Monday, March 21, 2011

Tomato Grafting

Monday, March 21, 2011

Just back in from a long walk with Karl the Wonder Dog. 45 minutes ago the sky looked quite clear with only a few small wispy clouds. It was calm but now the wind has risen to 6 mph and the 26° feels a lot colder than it is. The ground that was deep mud two days ago is frozen hard and travel along back roads will be tedious today. A quick check of Eye On the Sky, a very reliable weather station forecast emanating from the Fairbanks Museum in St Johnsbury verifies that snow is on the way. Perhaps 4", maybe up to 8" will top the frozen ground by tomorrow morning. The bird feeders confirm this as all varieties of birds are pushing and shoving for breakfast seeds.

Yesterday Gail and I headed to High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott Vermont. Owner Tom Stearns and his crew never disappoint and yesterday's program on tomato grafting was a pleasure. Paul Betz of High Ledge Farm was the instructor as he shared his experience with tomato grafting with an eager attendance that exceeded 70 at my last count.

Tomato grafting has become more and more popular and the +70 attendees eager to learn the procedure attest to farmers' desires to insure production of a good looking and tasting tomato every year. Growing tomatoes outside in Vermont is a tricky affair at best and its like playing the lottery as you compete with cold weather in spring, stem breaking winds and rain in the summer and lack of heat when really needed. In contrast, farmers have found that growing tomatoes inside a greenhouse, although it requires an initial investment in the thousands, produces a consistent product over subsequent years. This is not without challenges and that's where the tomato grafting part comes in.

Tomatoes are susceptible to diseases over time and when you grow them in the same place year after year, the dead stalks may leave the garden plots at the end of each season but diseases often remain in the soil. Grafting your favorite tomatoes onto stronger rootstock leads to more and better tomatoes and when these are growing in the greenhouse, the production beats the start of the summer field harvest and extends it somewhat into the fall when the field grown fruits have probably been nailed by the frost.

Paul Betz is a very good instructor and most willing to share his +15 years experience grafting tomatoes. He demonstrated top grafting and also side grafting and everyone got to graft away until they felt comfortable with the procedure.

The picture up top shows the start of a top grafted tomato. On the left is a root stock prepared for grafting, on the right is the top of a hybrid ready to graft and in the middle is a plastic grafting clip that will hold the two tomatoes while they rejoin.

Rootstock prepared for accepting top graft.

Preparing hybrids for the top.

Inserting top into clip.

Finished top graft ready to pot in 4" pot, allow graft to mature, harden off and plant.

In addition to top grafting, side grafting is commonly used. Each has its individual merits. Root stocks and hybrid stock both are cut at about 60°-70° angles, one cut angled down, one cut up so two cuts can be inserted in each other. This one was a little trickier for me but Gail worked through them easily.

The grafting clip used in side grafting is like a mini clothes pin holding the two stems together. Unlike the clip in the top grafted tomato that sheds itself in time, the grower needs to take this one off the plant as the graft heals.

Finished side grafted product, ready for potting.

Johnny's Selected Seeds, one of my favorite seed companies, sells the clips and the
rootstock seed. Their site also has an excellent video produced a few years back by Vern Grubinger, Vegetable and Berry Specialist at the University of Vermont Extension Service. The film is hosted by Michael Collins of Old Athens Farm in Westminster, Vermont. Watch it a few times and the pictures I have provided will begin to make sense. Michael does a great job with the video and gives a sense of confidence that you'll be looking over your shoulder for.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the sky darkens and the birds keep feeding. Oh for some fresh tomatoes for a sandwich at lunch!

And remember gardeners, here at Vermont Flower Farm we'll help you Grow your Green Thumb! Call or email anytime.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm
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