The latest idea for the home garden is the grafted tomato, which apparently have been common in Europe, but newer to the U.S. Conventional tomato plants are grafted onto strong rootstock, chosen for its ability to resist diseases. Such tomatoes will be more vigorous and may have a longer growing season, depending on which rootstock is used. These were written up in detail in the New York Times in 2013.
You can get a number of varieties in large flat-size quantities from Johnny’s Seeds and individual plants from the Vermont Bean Company for about $8 each. As an experiment, we ordered one grafted Big Beef tomato plant and one grafted Amish Paste tomato plant from Vermont Bean.
We planted all our tomatoes the same day: the soil in the raised beds had already been prepared. Other plants we tried this year included Fourth of July, Lemon Boy, Big Boy, Sweet Million, Indigo Rose, Cloudy Day, Opalka and 6 Romas for sauce making. We started all the rest from seed in our indoor hotbed.
This was not a good year for avoiding tomato diseases in Connecticut. Despite sterilization of the stakes and cages and new soil for the Romas and continuous spraying, we had septoria leaf spot all too soon, and the Romas were hit the worst. For the rest of the plants we were able to keep it under control by removing infected branches.
Many of the side branches of the grafted Big Beef were hit with the leaf spot and removed, but a number of tomatoes developed off the main stem. The question, then is would the Big Beef ripen sooner than other non-grafted tomatoes?
Our first to ripen has always been Burpee’s Fourth of July which was bred from cherry tomatoes and grows in similar but larger-tomatoed clusters. Nominally, it ripens in 49 days, but this has never happened in our particular garden, where mid to late July is the earliest we’ve seen from a mid-May planting. This year, we picked our first Fourth of July on July 23rd.
Now Big Beef tomatoes have a nominal ripening date of 73 days, so the Big Beef should in theory be 24 days behind the Fourth of July. Well, that’s probably extreme, but in fact we picked our first Big Beef on July 29, 6 days after the early tomato. None of the other full-sized main crop tomatoes have begun to get pick at all, so we’d call the grafted Big Beef a success in earliness, but not as disease resistant as we’d hoped. With fewer branches, we probably will only get 6-8 more tomatoes from the plant.
The Amish Paste grafted plant has ripened already as well, probably about July 28, and it has been much more resistant to leaf spot than the other paste tomatoes (Roma and Opalka). The Romas are quite leaf spotty, but the Opalka is more resistant, apparently. We’ll report on all 3 when they are all ripe.
Pictures of all the plants are in the slide show.