No hard graft for a bigger yield

By Richard Wright

Friday, February 7, 2014

 

No hard graft for a bigger yield

BLack Prince tomatoes from D. T. Brown.

GARDENING GRAFTING is, of course, an age-old technique, which combines the best attributes of a rootstock with that of the stem joined to it.

It is a marriage of two plants that are good at what they do — so producing an amalgam that is good at everything. That’s the theory.

Fruit trees have been subject to this since ancient times and it is therefore surprising the technique did not cross over to other produce until the 1920s when American, Korean and Japanese growers experimented to reduce fungal infections, which were destroying watermelon crops.

The Dutch horticulture industry began grafting cucumbers soon after the war but it was not until 1962 the first commercially grown grafted tomatoes started to appear in Europe.

Now they dominate the industry.

But it was a surprisingly slow rate of progress that was mirrored by how long it took for grafted plants to cross over from horticultural production to the home grower.

For instance, it was not until 2011 I first came across grafted chillis at the Hampton Court Flower Show, noticing them not only because of the profusion of peppers but for the fact that the Sutton’s variety bore the name Medina.

The scion had been grafted onto vigorous rootstock.

Then I came across what I called the totato.

Both members of the same family, potatoes and tomatoes can be grafted together to get potatoes and tomatoes from the same plant.

It never used to be a hugely happy or productive union but it is a bit different — and if you want to have a go, there is a YouTube instruction video link on the Dobies of Devon website.

For those who want ready-made novelty, Thompson & Morgan has taken the plunge and produced TomTato, now available to the home grower.

Even if the point of paying £14.99 for a single plant, albeit including a supply of chemical fertiliser, may be lost on me, I can see its novelty.

T&M pointed to there being a potential harvest of more than 500 cherry tomatoes above ground with a Brix (sweetness) level way above that of supermarket tomatoes — and good acidity too.

But, below ground, T&M said there would also be up to 2kg of versatile white potatoes.

They can be grown in a greenhouse, in a sunny garden spot or large patio pot.

There’s also a TomTato video on the T&M website.

Dobies and several of the other seed companies now have large ranges of grafted plants but, as is usual in this life, there are no positives without negatives.

While the positive is increased yield, vigour (to such an extent that two leading stems can be trained) and disease resistance, the negative is cost.

For instance, the F1 Lizzano outdoor tomato caught my eye but just a single plant costs £3.99 — more expensive than a packet of the most costly F1 seed.

Three 'plugs’ cost £9.99, which sounds a lot — until you extrapolate just how much the fruit produced would cost you at the greengrocer.

Lizzano is of special value because it is very resistant to late blight, which tends to bring cropping to a premature end in this country as the nights become chill and the days damp — a perfect breeding ground.

Yet another plus point of grafted tomatoes is that because greenhouse varieties are also extremely disease resistant they can be planted directly in the soil — which is always best for taste — and you don’t have to be too picky about total soil replacement season after season.

A very eye-catching Dobies indoor variety is Sweet Petit.

It is a vigorous-growing cherry tomato, producing long, fishbone-shaped trusses of very attractive, shiny, red fruit.

They are described as 'deliciously sweet and tasty fruit. Ideal for heated and unheated glasshouses or polytunnels’.

For those who want a tomato-potato combo for £14.98, there is an offer of three customers’ favourite grafted tomato plants and six tubers each of customers’ favourite potatoes.

Grafted turbo-charged fruit has now been rolled out by the seed houses to include cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, squashes and melons.

The reason for the limit to only certain fruits? It is labour-intensive, therefore expensive, and can only realistically be applied to higher-value crops.

I must admit this is the first year I am considering trying a couple of grafted varieties but that comes after reading considerable comparison studies.

One such was in Grow It! magazine where the reviewer concluded the growth, yield and length of the fruiting season made it a worthwhile investment.

"The trial worked better than I could have imagined," she concluded.

"Grafted tomatoes are, without a doubt, worth every penny of the initial cost.

"The expense is balanced out by the reliability of the plants and the total yield of fruits taken. For speed of growth, disease resistance, reliability, crop size and flavour, grafted versions outperformed any other variety I have ever grown.

"The only word of caution would be this: make sure you have plenty of very long bamboo canes or other supports at hand. Turbo-charged tomatoes live up to their name! "

One that caught my eye at D. T. Brown was Black Prince.

This was a Russian variety I tried a few years ago now.

Very juicy and sweet, I was disappointed by its lack of disease resistance, so a grafted version should sort that out with a bit of luck.

Brown’s describe it as: "Very distinctive with dark purple to black coloured fruits and a delicious, rich and fruity flavour, this wonderful variety originates from Siberia and is known to perform well in cooler climates."

But one of its greatest attributes is it looks absolutely beautiful on the plate.

Also from D. T. Brown is the Supersweet F1, small cherry tomatoes which have a very sweet taste. This prolific fruiter was in the top three of the 2007 Tastiest Tomato competition.

For those who like a beefsteak variety, there is the distinctive Coeur de Boeuf, which has an element of Northwood grower Stan Jackson’s Queen of Hearts about it. It has Stan’s heart-shape but it is also interestingly ribbed.

Brown’s said it has mouth-watering texture and flavour.

"Very meaty and fleshy, fruits ripen from the inside out and look particularly attractive when sliced and used in Mediterranean type salads with mozzarella and olive oil."

That’s got me really salivating for a taste of summer.

• For more details, see www.dobies.co.uk, www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk and www.thompson-morgan.com

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