January 31, 2011

Mark my words, you will do this: Grafting Tomatoes


 They're calling it the ‘Jack in the Bean Stalk Effect’.

It doesn’t include any fancy chemicals, secret hormone or electricity. It doesn’t even involve a wicked witch or a fairly godmother for that matter, all you need to do, is to graft any tomato variety onto a root-crazy rootstalk variety. It’s akin to grafting the body of Octomom onto the legs of Lance Armstrong, OK, pathetically poor analogy, but in the world of home grown tomatoes, you can only imagine what that means. But I am jumping ahead of myself……

Ten years ago, the method started in Japan, and six years ago, commercial growers in North America started hearing about it and trying it. Today, many greenhouse tomato crops are grown on grafted plants, and a trend has been born. This is still a new strategy in avoiding soil-borne diseases with tomato crops is taking root with a few in-the-know home growers.

Grafted tomatoes. The idea is simple. Take any tomato variety, heirloom or F1 hybrid like Big Girl, and at a young stage graft the plant onto another variety selected specifically for it’s super-turbo root growth and disease resistance. Suddenly, the best, greenest, most sustainable and paradigm shifting method for overcoming the soil-borne diseases that blight our home gardens with our most favorite crop has been overcome- if you haven’t heard of home-grafted tomatoes yet,  you will. Why not be the first to try them?

Grafting does seem scary, but this isn’t; the sort of grafting that takes time nor messy materials like beeswax and time- since tomatoes are grafted on soft tissue as young plants only weeks old, the grafts are quick to heal since the plants are young, and in a couple of weeks, they can even  be planted out.  But that is the best part, for a newly grafted plant may look exactly like its counterpart, once planted out in the garden, stand back...for farmers already joke about this phenomenon which they have coined, the “jack-in-the-bean-stalk” effect.   The JITBS Effect happens as the rootstock takes off deep into the ground, and the plants are turbo fueled to take off. Suddenly, everything is different for home tomato growers - once this method is adopted by nurserymen. Until then, you can do it yourself!
Simple, right? Well not so fast, we may all want to try this but when was the last time you tried to graft something at home? Thanks to Japan, things are getting easier with the introduction of easy-to-use grafting clips that look like colorful plastic clothes pins and new videos showing up on YouTube, we can all, at least try this method this year. Also, thanks to Johnny’s Selected Seed, the premium rootstock varieties ( mainly, a variety called Maxifort) are now available so that we all can start both sets of seedlings and try our own grafts at home.

Grafting tomatoes and other crops is still new, even to farmers, but most grafted crops are limited to organic greenhouse growers, but since the method works so well, I predict that it won’t be long before we all are buying pre-grafted tomatoes by fast reacting nurseries. Recent studies show that grafting a hybrid or heirloom plant onto a more root aggressive ‘wild’ form of tomato is quickly becoming a key factor in improving vigor and disease resistance in many crops, best of all, it is sustainable, organic and low-input. Grafting might be the key in mastering more disease prone varieties like heirlooms and non-hybrids, and many organic growers are already exploring its benefits.

In the USA, grafting is relatively unknown to home gardeners, and is mainly a practice used by a limited number of hydroponic tomato growers who cultivate tomatoes in poly tunnels. We all know that tomatoes are prone to viruses and other soil borne diseases, but imagine what greenhouse growers have to deal with, since they don’t have the luxury of rotating their crops to avoid the pathogens that developed under plastic in just 3 years.

According to a paper written by organic guru Jack Manix of Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont, a pivotal article about the methods and advantages of grafting tomatoes by a Canadian agronomist , Andre Carrier, changed everything for commercial growers, but it provides insight for may home gardeners too, since rotating crops is often not practical on a ¼ acre lot.

The benefits of grafting tomatoes onto a more aggressive rootstalk has been so extraordinary, that the idea of non-grafted plants may be outdated in a few years as we all adopt this method for our home crops. Tomato crops are notoriously fussy about susceptible to soil and air borne diseases, this may be the greatest discovery since grafting itself was invented (centuries ago). Grafted tomatoes are greenhouse growers secret method in avoiding diseases with their crops, but now, you no longer need a range of hoop houses in order to try grafting tomatoes for your own home garden.  Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells everything you will need, including the Japanese grafting clips and other clips, that you simply snap over the cut portions of stem, as the plant cells fuse together. Unlike apples and other woody plants where we normally see grafting used, tomatoes heal quickly once grafted, so clips are used for only a couple of weeks. Once healed, the plants are hardened off, potted into 4 inch pots and then moved to the garden where they take off at a growth rate three times that of non-grafted plants.

I am trying tomato grafting myself this year, since I think it will be easier in a home greenhouse than for a windowsill grower, but if you grow under lights, you may have more luck. An Internet search will bring you to many videos and step-by-step slide shows on the subject, and the greatest cost, which will be the rootstalk seed, can easily be justified by the number of plants you plan to graft.

So if you want the best tomato crop that you ever had, you mission is set….go graft!

Expect to see grafted tomatoes at some garden centers this year, but you can order some through the mail. Try here, at Log House Plants, or Territorial Seed.


  1. Thanks so much for showing how to do this. I ordered grafted tomatoes through Territorial, but I may give this a try soon.

  2. Surgeons can do skin grafts to save lives so I guess it is only natural for farmers to start grafting their vegetables. I think this is such a great experiment, and it is still supporting local, organic growers which is always a plus!I bet these tomatoes will be tasty.

  3. Albert Adelman2:27 PM

    I recall an article in the New Yorker many (>30)years ago. There was a community in NJ in which some gardeners were grafting tomato branches on mature Jimsonweed. Works well if you want early tomatoes. But if the Jimson/tomato ratio is too large you'll end up in the ER.

  4. What rootstock would you use?


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