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February 2013

Grafted tomatoes beat diseases

Tomato 'Sweetheart': Grafted and Non-Grafted. Image ©Log House Plants
So why would you want to graft a tomato plant? After all, tomatoes are easy enough to grow from seed. Well, firstly, you don’t want to do it – you want to get someone who knows what they’re doing, and has done thousands, to do it and then just buy the plant.

But why bother at all? One big big reason: resistance to disease. If your plants die of disease you get no crop at all. Grafted plants are resistant to soil diseases.

The problem is that it’s impossible to find varieties that look good, taste good, crop well and don’t suffer from diseases. Most of the worst diseases are soil borne and, if you grow tomatoes in the same soil every year, outside or in the greenhouse – and often if you grow them in fresh soil every year – soil borne diseases will often bring them down or weaken them.

So here’s the thing. Instead of growing from seed, buy a plant that’s grafted on to a rootstock that’s disease resistant. To make clear how valuable disease resistance in a rootstock is, one of the most popular tomato rootstocks is resistant to: crown rot, root rot, corky root rot and stem rot, plus two kinds of Fusarium plus Verticillium and Cladosporium plus root eelworm. That’s impressive.

Even in conditions where disease is not suspected to be a problem, grafted plants do well. Grafted plants of Tomato 'Elegance': Grafted and Non-Grafted. Image ©Suttons Seedsthe variety ‘Elegance’, a well-flavored traditional style tomato, produced an average of 50% heavier crop across a range of conditions than non-grafted plants. You can see in the pictures how obvious it is. Cherry tomato ‘Sweetheart’ (at the top, grafted plant on the right, obviously) is growing in Oregon, traditional tomato ‘Elegance’ (right, grafted on the left) is growing in Devon, England. And look at the difference in the roots of 'Brandwine' (below, grafted plant on the right) (Click the pictures to enlarge.)

And it’s not just tomatoes. You can also buy grafted plants of egg plants (aubergine), chili and sweet peppers, cucumbers, melons, watermelons and squash.

In Britain, Suttons were the pioneers and now offer plants both mail order and in garden centers and list more varieties than anyone. In North America Log House Plants have led the way and have gone from not grafting veggies at all in 2006, to perhaps hitting a million plants this year. They do not sell direct to gardeners.

Check out my recent piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph for more on grafted vegetables.

In Britain you can buy grafted vegetables from Suttons, from Mr Fothergill’s, from Marshalls, and from Simply Seeds and Plants amongst others.

In North America you can buy grafted vegetables and from Garden Life and from The Territorial Seed Company, and from Burpee. For retail outlets in the west, check out the Log House Plants retail outlets page.

UPDATE: Harris Seeds has trial pro discounted packs of grafted heirloom tomato plants, but you have to purchase by March 8th, 2013. Use coupon code 3PRP046 to get free shipping too. They want feedback on how well they grow. Varieties include 'Brandywine', 'Cherokee Purple', 'Mr. Stripey', 'Old German', and 'San Marzano'. They are available only in packs of fifteen or thirty six. Full details at:
Roots of Tomato 'Brandywine': Grafted and Non Grafted. Image ©Log House Plants.

Thank you to Log House Plants for the images of 'Sweetheart and 'Brandywine', and to Suttons Seeds for the image of 'Elegance'.

Variegated euphorbias

Euphorbia 'Glacier Blue': good in containers and the open ground. Image©
I recently took on the unexpectedly difficult task of writing a piece about variegated euphorbias. The piece is published in the March 2013 issue of The Plantsman, the Royal Horticultural Society magazine for serious plant nuts. The problem with these undeniably dramatic forms of Euphorbia characias is - not to put too fine a point on it - that it's hard to tell one from another. It’s not quite that “they all look the same” - but the fact is that a lot of them do.

So I appealed here on my blog for some help on how to sort them out, and on their origins, and I was delighted that quite a few people, from both sides of the Atlantic, responded; some of them I quote in the piece. Plantspeople are unfailingly helpful – you just have to ask. There wasn’t enough space in the magazine to list everyone who helped, so I’ll do so at the end of this post. Thank you.

The RHS trial of forms of Euphorbia characias and its hybrids, that I mention in my article, includes some variegated types. It is to be planted this spring and then assessed over the following years by an expert panel. Should be very interesting...

My favorite is probably ‘Glacier Blue’ (above, click to enlarge). At about 18in/45cm it’s manageable in most gardens and its bright, blue grey foliage is edged in creamy white. I also like the rarely seen ‘Silver Shadow’ (below, click to enlarge) with its spiral of growth; its slender variegation allows it good vigor. The hard-to-find Euphorbia 'Silver Shadow' was raised by photographer John Fielding. Image ©

The other problem with these plants (in  addition to identifying them correctly) is that often they’re rather short lived. Here in north east Pennsylvania, they’re summer container plants; the winter is just too cold. They’re Mediterranean in origin, and it never gets down to -20C/-5F in Portugal as it has here this winter. So they’re wiped out. (The dependably hardy ‘First Blush’ is a form of E. epithymoides and so not covered by the article.) But, even in Britain or the Pacific North West, wet soil, strong winds, pruning at the wrong time and other problems often restricts their life to a year or two.

But Gina Falcetti, New Products Grower at Skagit Gardens (wholesale only, no retail) in Washington state, where ‘Glacier Blue’ arose, may have the answer. I quote her in the article:
“I think improper pruning is responsible for many lost plants. Most people seem to want to let them go all season and prune after winter, or to whack them back directly after bloom. I find it necessary to be patient, wait after bloom is past until new shoots are visible at the base and are about 1in/2.5cm long, then to cut back all the way down to these new shoots.

“This often means there is an awkward month or two when you really want to cut them back, but shouldn’t. If they are cut when there are no new buds emerging they will often just die, or produce a lot of shoots that revert. This needs to be done annually, not after the plants have been let go for a couple of seasons, or the stems get too thick and woody and re-break is weak or uneven.”

Seems like good advice to me.

In addition to Gina Falcetti, I’d like to thank the following growers and breeders and gardeners for their help with this piece: Judy Barker, Mary Benger, Bob Brown, Brian Dockerill, Gary Doerr, Gary Dunlop, Janet Egger, David Glenn, Paul Gooderham, Chris Kelleher, Andrew Mikolajski, John Notton, John Fielding, Pat Hockey, Jo Howe, Geri Laufer, Paul Picton, Lita Sollisch, Graham Spencer, Tim Walker, Don Witton and the many people in whose gardens I’ve inspected these plants over the years. I apologize if I’ve left anyone out, and for the fact that there was not space to include every piece of information received.

I must be mad, now I’m working on a piece on Nepeta (catmints) – another group where “they all look the same”!

Rare bobwhite in our Pennsylvania garden

Northern Bobwhite looking for seeds under our bird feeder. Image ©GardenPhotoscom
We’re in the middle of the Great Backyard Bird Count here in the US (last day tomorrow) and here in north east Pennsylvania we have a bird that’s not supposed to be around at this time of year. In fact it rarely shows up in this part of the country at all  – the Northern Bobwhite. It's a kind of quail, a small, chicken-like, ground feeding bird...

In the last ten years it’s been recorded at just four places in the whole of Pennsylvania (for Brits - Pennsylvania is the size of England); so the fact that we have one here is a bit special. It’s more common farther south but this female has been here, on and off, for quite a few weeks. judy spotted her again yesterday (and took the picture), as she (the bobwhite, that is!) pottered about under the feeders hung from the raised deck.

She’s unexpectedly tame, she approached within just a few yards of me not long ago, and seems to appreciate the extra seeds thrown down for her although there’s competition from the squirrels.

As it happens, over in Britain, a friend who runs DT Brown, one of the UK's biggest seed companies, has also been spotting some interesting birds. In his village near Newmarket in eastern England, for the second year running, he’s noticed a rare Great Grey Shrike spending the winter and in a nearby village he spotted sixteen Red Kites roosting in one tree! And they’re big… With their wingspan of 5-6ft/1.5-1.8m that must have been quite a sight.

* There’s still time to participate in America’s Great Backyard Bird Count.

UPDATE (6 April) Mrs Bob White is still with us and is still very tame. Most mornings, she's waiting for her daily appetizer of cracked corn. She clucks, quietly, when approached and seems very content - although no sign of a Mr Bob White.

A message by email suggested she might have been intentionally released but we know of nowhere anywhere near here that raises and releases quail or any other birds.

Tomato taste test - American style

'Sungold', one of the top tasting tomatoes in both the US and UK taste tests. Image ©Jacquie Gray/RHS
In my last post here, I looked at a British tomato taste test featuring tomatoes grown in the glasshouse of a large seed company in Oxfordshire in England. This time, we cross the Atlantic to Morningsun Herb Farm, a retail and mail order herb and vegetable nursery about 50 miles north west of San Francisco.

Their annual tomato tasting days began back in 2003 so they have a fascinating record of visitors’ favorites for flavor. For their 10th annual Tomato Day, last year, ninety three varieties were tasted by a large throng of visitors.

The hybrid tomato 'Sweet Chelsea' tasted better than many heirlooms ©Sakata SeedsTop of the tree came ‘Sun Sugar’, with ‘Sungold’ in second place – ‘Sungold’ also came second in the British test. These were followed by ‘Brandywine Sudduth’, ‘Sweet Chelsea’, ‘Rosalita’ and in sixth place ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’. You can check the full list on the Morningsun Herb Farm website. In 2011 the top three were ‘Sun Sugar’, ‘Sungold’ and ‘Isis Candy’ followed by ‘Oaxacan Jewel’ and ‘Blush’ with ‘Snow White Cherry’, ‘Super Sweet 100’ and ‘Yellow Cherokee’ all equal. The voting was very close. But it’s worth mentioning that back in 2007 almost every singe person rated ‘Sun Sugar’ as “superb”. 'Sun Sugar', voted best tasting in the Morninsun Herb  Farm tomato taste test last year. Image ©Morningsun Herb Farm

So, in general, ‘Sun Sugar’ (cherry) and ‘Sungold’ (cherry) both of which scored exceptionally well every year, seem the most dependable tasty.

As with the British results, the varieties that did well were a mixture of modern hybrid varieties and older heirloom types. But, unlike the British taste test, all the voting took place on one day instead of being spread over a number of weeks. This is probably gives a fairer picture.

I should also mention that a couple of years ago New York magazine carried out their own very interesting tomato taste test involving two top New York chefs and an heirloom tomato expert.

Tomato Taste Test - British style

Everywhere you look, there are claims about how tasty are the tomato varieties offered by different seed companies. But, instead of relying on the seed company’s marketing department, isn’t the best way to simply ask people to taste a range of different tomatoes – and give their verdict?

Well, at Ball Colegrave, the British outpost of the Ball Horticultural Company (neither sell retail), that’s exactly what they did – last year, and the previous year as well. All the visitors who toured their summer trials – and who also voted for their Blue Flag awards for ornamentals – were invited to taste twenty five of their tomato varieties. All were grown under glass. The previous year they were offered forty seven varieties - which may be too taste boggling for any tongue.

I suspect that there’s a bias amobgst tasters towards familiar names which are likely to be tasted first and those with unfamiliar, or odd, names would tend to be sampled less often. But still...

The leader of the pack this year was ‘Sweet Aperitif’, with ‘Sungold’ in second place and ‘Chocolate Cherry’ third followed by ‘Suncherry Premium’, ‘Rosada’ and ‘Sweet Million’.

Last year, the top of the tree were ‘Sweet Million’, with ‘Rosada’ second and ‘Suncherry Premium’ third followed by ‘Trilly’ and ‘Sparta’ with ‘Sungold’ in sixth place.

Of course, this could hardly be called a rigorously scientific study. But the results do tend to confirm, over the two years, that gardeners will be very pleased with the flavour of ‘Rosada’ (mini plum), ‘Suncherry Premium’ (cherry), ‘Sungold’ (cherry) and ‘Sweet Million’ (cherry). And all four varieties, I should mention, have been awarded the prestigious Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Next time, I'll be looking at an American version of this taste test.

About writing books

  Powerhouse Plants by Graham Rice - just out. Image ©GardenPhotos.comI’ve got a new book out, Powerhouse Plants. I think I may have mentioned it. It’s always possible that I might mention it again… You can see some of the pages on the right. Of course the book was actually finished long ago and now I’m waiting to see how well it’s being received and how well it’s selling. But before I know, I’m filtering ideas for the next one. It’s all a bit of a rollercoaster.

Crime writer Lawrence Block summed up the agonies and the ecstasies of writing in his book, Small Town.

“Writing was great, he thought. You suffered and you agonized and you were beset by doubts and fears, and then you finished a book and felt absolutely ecstatic, convinced you were great and your book was great and your future was coming up roses.

“That lasted about a week, and then you realized that you were washed up,  that you’d never do anything decent again, and look at you, you indolent slug, why were you just sitting around doing nothing? Why weren’t you writing something?

“So he sat there, trying to think of something to write.”

For me, thinking of something to write is the easy part. On my “possibles” list I have masses of books of I’d like to write. The trick is to pick the best ideas, and hope there’s a publisher who agrees they’re the best ideas – and then hope there are plenty of readers who like the ideas enough to buy the books. I’d better get the red pen out and start narrowing it down.