you disappointed in the final result?

    Just want to say that I really enjoy your site and find it informative and, perhaps more importantly, inspiring!


  7. Nan says:

    @Susan, I think one of the great things about grafting is that if your plants are leggy at the time of grafting, you can trim them down in height, at least the scion. Just a little added benefit of grafting…

  8. lindamm says:

    Is there any reason you can’t graft a hybrid onto the rootstock? I got some moose-sized tomatoes from Burpees Porterhouse and bigboys but the last two years my garden got leveled by late blight which came early in the season. I’d like to try grafting this year. All I’ve read so far is about using heirlooms for the scions.
    Another question, has anyone tried eggplant as rootstock and if so, how does it compare to tomato root stock??

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lindamm. No reason at all not to use a hybrid. The reason you see so much about heirlooms as the scion is that they can display less resistance to certain issues, and be less vigorous in some cases, hence the desire to put them on stronger roots. As for eggplant stock, no, I’d stick with tomato.

  9. Laura says:

    Hi Margaret, Enjoyed your article and links. At the risk of being crassly self-serving or “spammy” I would like to offer my product here, in light of the interesting article and comments. I’ve been fascinated by tomato grafting for months, since learning about it at N.C. A&T State University last year.

    Inspired but disappointed in the lack of supplies for home gardeners, I assembled a low-tech kit for sale for home gardeners so they can try grafting heirloom tomatoes themselves. If you are interested, or would just like to comment, please check out http://www.betterheirlooms.com Thanks! Laura

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Laura, and welcome. I am fascinated to see this idea of grafting going from little-known to from-and-center so fast…interesting! Will have a closer look at the site.

  10. Ellis says:

    In viewing the video from the University of Vermont, the instructor over and over used the term ‘codylina’ which I took to mean codyledon. Is this a new term compared to that I learned in botany class 30 years ago?

  11. DJP says:

    I grafted my first tomatoes last season – my attempts are on my blog – and had fair success so I am ready to try again this season. I am also going to try some of the cubits that I have been told are a bit easier to graft so I bought gourd and melon seeds especially for that purpose. Last season I used one of my own heirlooms – Red Peach – as my rootstock because of its root vigor and will use it again this season. Also, Territorial Seed Co has grafted plants available this season and I spoke to them and they are going well, and they are thinking about making other grafted plants available next season – English gardeners have had peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, and tomatoes available to them for at least four or more years to date. This is all so much fun to try – backyard experimentation is great.
    Happy Gardening

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, DJP. It is a fascinating topic, this grafting. Fun to watch news of it from other nations and with other crops. Part of what I live about gardening are the new tactics and the science behind them, like this. See you soon!

  12. Lapis says:

    I think the man in the video probably has never seen that word written, but to be fair perhaps its a slang those college kids use at UVM.

  13. Karen says:

    I sell a few plants locally each spring. I thought I might try to graft some too. I thought I might just graft different kinds of heirlooms onto my favorite vigorous, disease-resistant hybrid. What do you think? A lot cheaper that way.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. I’m not a grafting/rootstock expert — so what rootstock you use might best be researched from some of the links in the piece, I suppose. I always see them mention the same ones (certain ones for greenhouse, certain ones for outdoors). I agree, the rootstock expense is a bit offputting.

  14. DJP says:

    Hey Karen,
    I would be careful using hybrid stock if it has a plant patent as those kind of plants are
    protected. Using a seed that you gather from say an old open pollinated variety would be OK, but your hybrid tomato seed is not true to hybrid traits on second generation anyway so you would not get the hybrid characteristics that the hybrid is known for.
    Happy Gardening

  15. Diane says:

    Just noticing that here in Italy there are many grafted tomatoes for sale. The biggest advantage, I thought, is they are so much bigger already than the ones I grew from seeds. Some even have tomatoes. They are stocky and strong looking, I must say, but I never thought that they may be more disease resistant also. Thanks for some insight…

  16. lindamm99 says:

    I grafted 9 or 10 plants this spring. I was pretty sick for a few weeks so they did not get the attention needed but 3 survived and are outside in earthboxes and are doing great. I did 3 different varieties, Big Boy, Pink Brandywine, and Porterhouse beefstead and one of each survived.
    I also ordered 3 pink Brandywine grafts from Burpee just to see how they did it. All of their plants were short and stocky, the stems at graft site about 1/2 inch thick or better. The cut line was at dirt level to 1/2 inch above so they have to be protected from the scion rooting. I put short pieces of split drinking straws on them. My stems were a lot thinner and I cut higher on the stem.
    The survivors are getting lush and are currently at the same size as the same varieties that I did not graft. I will try to post again with final results.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lindamm99. How adventurous! It is the matching up of the parts that’s the key, it seems, as you encountered. Can’t wait to hear more of your results!

  17. Laura says:

    Margaret, It’s still a little early to compare my grafted tomatoes with my ungrafted ones in size, they are about the same size– 2-3 feet high roughly, but I do notice more tomatoes are starting to set on the grafted ones. I will post pictures on my blog at http://www.betterheirlooms.com later this summer, and if you like, I will send you these too. I’ve planted side-by-side grafted and ungrafted, so they all get identical water and organic fertilizer, mulch etc. This way I can compare.

  18. Gary says:

    Intersting information; I grow heirloom tomatoes but have no experience at grafting; where does an individual gardner buy graft stock?

  19. Ellis says:

    I had my entire tomato crop wiped out due to very wet weather and nematode infestation. Nearby, tomatillos were unaffected. I was wondering if anyone has tried grafting tomato onto tomatillo rootstock?

  20. Wendy says:

    Just found this article and am excited to try my hand at grafting. Though it looks like Johnny’s only sells the Maxifort and not the Beaufort anymore.

    Just curious how this has gone for you.

    1. Margaret says:

      Wendy — I had good results but I will say a few things. The rootstock grows much faster than the scion stock varieties, so I wish I’d started the scion variety a little earlier so the diameter of the rootstock and scion were close to the same (easier to join that way!). I would not rely on grafting my first year or two trying it for my whole crop or anything — not till I got good at it. Takes practice to be sure.

  21. William H. Vincent says:

    I tried grafting tomatoes last year for the first time. I tried 6 top grafted onto eggplant root stock and 3 survived. I grafted a few more for a late crop, but grafted them higher up on the stem so the union wouldn’t get covered by soil in heavy rain. They did very well. This year I have 13 top grafted survivors just starting to grow after 19 days from the grafting date. I’m using Maxifort root stock from Johnny’s. I side grafted 6 for a first try. The side grafted are doing much better than the top grafted, so far. I have the scions knotched with only about 1/4 of the original stem left. I plan to complete the detachment next week. The scion stock is Rose and Brandywine.

    1. margaret says:

      Quite the adventure, right, William? Nice to “meet” you and hear of your experiments. The hardest time I had was timing the sowing of the rootstock and the scion to be the same size at grafting time — since the rootstock is so much more vigorous, generally.

  22. Bob says:

    I have just about given up growing tomatoes. Over the years, i’ve planted over 25 varieties, mostly from seeds, and the plant would usually defoliate near the end of August, (wilt). On a whim, I purchased a brandywine grafted plant and was blown away by how productive the plant was. It produced into October until it was killed by a hard frost. At the end, it was 8′ tall with baseball sized tomatoes. No brandywine I know of is this productive and disease resistant. It’s unbelievable!

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