Tomato Grafting: It's Easier Than You Think and Will Yield Results

Blight is more of a problem for gardeners than ever before, but grafting your plants will make them much stronger and disease-resistant.

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With the days getting longer, it's officially time to start planning the garden. At the very least, make a cup of tea and open a seed catalog. Depending on what you have in mind, it might be time to place an order.

If your plans include tomatoes, especially heirlooms, it's worth considering ways to fortify them. Anyone who's lost tomatoes to blight knows the heartbreak of yanking whole plants still laden with fruit, and removing them from the scene.

This is a big reason why many small farmers and serious gardeners have picked up the art of tomato grafting in recent years. Done much the same way that fruit trees are grafted, it's a process that has helped growers achieve dramatic improvements in tomato yield and disease resistance -- especially soil-borne diseases like blight.

Disease is more of a problem now than ever before. The efficiencies of global travel have enhanced the ways that plant disease can spread. And fickle weather conditions can create opportunities for disease to break out in unexpected places.

Beyond blight, there are many other tomato maladies to which the fruits are sensitive, especially those tasty, fragile heirlooms.

Ask a New England tomato grower about the 2009 season, and expect a grimace for an answer. The late blight fungus hopped from field to field virtually overnight, taking hold thanks to unseasonably cool and wet conditions in June and July. Few tomatoes, heirloom or hybrid, organic or conventional, survived.

The pathogen that causes late blight, Phytophthora infestans, also caused the potato blight of the infamous Irish famine. Conditions favor late blight only sporadically in New England, and before 2009 many gardeners had never seen it. Home gardeners were apparently the primary incubators for the disease. The outbreak was blamed on infected tomato plants sold at garden stores.

The easiest way to avoid late blight (there's also a related early blight) is to choose from a ever-widening selection of hybrid seeds for blight-resistant plants. I grew Mountain Magic and Defiant last year, both of which are resistant to both early and late blights. We had a cool, wet summer and several gardeners and farmers I know lost their tomatoes. My resistant tomatoes did great, and Mountain Magic is tastier than most heirlooms. Dark, rich, and meaty, they grow in beautiful red clusters of smallish fruit. I'd grow Mountain Magic even if blight were eradicated.

Beyond blight, there are many other tomato maladies to which the fruits are sensitive, especially those tasty, fragile heirlooms. There are wilts, nematodes, rot and viruses, salty soil, good old fashioned cold, and, now that average summer temperatures are rising, heat. Grafting tasty tomatoes like heirlooms onto tough hybrid rootstock is an interesting way of dealing with these issues, and for growing stronger, more productive plants.

As with fruit tree grafts, the upper part of the graft, called a scion, is chosen based on favorable characteristics of the fruit they produce. The heirloom scion is spliced onto rootstock -- the stem and roots half -- of especially hearty, disease-resistant, vigorously-producing varieties.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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