If you've ever tasted a homegrown or farmers market tomato, you know there's a big difference between that juicy, flavorful delicacy and the pale, mealy variety you find at the grocery store. So, if homegrown tomatoes taste so much better, why are they selling the other stuff in bulk? The answer is simple: Many of the best-tasting tomato varieties are simply hard to grow, and can't be counted on for a big harvest. Hybrid tomatoes are specifically bred for disease resistance and hardiness, so tomato farmers can bring in a good crop every year.
Home gardeners are tomato farmers too, but they tend to value quality over quantity, choosing specialty heirloom breeds that can be downright fragile. Recently, a new trend has popped up: grafting heirloom plants onto hybrid root stock for tomato plants that can survive most conditions, but still make high-quality fruit. You can graft tomatoes yourself at home—but will you?
What Does "Grafting" Really Mean?
You may already know that many fruit trees are grafted. If its branches are within your reach, for example, your backyard apple tree has been grafted onto a dwarf root stock. The process is surprisingly simple: Cut a notch in the root, insert the stalk of the new plant, and tie them together tightly until they fuse. From that time forward, the two function as a symbiotic unit—not a single plant, exactly, but as if they were a single plant. The roots and branches, however, are genetically different and the fruit isn't significantly affected by the root.
In the case of tomatoes, there's some stigma attached to hybrids. Gardeners and aficionados generally prefer heirlooms—but as long as you're not growing GMO breeds, there's nothing seriously wrong with hybrids. They simply don't taste as good overall, and because just a few varieties are dominant in agriculture, they don't support genetic diversity. When you graft an heirloom onto a hybrid root, some would argue that you're getting the best use of both.
So it comes down to you. If you've had trouble growing tomatoes, will you consider grafting your own or buying grafts from your nursery? Or do you prefer to keep it pure and simple, and take your chances?
Here are a few resources to help you decide:
- Oregon Live: Grafted Tomatoes Get a Green Thumbs Up
- University of California, Santa Cruz: Grafting Tomatoes
- University of Connecticut: Grafting Techniques for Greenhouse Tomatoes
Image: The Ewan