Fancy-Pants Tomato Plants

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
little green tomato

Grafted tomatoes are perhaps the biggest development to come along in vegetable gardening in years.

Although they cost more than ordinary tomato plants, these fancy-pants tomato plants are incredible producers.

 

showing graft, root hairs, base of plant

 

Grafted tomatoes are artfully constructed plants, made by fusing the growing tip of a popular fruiting tomato plant onto the rootstock of an extremely disease-resistant tomato plant. The result is a plant that performs like an athlete: grafted tomatoes are stronger and healthier than even the most disease-resistant hybrids. They produce more and larger tomatoes than non-grafted plants, and they can be relied upon to continue to bear fruit through a long, hot summer and into fall.

 

tomato plant with flowers and baby fruit

 

“The plants just produce a lot more fruit — you can get an extra 20-30 percent yield,” says Cary Rivard, an extension specialist at the Kansas State research and extension center in Olathe, Kansas. Rivard is a tomato grafting expert; his research for both his Master’s degree and his doctorate was on grafted tomatoes. Other researchers put the production figures even higher — up to 50 percent more tomatoes by weight on a grafted plant than on a traditional plant.

Heirloom tomatoes grafted onto high-performance rootstock are the most popular grafted tomatoes on the market. ‘Brandywine’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Black Krim’, and other delicious heirloom tomatoes are often among the last to bear fruit in the garden, and they are highly susceptible to tomato diseases. Grafting onto vigorous rootstock pushes production ahead of schedule and essentially eliminates disease problems.

Even if you’re an experienced gardener, it pays to let the professionals do the grafting. The rootstock is specially developed for the purpose; you can’t just buy two different tomatoes at a garden shop, graft them in your own back yard, and expect to get the same results. Although a grafted tomato plant costs $10-$15, a quick calculation using tomato math (heirlooms sell for about $4 a pound) shows that these plants pay for themselves after about the fourth tomato.

 

tomato plant from above, showing ripe fruit

 

Rivard offers some advice for gardeners growing grafted tomatoes:

  • Don’t plant too deep. The graft should be an inch or two above the soil line.
  • Watch for suckers coming up from the rootstock. If you see new growth coming from below the graft, pinch it off.
  • Grafted tomatoes are vigorous growers, “sometimes too vigorous,” Rivard says. Remove about 20 percent of the leaves — one leaf in five — on the bottom 18-24 inches along the stem. “It sends the message to the plant to put energy into fruit production,” Rivard says
  • These tomatoes have extensive, efficient root systems to access nutrients in the soil. “In the midwest, we don’t have to fertilize,” Rivard says. If you want to fertilize, work a little compost or pelletized chicken manure (available at garden shops) into the soil, he suggests.

This summer, I’m growing three different grafted tomato plants, and in mid July, I expect to be eating heirloom tomatoes with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.