Is Grafting the Secret to Success with Heirlooms?

by Marty Fisher, EMGV

“But tomatoes are supposed to be red!” my father used to insist, upon seeing our harvest of gorgeous heirlooms–in hues of black, green, orange, yellow, striped, even blue!

Gradually, red tomatoes had become passe in our garden. We reveled in the different tastes and textures and the beautiful multicolored mason jars lining our shelves at the end of every growing season.

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And then disaster struck. One year, one by one, apparently healthy, robust plants would wither and die overnight. We were devastated! All of the literature had warned of the blight–late blight, early blight, wilt–it didn’t matter what you called it, once it hit, there was nothing you could do but wait and hope for survivors.

We learned that we should have been rotating our crop every year. But that’s hard to do given the size of our city garden and the massive cage my husband had build to protect our precious fruits from squirrels.

We tried fungicide–the natural kind and the nasty copper stuff. We also increased space between plants, washed our hands when we handled the plants, removed the lower leaves, and mulched the plants with straw to keep contaminated soil from splashing onto them. We even moved the tomatoes–and their massive cage–over a few rows. All of these efforts yielded some success, but we still lost plants every season. I could hardly stand to go out to the garden for fear of finding that another beautiful heirloom, loaded with fruit, had bitten the dust.

“You should plant disease-resistant tomatoes–red tomatoes,” said my father.

Grudgingly, we planted some Better Boys, some Big Beef, and some Celebrity. They were dependable and good tasting, but it just wasn’t the same. Even though I had enjoyed those popular varieties as a child, once I discovered heirlooms, there was no going back. Even the names of the heirlooms hinted at a time when tomatoes were cherished, traded among friends, and passed down from generation to generation–Dad’s Sunset, Amana Orange, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Green Zebra.

Finally, last year, I discovered the art of grafting. It’s similar to what has been done with apples for years. You graft the top of an heirloom plant onto the root stock of an ancient, disease-resistant plant. When successful, the root-stock confers vigor and protects against disease. I successfully grafted four heirloom tomatoes last year. (I lost many more than that …) But the grafted plants produced all summer and well into fall. By October they were the sole survivors in a row of more than 20 black and withered plants. We picked and savored the last delicious fruits in early November.

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This year I will try again. I hope to produce more grafted plants. Grafting is not easy–it involves planting about twice as many seeds as you normally would, cutting the top off perfectly healthy little seedlings, attaching them with special clips to the root stock, nurturing the traumatized plants in a dark “healing chamber,” and then gradually re-introducing them to the light.

I am no expert. I’m only a desperate tomato lover willing to try almost anything.

Follow my posts and I’ll let you know how it goes, with step-by-step instructions, equipment lists, online resources, and photos.

Additional Resources

This article is very general, but there is a link to a YouTube video that is fascinating and contains many more links about grafting.

This is a link to the video and the additional links.

Here is another excellent .pdf of a step-by-step article from Perdue University.