The Great Tomato Debate

Some of you may have noticed a new kind of tomato began to appear on the shelves of nurseries in the spring of 2010. These are grafted varieties. Grafting is a method of growing the top of a plant (the scion) onto the rootstock of another plant. It is done to achieve hardiness, manage the size of a plant, increase production and disease resistance. In the 19th century the wine industry in France was saved from devastation by phylloxera by grafting grapes on to disease resistant rootstock. Dwarf fruit trees are often grafted onto different rootstock to ensure their size will be small.

With those successes in mind, a local grower, Log House Plants, began introducing grafted tomatoes into the retail market. This year, they hit pay dirt. The plants flew off the retailers’ shelves even though they carried a hefty price tag -- three times the cost of a regular tomato.

After a year of standing by, watching the action, fielding questions from clients and talking to people in the nursery business, I have to admit I was as curious as I was skeptical. So, I set up my own less than clinical but credible experiment. I bought two tomato plants of the same variety, an heirloom tomato named “Brandywine”, one grafted and the other non-grafted. I planted them side by side in an amended bed with the same exposure to sun and the same watering patterns and stood back and waited…

A bit of background would be handy here: Heirloom tomatoes typically bare fewer tomatoes than their other contemporary hybridized cousins. So grafting heirloom varieties could be a really fine idea if one of the outcomes was more luscious fruit. The other point of interest was the claim by the grower that this method can extend growing time because the wild rootstock the plant is grafted to is significantly more robust and cold hardy. Well, that got my attention since we live in the Pacific Northwest where we are starting to count our summers in days instead of months!

The harvest mostly in, the votes counted and the findings are:

  • When I finally did harvest a ripe tomato, it came from the un-grafted plant. The grafted plant had significantly more fruit but the FIRST tomato, the one we all wait for, came from the “Plain Jane”.
  • The grafted plant was about (remember this is not a clinical study) 20% bigger and fuller than the non-grafted tomato which is both a blessing and a curse because current grooming protocol calls for pruning the side shoots (the unproductive greenery) from tomatoes to focus the plants on fruit not leaf production. This meant I spent at least 20% more time pruning the grafted plant and frankly in early September, I gave up keeping up.
  • The sizes of fruit from the grafted tomato were all approximately 30% bigger than those from the regular Brandywine with thinner skin. The color of the fruit was pinker and lighter, not the red/orange of the “regular” Brandywine.
  • But, here’s the most important outcome…taste. Taste testing the fruit with a few brave gourmands, picked simultaneously and hauled into the kitchen and eaten without accompaniment, the non-grafted Brandywine tomato won hands down. TA DA! The grafted Brandywine’s taste was diluted and watery in comparison. It lacked that wee bit of acidity we all crave in a fresh, sun warmed tomato and the texture in contrast, was mushy.
  • There you have it. Grafted Tomatoes are larger and more robust but the crop they produce pales in comparison to the non-grafted tomato in the taste test and will cost you three times more.

    So…Why bother? Next year save your money or spend it on a few more regular, old, non-grafted, tried and true tomatoes with exotic names like Green Zebra or Black Krim. Take a bite out of a tomato, not your wallet.


    Garden Class Announcement

    Celilo Gardens will offer a series of 4 Classes beginning in January 2012. Join Bonnie Bruce (see the “about page” for more on Bonnie) for any of all of these 2 hours sessions. These sessions are open to Gardeners of all levels.

    The Real Dirt on Dirt: Jan. 14, 2012

    All gardens are founded on dirt but only great gardens have great soil. We will explore the basics of great soil (Texture, Nutrition, Permeability and Ecosystems). We will talk about the importance of soil PH, how to measure and balance it. And we will discuss the ins and outs and usefulness of compost, mulch and aerated compost teas.

    Get Your feet Wet-- Rain Gardens and Swales: Jan. 21, 2012

    This is an overview of the basics to creating a rain garden. We will discuss the planning process, site preparation, dos and don’ts and water loving plant materials.

    Perfect Bedfellows -- Interplanting Edibles and Perennials: Feb. 5, 2012

    For those of us with city sized lots and precious little room to devote a patch of the garden for only vegetables why not plant edible plants in between and along with our ornamental plantings? We will explore designing with edibles and their ornamental cousins, the benefits of companion planting and the details and challenges as well as some favorite edibles who are both beauties and good eats.

    Lawn, What a Yawn – alternatives for green spaces: Mar. 4, 2012

    Lawn used to be every homeowners pride but because lawn is a water hog, a maintenance hound and often chemically dependent, lawn is losing its appeal. We will explore other options for the green stuff.

    Time: 10 AM to Noon Location:

    June Key Delta Comm. Center 5940 N. Albina, Portland OR

    Cost: $25 per class OR $ 80 for the series

    Payments may made by personal check (to Bonnie Bruce, 6447 SE Stark St. Portland OR 97215) or by PayPal (to PLEASE include your name, address, phone and email address. Confirmation of registration will be made via email.

    snow and berries

    Interplanting Edibles in the Garden

    Almost everyone thinks when raising vegetables they need their very own spot in the yard. A Pea Patch, a raised bed, a piece of ground where nothing else is planted except edibles. Why? Is this practice something we all were raised with? Did our grandparents practice this technique? Was it written in our 5th grade science books? I don't think so, but somebody sold us that idea and we have embraced it.

    Let me introduce another alternative for those of us who have city sized lots and precious little room to devote a patch of the garden for only vegetables. What about planting edible plants in between and along with our ornamental plantings? Picture it...tomatoes as a background planting to Dianthus (Pinks) or red leafed lettuce edging the deep green of a lawn or even more bold, scarlet red peppers planted beside sunny yellow Echinacea (Cone Flower)? A veritable riot of color, texture with good eats sprinkled in. It makes a person swoon, doesn't it?

    For years now I have interplanted food with flowers and it has brought me the best of all worlds. Vegetables planted in the right places for their sun and water requirements--not just in the spot where the vegetable patch happens to be. Vegetables companion planted with plants that attract bees, birds and other insects creates a richer environment for pollination which gives bigger yields. Companion planting can also attract beneficial insects which can cut down on pests. AND when the harvest is done there are no bare, muddy, unsightly "parking lots" in the yard for the duration of the winter.

    The tricks are few but important to pay attention to:

    Pick your vegetables as much for the tastiness of the harvest as for the beauty of the plant. For example, I happen to love eggplant. There are many, many varieties out there on the market. Some are large, heavy bearers of the traditional purple bulbous, egg-shaped fruit, some have furry leaves, some are tall or short. But my choice is a variety named "Ichiban", a Japanese eggplant which is the most lovely plant with nearly black-purple stems, bright green leaves and star shaped purple-blue flowers with yellow centers. You (almost) don't care that the fruit is long, narrow, delicate and does not require weeping when cooked. THIS is what I plant in my garden because the plant is as valuable for its contribution to the garden as the fruit.

    Give equal consideration to a plant's habit as you do to its cultural requirements when locating a vegetable in the garden. That is, the height and spread of a veggie is as important in the placement as is its the sun (or shade) and water needs. For instance, tomatoes will grow 3' to 5' tall and should be located towards the back or midpoint of your beds NOT front and center, while small and fluffy radishes can be used as edging material at the very front of a bed. Leaf vegetables (spinach, lettuce, chard) cannot take a hot, bakey location (they will bolt) so choose a spot with dappled or little afternoon sun. When planting also consider the water requirements a particular vegetable has and plant it near perennials with the same needs.

    Treat vegetables as annuals in your garden and you won't be disappointed. Let them fill in the holes and give fullness to your existing beds. At the end of the growing season, when the harvest is done and you clean out the vegetables, the loss will be nearly unnoticeable.

    This season, don't let the fact that you have not created raised beds or cannot devote the space to a Pea Patch stop you from growing your own food. It's all about being bold and using your garden to its fullest potential

    Tomato Sprout

    Is It Spring Yet?

    I know by the lyrical songs of birds spring is coming. It is hard to resist daydreaming of spring when you see the very first snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) or daffodils nosing up from soggy ground. It is not too early to think about sprouting vegetable seeds, especially if they need to be sprouted indoors.

    Most of us tackle the art of starting seeds indoors in a hit or miss fashion. I have had some impressive failures by holding on to this cavalier attitude. So over time, I have discovered there are a few basic dos and don'ts that will make sprouting more successful.

    First, there are vegetables who love cool weather which can be sown directly in the ground right now, like peas and spinach. The caveat here is, your soil must drain well or as we get more spring rain (and trust me we will) seeds will simply rot in the ground. Other vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. do better planted outdoors as small plants referred to as "starts". These and others are candidates for sprouting indoors.

    Then, if you want to try your hand at starting your own veggies from seed indoors it is important to know when the last frost typically occurs in your area. You want to start your seeds 6-8 weeks before they can be planted in the ground and you don't want to plant before the last frost. Nothing kills a little tender sprout faster than a late frost. The following link will help you determine when the last frost date is typically in your area: Portland’s last frost ranges from March 31st to mid April. Of course there are always the exceptions but for the most part, this is a good rule of thumb. All of this means, begin NOW.

    Next, the Do’s and Don’ts:

  • Read your seed packages carefully. There is valuable information there. Take it to heart. For example, some seeds prefer to be covered with a thin layer of soil, others don’t. Pay attention to the details and your rate of success depends upon it.
  • The type of planting medium makes huge difference. It needs to be light, finely textured and sterile. Do not head for the backyard and dig up soil from your garden for this purpose. Buy it. Even the best amended garden soil is too heavy for sprouting. In addition, garden soil can contain viruses and bacteria not conducive to nurturing sprouts. So buy it. You will find it sold in nurseries and garden centers as “planting mix”.
  • I like to use peat containers to contain my starts because there is little or no transplanting required. Transplanting tender plants risks damage to the root and possibly to the overall plant. Whether you choose to begin with peat trays or individual pots, be certain when it comes time to plant your “babies” in the ground, you cut the rims off the peat containers and plant at the soil level so none of the peat container is exposed or it will wick away moisture from the seedling. Also slash through the bottoms to allow the roots of the young plants to break through into the soil.
  • WHERE you grow your plants is arguably the most critical issue. Light is important. Even the sunniest kitchen may not provide enough light for sprouting. Plants can become leggy and phototropic. A remedy is to use a florescent light fixture equipped with a full spectrum lamp. Place the trays or pots within 4” to 5” of the light source. The other important factor is consistent warmth. Keep starts away from drafts and avoid big temperature swings to ensure plants grow steadily.
  • When the time comes and the starts are almost ready, be sure to “harden off” your plants for 7 to 10 ten days (some say for as long as 14 days) before you plant them outside. This is IMPORTANT…if you skip this step there is a good chance your tender tots will die or at best be stunted. Hardening off is an artful (not scientific) process which toughens up the plants and allows them to best acclimate to the great outdoors. Do this by introducing the plants to outside for a few hours each day, gradually increasing the time. Begin by setting plants out of direct sun and wind and daily move them into more sun for a longer time periods while you reduce the water. The goal is to “train” them to spend all day and night outdoors over the course of 10 days or so.
  • If you have remaining seeds (and you should) store seed packs in a cool dark spot for future plantings. I typically keep my seeds no more than one calendar year because over time, successful germination will diminish.
  • Finally, a brief word about protecting young plants once they are in the ground…I have had good luck encouraging plants to grow, even when temperatures take a momentary dip, by covering them with insulating cones filled with water. There are several brand names on the market (Kozy Coat, Walls O Water, Water Teepee) which can be purchased at garden centers in Portland or online. These cones give the plants a head start over others without insulation. But NOTE: Be certain to remove the cones of water as temperatures warm or you will cook the plants inside in the course of just one afternoon.

    Enjoy the promise of spring!

    Tomato Sprout