I love growing tomatoes, especially varieties you can’t buy at the grocery store. But I don’t grow tomatoes from seed, so I have to rely on mail order companies for interesting seedlings.
So you can imagine my delight in early 2012 when I spied a new purple-black cherry tomato in the Territorial Seed Co. catalog. This was something special. THIS was Indigo Rose:
I went online and ordered an Indigo Rose plant immediately. However, in my flurry of plant lust, I barely noticed these key factors: The seedlings were grafted, and they were expensive—more than twice the cost of other seedlings.
Months later, the tomato seedling arrived at my home in Seattle. I planted it as directed, with the graft above the soil line. Then, mere weeks later, I moved across the country, letting the neighbors and, eventually, the new homeowners finish growing it. (It performed beautifully, my tomato caretakers said.)
It wasn’t until this year that I actually had a chance to not only research grafted tomatoes (which resulted in an article in Gardening How-To) but to grow them myself at my new home in Minneapolis.
Billed as the biggest innovation in home gardening in decades, grafted tomatoes are made by taking the top of one tomato seedling, called the scion, and attaching it to the root system of a different tomato seedling, called the rootstock.
Stronger rootstocks have been shown to produce 50 percent bigger harvests. And they resist all known soil-borne diseases.
Did grafted tomatoes work for me? Yes!
Despite a mediocre growing season in our region, I had happy, disease-free vines all summer—and tomatoes coming out of my ears! And my plants (all cherry tomatoes) had limited sunlight, no more than 6 hours per day, and no late-day sun, which is to say NOT ideal conditions.
Here’s what I grew:
Sweet Million/Sun Gold: This was a special double-grafted seedling—two tomato varieties grafted onto a single rootstock with two stems. Territorial Seed Co. introduced this duo. I put one in a raised bed and one in a large pot.
Results: The plant in the raised bed produced the biggest, best-tasting crop of Sweet Millions ever (above), including 15 years of growing them in the Pacific Northwest. However, there weren’t nearly as many Sun Golds. Perhaps the Sweet Million vine dominated the plant’s energy? Still, it was nice to have two tomato varieties coming from a single plant.
Results: The plant in the pot (above) produced two weak vines and yielded only a few cups of cherry tomatoes (versus gallons from the raised bed plant). Despite its bad conditions—perhaps as little as 4 hours direct sun per day and restricted roots—it never succumbed to disease and never stopped producing.
Indigo Rose: I also grew this variety, the first in a growing array of anthocyanin-rich tomatoes, in about 4 hours of light next to the house.
Results: It produced a steady but small harvest and wasn’t at all vigorous. And its fruit was fairly bland (but I suspect tomatoes grown in low light often lack flavor and vigor, even if they’re grafted).
Indigo Sun: This was my best performer of 2013 (above). (Note: You can't buy this at the grocery store. In fact, it’s not available to the public as a plant until Spring 2014. I grew it as part of a garden writer’s trial pack from Burpee Home Gardens.)
Results: Indigo Sun was a delight to watch grow. It produced heavily, and its fruits were delicious—slightly acidic yet sweet. They were the first to disappear from the sharing table at work. They were perfect quartered in salads or eaten right off the plant in two bites. Mine had thin skins but were slow to split.
Its fruit, born in tidy clusters of eight, was gorgeous. They started out green and progressed to a lovely purple and then turned, like fall leaves—but much earlier—into a stunning gold with purple shoulders. I’m not a football fan, but, if I were, I might call these Minnesota Vikings tomatoes.
Another endorsement: My Indigo Sun plant, sent as a sample from Ball Horticultural Co., had its stem severed almost completely during mailing. I taped the stem back together with blue painters tape (because the variety looked so pretty and promising)—and it eventually became the rock star plant of the tomato garden. Not bad!
Above: Here are the robust roots of my grafted Indigo Sun plant, pulled out of the ground in mid-October. It was perfectly healthy and still fruiting, but there wasn’t enough daylight during after-work hours for me to keep picking!
Look for Indigo Sun grafted plants as part of the 2014 Bumper Crop line of tomatoes from Burpee Home Gardens, sold at nurseries. And, also this spring, look for many more grafted tomatoes, as well as more Indigo series tomatoes and an enchanting array of Wild Boar Farms varieties, bred by Brad Gates in California.
Have you ever grown grafted tomatoes? Comment below or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Indigo Sun, Sweet Million and Sun Gold tomatos, all grown from grafted plants.
Here are three grafted tomatoes in my raised bed, plus some hot peppers (left). I put red plastic "muclh" and tiles down to increase ripening.
Indigo Sun, fully ripe, starting to split (bottom right).
Sarah Dorison is the managing editor of Gardening How-To magazine. She gardens in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photos by Sarah Dorison, Territorial Seed Co. and Burpee Home Gardens.