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Many benefits to grafting fruits, vegetables

7:40 PM, Feb. 16, 2013  |  Comments
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You probably learned in middle school science class about how the top of one kind of apple tree is grafted onto the roots of another apple tree to make a better tree. This process is often used to "dwarf" a tree - a good productive tree top is grafted onto roots that will keep the tree from growing too tall, making harvest much easier.

The grafting process has been used on vegetables in Asia for a century and today in Japan over 90 percent of melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants are grafted, but the process was introduced in the U.S. only 20 years ago. This year, several mail order nurseries are offering grafted tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

Vegetable grafting is similar to fruit tree grafting in that the rootstock is selected for vigor and disease resistance and the top of the plant, the scion, is chosen for fruit flavor and quality. Many growers see 50 percent increases in yield over non-grafted vegetable plants.

One of the huge benefits of growing grafted vegetables is avoidance of soil-borne diseases. When you buy a hybrid tomato plant, you often see a list of letters after the plant name. It usually starts out VFN and more letters may follow, such as T, A and St. These letters mean the plant has been bred to be resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus, alternaria stem canker, and stemphylium gray leaf spot. The downside of all this hybridizing to avoid disease is often that good tomato flavor is bred right out of it.

Heirloom vegetables are those that have been in existence for 50 years or more, and are very tasty. Their downside is that they often succumb to the diseases listed above.

When the top of an heirloom plant is grafted onto the roots of a hybrid plant, you have the best of both worlds. Not only do you have a plant producing superior tasting fruit, you have a disease resistant plant that reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides, grows more vigorously, and produces more fruit for a longer time period. Grafted plants are especially good for organic gardeners and for those who don't have space to rotate crops from year to year to avoid soil-borne diseases.

Planting a grafted tomato plant is a bit different from planting a regular tomato plant. You must be careful not to bend or put pressure on the graft. With a regular tomato you should remove some bottom leaves and set the plant deep into the soil, but a grafted plant should be set at the same level as it was in the nursery pot, keeping the graft well above soil level.

Grafting is a labor-intensive process, so they are more expensive. You might buy a 3-pack of hybrid plants for a dollar, but you will pay $7 to $13 for just one grafted plant. But if you've been unsuccessful growing tomatoes, peppers or eggplants and really want that just-picked fresh flavor, maybe you'd like to give grafted vegetables a try.

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