The grafted tomato–so far it lives up to its billing

mato on plate

Mighty’Mato sliced and ready to eat, July 12, 2013. It’s a miracle.

Honestly, I never thought I’d be eating a tomato from my garden on July 12, but this year on that very date I sliced a perfectly red and juicy variety of Mighty ‘Mato, a grafted tomato grown on a hardy tomato rootstock. Usually I don’t cut into my first fruit till nearly the end of August.

Two more bigger fruits ripened within a couple of days. I couldn’t believe my luck.

A grafted tomato? Never heard of such a thing, you say, but apparently gardeners in Australia and Italy have been growing them for six or seven years, and they were introduced in Canada this year. Grafting is an age-old technique that joins the top of one plant (the scion) with the root of another, without any genetic modification of the upper part of the plant. My uncle did this with his apple trees, producing several varieties on one tree, but I’d never heard of grafting tomatoes. But it’s being done with eggplant and hot and sweet peppers, too.

According to SuperNatural Grafted Vegetables, a California company that produces and sells the grafted material to wholesale growers in the US and Canada, grafted plants are stronger and more vigorous than seed-grown tomatoes; have bigger fruits, larger and longer harvests; withstand temperature swings and other environmental stresses; resist pathogens, pests and soil-borne diseases, including nematodes, and also resist blossom end rot, my particular nemesis.

That’s a lot to live up to, especially with tomatoes. I never believe the hype till I’ve tried the product, and too often reality sets in. So far, this is not the case with Mighty ‘Mato. It’s not the end of the season yet, but to this point they’ve definitely they’ve lived up to their billing.

Okay, full disclosure here: I was given four Mighty ‘Mato plants at a media luncheon put on by Loblaws,which sells it in its garden centres, in early May. One plant–the one that bore me that first delicious fruit–was maybe 18 inches tall, the others were five-inch seedlings in a cardboard box. I grew them on in little pots and in early June planted all of them out in bigger pots in my driveway–which is where I grow lettuce and beans, too, because I have no space in my perennial beds. That’s fine, said Bob Martin of Martin Farms in Vineland, Ontario, which raises Mighy’Mato to selling size for Loblaws. “They do well containers because they’re like goldfish,” he said, and will grow only large enough to fill the space allotted to them.

me in tomatoes 1
The plant that delivered the early fruit wasn’t labelled; at first it looked evenly round, like an Early Girl, but the second and third fruits are bigger, so I won’t hazard a guess. The others are Brandywine, Indigo Apple and Bumblebee Purple. They all have fruit now, some tiny; Indigo Apple’s are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and they have a dark indigo pattern on top and a green base. It’s the only one of the three close to ripening. But it’s still early, isn’t it? If the plants continue to live up to their hype, I should have ripe tomatoes soon.

Mighty ‘Mato produces 39 varieties, from Paul Robeson to Julia Child, plus Manitoba, for short season areas. Not all wholesalers grow on all of them, of course, nor do all retailers stock everything a wholesaler grows.

Grafted tomatoes cannot be planted as I and many gardeners do with “ordinary” tomato plants, with the stem buried partway in the ground to encourage more root growth. This would make the rootstock sprout and cancel out the value of the above-ground graft. Nowhere can I find what rootstock is used, but I read that it’s a wild type that would produce “small green fruits not fit for human consumption.”

Grafted tomatoes are big plants–up to six feet tall and with a root ball twice as big as the usual tomato plant–and need strong support. I wish I’d paid attention to Bob Martin when he suggested using really big pots if that’s how you’re going to grow them. A couple of mine are in 16-inch pots, which are simply not big enough–the plants get top heavy and blow over in a brisk breeze. And ordinary tomato cages aren’t enough, either–I fortified my plants with taller bamboo teepees inside the tomato cages, and I’ve had to insert heavy stakes as well. I hope there’s room in the pots for those roots!

I’ve been careful to keep these tomatoes evenly watered, as I would any container-grown tomato, to prevent blossom-end rot. I’ve seen no sign of it so far–fingers crossed! I’ve fed the plants a couple of times to this point with a liquid tomato fertilizer, which I also do every year with my seed-grown tomato plants. But until I read my notes from the luncheon I’d forgotten that Martin advised against using Miracle Grow for Mighty ‘Mato plants. “It encourages too much growth,” he said. “Instead, use an organic or time-released dry product.”

He also advised pruning indeterminate varieties to get more fruit, and said that indeterminate plants will develop thick stems if pruned.

One caveat: good-sized grafted tomato plants aren’t cheap, about 12 bucks each. For that I could buy maybe three baskets of local tomatoes and avoid the work of growing them. But then I wouldn’t be able to choose from all those heirloom varieties, nor would I get to feel like a farmer and live up to my heritage.

It’s too late to grow these this year, but next year check out Loblaw’s garden centres–and more. Who knows–others may be stocking them too.

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