How Do You Like Them Tomatoes?

The art and science of plant grafting has been practiced for thousands of years, dating back to China circa 2000 B.C. and the ancient Greeks. For fruit trees like apple and cherry, grafting—the cutting and marrying together of the tissues from two separate plants—is fundamental to produce desirable fruit, as their seeds do not always pass on the “good” genes. Without grafting, those trees would never have been domesticated.

While tomatoes can be started from seed, Stone Barns Center’s Field Foreman Max Apton sees the benefit of grafting these garden favorites as well. While working on a farm in Vermont last season, he saw how grafted tomatoes can out-produce and outlast regular plants. So, as part of his work overseeing the field growing operations at Stone Barns, Max is setting out to graft approximately 50 tomato plants this season and run an experiment to compare how they stack up next to other plants.

“The concept of grafting is incredible. I’m amazed at how you can take two different living plants, bind them together, and they will not only heal, but thrive,” says Max.

The process starts in the greenhouse, with regular seed-grown tomato seedlings. For this experiment, they are growing a variety called Colossus for the rootstock, and a variety of more delicious heirlooms like Green Zebra and Paul Robeson for the “scion”—the head that will be attached to the rootstock when they are grafted. Colossus is prized for its hardiness, disease resistance and productivity, but its fruits aren’t very desirable. When the seedlings reach about one foot in height, Max and his team will cut off the tops of the Colossus plants and attach more desirable varieties, binding the stems together with rubber tubing. By May, they will be transplanted to the fields.

“The strong root system of Colossus will help grow bigger fruits and hardier plants, but the fruits will always be those of the scion—whether Green Zebra or whatever variety we choose to graft,” says Max.

Throughout the coming growing season, Max and his field team will be evaluating the grafted plants’ productivity and hardiness in the face of inclement weather or disease and their reception at Blue Hill and the Farm Market.

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