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Grafted melon at Merrick Farm, Wilbraham, MA. Photo: Megan Poljacik

When I first heard about grafted tomato plants several years ago, I thought the idea was crazy. I was very aware of the great cultural benefits of grafted trees and shrubs but why in the world would you spend the time and effort to graft a vegetable that only grows for a season then dies with the first frost?

Grafted tomato

Grafted tomato; Cornell University Cooperative Extension

It didn’t dawn on me at the time that the same disease resistance and increased overall vigor that the rootstock imparts to a grafted fruit tree could also work for a grafted tomato plant. When you think about it, this is a brilliant concept because tomatoes and many other vegetable crops have a plethora of disease and pest problems that we as gardeners are constantly battling.

It turns out that grafting vegetables is not a new practice at all – they’ve been doing it in Asia for a long time!

What is grafting?

Grafting involves taking the top of a plant (the scion) that has very desirable fruit qualities like superior taste (but low vigor and disease resistance) and attaching it to the bottom of a plant (the rootstock) that is known for its vigorous growth and disease resistance.

Getting ready to graft a melon (scion) to a gourd rootstock at Merrick Farm, Wilbraham, MA

Getting ready to graft a melon (scion)
to a gourd rootstock at Merrick Farm,
Wilbraham, MA  Photo: Megan Poljacik

One of the main advantages of grafted vegetables is their resistance to soil-borne pests and diseases.

Remember my whole diatribe on crop rotation? There are a lot of people with small backyard gardens that don’t have the space to rotate their crops. Planting grafted vegetables reduces the need for crop rotation. The rootstock that is used for the graft is selected for its resistance to a wide range of soil-borne diseases, including those that persist in the soil for many years. So even if diseases like Verticillium wilt, Fusaruim, bacterial wilt, or tobacco mosaic virus are lurking in your soil, grafted tomatoes are less likely to be affected because of their vigorous, disease resistant rootstock. You have a super plant!

Completed melon graft; Merrick Farm, photo: Megan Poljacik

Completed melon graft; Merrick Farm, photo: Megan Poljacik

What about diseases like early blight and late blight that travel to the plants via wind and rain? Are grafted plants protected from these devastating diseases? Unfortunately, these diseases attack the above ground parts of the plants – the foliage, stems, and fruit and the rootstock of grafted plants cannot directly provide resistance to these foliar diseases. However, as I have said many times before, healthy, vigorous plants are much less susceptible to disease and pest pressure.

An heirloom tomato grafted on a superior rootstock will theoretically be more vigorous, healthy, and productive than if it were growing on its own roots. The root system of the “super rootstock” will be much more extensive, thus providing more surface area for absorption of water and nutrients. This should lead to a healthier plant. Many of the grafted tomatoes that you will find are heirloom varieties. These very tasty tomatoes can be more prone to disease problems than hybrid tomatoes so grafting may offer a healthier, more productive plant.

Conversely, if a blight resistant tomato such as Defiant is grafted onto a hearty, disease resistant rootstock, you could end up with a seriously disease resistant tomato! Actually, this is a popular grafted tomato that is available!

Tips for growing grafted tomatoes

Grafted tomato planted with the graft well above the soil line.

Grafted tomato planted with the graft well above the soil line.

Remember how you have always been told to plant your tomatoes as deeply as possible because they will develop roots all along the buried stem and you will end up with a more robust plant? Deep planting is a no-no for grafted plants. It is extremely important to keep the graft above the soil line when you plant. If the graft ends up below ground, roots will develop above the graft, which totally defeats the purpose of having a grafted plant! When the scion roots into the soil, the disease resistance of the rootstock is bypassed and the plant is no longer protected. Money wasted! This may be the reason why some people are not successful with grafted plants and feel that they are not worth the expense to purchase.

Keep the graft at least an inch above the soil when you plant.

As the plant grows, provide it with a good support system to keep it off the ground. Any stems or branches that touch the ground can take root – again, bypassing the disease resistance of the rootstock. We grow our tomatoes on a trellis and keep all the side shoots tied up as well as the main stem. You can also tie them to stakes or a fence or grow them in cages – anything that keeps the plant from sprawling on the ground where it can take root.

It is also important to remove any growth that develops below the graft.

Many different vegetables are being grafted these days.

Melons are commonly grafted to improve disease resistance and yield.

Melons are commonly grafted to improve disease resistance and yield.

Although tomatoes are the most common, you can also find (or create your own) grafted peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash, melons, and watermelons. Each of these is grafted onto vigorous rootstocks that are developed specifically for that particular vegetable type and the specific diseases that attack it.

Grafted vegetables not only have increased vigor and resistance to soil-borne diseases but, because of the superior root system that develops in these plants, they also show an increased tolerance to environmental stresses like drought, temperature extremes, and nutrient deficiencies. The extensive root system increases the area that the plant can exploit for the water and nutrients needed for growth. The result is a healthier plant that not only bears well, but potentially requires less fertilizer, is drought tolerant, and has a reduced need for pesticide applications.

This may be the year that we give grafted plants a try. We may try to pick up a tomato plant or two at a local garden center. It will be especially interesting if we can find a grafted version of one of the varieties that I plan to grow from seed. That would be a cool experiment! I will keep you posted!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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