Hartley Magazine

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The year of the science experiment

It’s time to plan for seed starting, whether you have a greenhouse or an indoor light setup. And it looks like this year, once again, I will be starting my own tomatoes instead of buying grafted plants.

I have looked on longingly over the last couple of years as the developing technique of grafting has caused a sensation in the vegetable gardening world. Grafting—joining a shoot from one kind of tomato (or other vegetable) to the roots of another—seems to offer a solution to the gardener’s dilemma: Richly flavorful and varied heirloom tomatoes, but not many of them, on sprawling plants prone to disease? Or comparatively tasteless hybrids, with much higher yields on plants that resist disease far better? Graft the top of the flavorful tomato plant to the roots of the tough one and you’re golden.

Tales abound of huge, disease-free yields. Grafting is said to have been a special boon to organic farmers, whose crops are so vulnerable to diseases they can’t fight with pesticides, and to greenhouse growers.

Now, many gardening catalogs sell tomatoes with an heirloom top grafted onto a vigorous, disease-resistant rootstock. The grafted plants go for staggering prices–$12 to 15 a plant, plus shipping. But it would be worth it to me to make growing tomatoes less of a gamble. I grow my vegetables in containers and only have room for a few varieties, and when you are betting your whole season on a few plants, it’s extra important that they perform and don’t fail.

Anyhow, $15 for several pounds of organic heirloom tomatoes doesn’t seem so outrageous when I think of the prices at the farmer’s market in town.

Alas, however: Although the range of grafted tomatoes available is rapidly growing, it doesn’t, so far, include compact container varieties. I need tomatoes that grow on well behaved, bushy plants that won’t swamp my porch. And the grafted tomatoes that are offered so far are all sprawling indeterminate types.

So I’ll be sowing my seeds as usual under lights, planting the varieties I know to be productive but self-contained. ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Red Robin’ are my standbys—unexciting hybrids, but reliable.

My big challenge this year is to resist the temptation to try grafting myself. Many other gardeners have clearly had the “I-could-do-that!” impulse, because grafting equipment—basically, little clips that hold two cut tomato stems until they grow together—is starting to become available in catalogs too, as well as seed for the especially vigorous varieties that are favored as rootstocks.

To graft my own tomatoes, though, I’d have to start three times as many tomato plants. I’d have to grow a full complement of rootstocks and a full set of my preferred varieties for the top shoots, called the scions. And then, because I’m not that much of a gambler, I’d have to grow a full set of regular old tomato plants in case my science experiment failed. Tinkering is fun, but tomatoes are serious business.