Archives For Lisa Hilgenberg

Demystifying Seed Catalogs

Get seed catalog savvy

Lisa Hilgenberg —  February 16, 2017 — 6 Comments

The arrival of seed catalogs in mailboxes ranks as one of the most hopeful times in a gardener’s year, as it provides us with a welcome link to spring.

February is the perfect time to plan next spring’s vegetable garden. One of the first considerations is deciding what to grow. This can be answered by simply listing the veggies or asking your family to name the veggies they like to eat. There are a few other considerations before placing your order for next year’s garden—such as deciding if you should plant seeds or transplant vegetable starts. Seeds of many vegetables can be sown directly in the garden, including root vegetables like carrots, radish, and beets. Peas, beans, and squash are also best directly sown. Cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers are better given a head start inside first, and then transplanted into the garden as small plants, because they need a long, warm growing season.

Brassica oleracea 'Blue Wind' broccoli

For spring plantings, set broccoli transplants out two to three weeks before the last spring frost date.

PHOTO: Planter potted up with edible greens.

Edible spring planters can be harvested and repotted with next season’s veg.

Timing is important in the vegetable garden, and knowing that our growing season has approximately 170 frost-free days helps guide decisions on which plants to plant and when to plant. Our risk of frost is generally from October 15 through April 27, but can vary two weeks in either direction. Understanding that vegetable varieties have varying tolerances to frost helps you plan your planting calendar. For example, those very hardy plants like collards, kohlrabi, kale, spring onions, pea, spinach, turnip, and cabbage can be planted out four to six weeks before our last frost date. Those called “half hardy” or “frost tolerant”—such as beets, Swiss chard, carrots, cauliflower, and mustard—must be planted a bit later; two to three weeks before the last frost date.

The best seed catalogs will help decipher a gardener’s questions, and help plot, measure, and sort out the seed math needed to get started on a vegetable garden. Most seed is available in organic and non-organic options, with the latter usually the least expensive. Good catalogs provide keys to help decipher the icons (vegetable resistance codes) in plant descriptions. After all, a seed company’s success is based on a gardener’s success with their products.

As our nutritional consciousness rises, the taste and the health benefits of growing your own organic produce is a pursuit worthy of winter afternoons spent planning.  

Here are a few of my favorite seed companies:
(Consider going paperless; all of these catalogs are available online.)

Johnny’s Selected Seed
www.Johnnyseeds.com (877) 564-6697

Johnny’s Selected Seed is a 43-year-old, employee-owned company in Maine, recognizing that “good food is the basis of our well-being.” Widely used by home gardeners and small market farmers, the seed selection includes hundreds of vegetable, flower, and herb varieties in organic and non-organic (options) seeds. The catalog provides grower’s information for the novice to advanced gardener—it’s a virtual garden education. Johnny’s provides well-tested tools for garden tasks from bed prep to trellising, to season extension, and cover cropping. Comparison charts like the one on leaf lettuce help gardeners select seeds based on their specific growing conditions. Charts and photos compare length, width of mature veggies, and harvest windows.

High Mowing seed catalogHigh Mowing Organic Seeds
www.highmowingseeds.com (866) 735-4454

High Mowing Organic Seeds simply provides 100 percent certified organic, non-GMO Project Verified vegetable and flower seed to organic growers. The helpful seed catalog key on page two of the new 2017 catalog includes a tutorial on how to read the individual variety descriptions that follow. Seed definitions of open pollinated (OP), heirloom, and hybrid seeds are aptly explained and marked throughout. Crop types are headed by general cultural information or the “how to” grow beans for example. Then each listing is complete with the days to maturity (based on conditions in Vermont where HMO is located), disease resistance and any special attributes of the plant including breeder credit. Don’t miss the invaluable planting chart on the last page. High Mowing Organic Seeds is an excellent resource for passionate organic growers.

The Cook’s Garden
www.cooksgarden.com (800) 457-9703

Burpee acquired The Cook’s Garden more than ten years ago, and it has helped nurture America’s love affair with healthy, delicious food by offering the best gourmet veggies, greens, and herbs from around the world. The catalog offers seeds and plants for gourmet gardeners, with vegetables and fruits often pictured in recipes alongside culinary tips. Offering well-curated collections of helpful horticultural gadgets, you’ll find ash-handled tools, trellising supplies, rain gauges, and garden hods (flat, wood-handled basket) to make harvesting a snap. The Cook’s Garden catalog offers a wide range of quality products to indulge your inner gardener-chef when produce arrives in the kitchen. They’ve got canning, preserving, and dehydrating supplies covered. If the ultimate luxury is having the right tool for the job, check out the herb snips, the strawberry huller, and my current obsession, the new pickle slicer.

Seed Savers Exchange
www.seedsavers.org (563) 382-5990

Seed Savers Exchange helped start the heirloom seed movement by locating and preserving almost 20,000 varieties by growing them and seed banking at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. The not-for-profit’s mission is to conserve and protect America’s culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing open pollinated seeds and plants. The catalog contains an anthology of stories and fascinating anecdotes connecting the reader to plant history, and has a comprehensive roster of vegetable seed many of which are certified organic. Be sure to check out the heirloom flower seed, garlic, and seed potatoes. It’s a great resource for seed saving supplies and helpful guides to get started planting and seed saving.

Pinetree Garden Seeds catalogPinetree Garden Seeds and Accessories
www.superseeds.com (207) 926-3400

Pinetree has been a year-round source for the home gardener for more than three decades. Their product lines go well beyond a fairly complete line of gardening gear, including soil kits and amendments, and animal deterrents. Also offered are natural bath and hair products, kitchen gadgets (I want the tortilla press), and bee, bat, and bird products. If you’d like fragrant oils and herbal teas to go along with your vegetable seeds, look no further than Pinetree. There is a comprehensive compendium of some of the best gardening books that I’ve seen.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
www.rareseed.com Fax: (417) 924-8887

Baker Creek offers 1,800 vegetable, flower and herb varieties claimed to be the largest in our country.  A focus on preservation, it not surprising they have one of the largest selections of seeds from the nineteenth century. The fittingly named Rare Seed Catalog is like the Vogue magazine of the vegetable world. It wins the prize for the most beautiful photographs of the most avant-garde produce collection, complete with nutritional factoids and culinary inspiration. Stories from seed collecting expeditions around the world—recently Thailand, Myanmar, and India—are in the Heirloom Gardener, an associated and nationally distributed magazine written as a tool to not only promote and preserve our rich agricultural history but as explanation of why we need to care about it. The Rare Seed Catalog provides a selection of 78 varieties of melon and 20 types of okra. Baker Creek has a limited but diverse availability of live plants to ship. If goji berries, ginger root, and dragon fruit tickle your fancy (and you either live in the subtropics or have a greenhouse available) look no further, they’re in the Rare Seed Catalog. Baker Creek encourages political activism, and the catalog is written with an underlying ripple that we’re reaching the tipping point in the struggle against GMOs.


Specialty catalogs

Vermont Bean Seed Company
www.vermontbean.com
Bush or pole? Round, broad, or flat-podded? Shellers or runners? Golden, purple, filet, or lima—Vermont Bean Seed Company’s catalog for home gardens has them all. 

Filaree Garlic Farm
www.filareefarm.com
Garlic immersion is made possible by paging through the Filaree Garlic Farm catalog. A certified organic garlic grower in Washington State, Filaree encourages placing early orders of favorite rocaboles, porcelains, and purple stripe garlic.

Totally Tomatoes
www.totallytomato.com
Whether you are growing tried-and-true tomato varieties or venturing on to new releases and heirlooms, Totally Tomatoes offers hundreds of tomato varieties to the avid tomato grower. Categorized by size, shape, and color, Totally Tomatoes is a veritable rainbow for the tomato connoisseur. Focusing on Solanaceous crops, dozens of pepper varieties are included, too. 

PHOTO: A basket of garlic, with each bulb labeled with its cultivar name.

Try growing different garlic varieties to find the flavor you like best.


Varieties/cultivars and tips for direct seeding into spring gardens

It’s hard to resist a list of a few of my favorite varieties to directly sow into the spring garden. Knowing how much seed will sow a 10-foot row and the days to maturity (when the harvest can be expected) is the type of garden math that tangles up many a gardener, but quality catalogs will provide vegetable grower’s guides to help to sort out how much seed you’ll need. 

Radish: Direct-sow spring radish as soon as the ground can be worked, or four to six weeks before the last frost. Radish is best grown quickly in cool, damp conditions. It’s easy to grow, and requires only 28 days from planting to harvest. Try these spring radish cultivars: ‘Early Scarlet Globe’, ‘Rudolf’, and ‘Crunchy Royale’.

PHOTO: Beets.Beets: Nothing says spring like tender, freshly harvested baby beets. Sow about two weeks before our last frost date and thin to 3 inches between seedlings. Fertilize with liquid seaweed. Beets have great culinary versatility, so plant a combination of gold and red. ‘Detroit Dark Red’, ‘Bull’s Blood’, and ‘Burpee’s Golden’ are great choices.

Swiss chard: We love ‘Rhubarb’ and ‘Five colored Silverbeet’. These greens can grow through the entire gardening season. By harvesting just the outer leaves with a harvest knife, the plant stays in place and the integrity of your design stays intact.

PHOTO: Carrots.Carrots: The sweetest, juiciest, and most flavorful carrots are the French heirlooms. Sow two weeks before the last frost date. Carrot is slow to germinate, so have patience. Our favorite varieties for Chicago growers: ‘St. Valery’, ‘Paris Market’, and ‘Scarlet Nantes’.

Spinach: One of the earliest-germinating cool season vegetables, spinach can be direct sown in 2-inch bands or rows four to six weeks before the last frost. Plant ‘Corvair’, ‘Tyee’, or ‘Donkey’ for the most reliable spring crops.

Lettuce: We love ‘Tennis Ball’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, ‘Rouge d ’Hiver’, and ‘Winter Density’. One gram of seed will sow a 15-foot row.

Spring greens: Try mache, arugula, or mizuna; 30 to 50 seeds will seed one foot of row when sown as a cut-and-come-again salad mix.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Seed saving is an art, not to mention fun and empowering. Plus, it’s a valuable contribution on a deeper level: agricultural biodiversity matters, and seed saving in home gardens is mainstream conservation of biodiversity!

PHOTO: John Withee bean collection.

A highlight of our 2013 Seed Swap was the John Withee bean collection. A family tradition of “beanhole” cooking led John Withee to collect and organize 1,267 bean varieties. He donated the collection—and its handcrafted case—to Seed Savers Exchange before he passed away.

Here’s why you, the home gardener, should start a seed collection:

Seed saving promotes self-reliance, and swapping seeds connects and builds community. It connects us to our agricultural roots. Additionally, it helps conserve our agricultural resources. Preservation matters. Once varieties are lost, they cannot be recovered. A century ago, seed houses had hundreds of varieties, and now just a few remain. Think about this vegetable fact: In 1903, 544 varieties of cabbage were listed by seed houses across the United States. By 1983, just 28 of those varieties were represented in our national seed bank at the National Seed Storage Laboratory (now the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation).

Saving seeds encourages adventurous eaters. Growing heirloom varieties holds culinary appeal because it offers the opportunity to grow interesting vegetables that aren’t readily available in grocery stores.

Thrifty seed collectors save money because there is no seed to buy each spring. They maintain a personal seed collection.

Seed savers are lifelong learners, and home gardeners play an important role in helping to preserve our diverse seed histories. Home gardens become living laboratories to learn about plants. Seed saving builds observation skills, and there is a need for more seed growers to evaluate varieties for disease resistance and variety. 

Finally, saving and sharing seed just feels good. 

PHOTO: Broccoli seedlings

Broccoli seedlings

Which seeds should be saved (and are the easiest to save)? 

Deciding which seeds to save requires a working knowledge of several definitions:

Hybrid varieties (F1) produce seeds that, when grown the next year, are unlikely to resemble the original plant. Don’t save seeds from a hybrid vegetable. Seeds should be saved from open-pollinated plants (OP), those stable varieties that can reliably reproduce themselves generation after generation. As long as open-pollinated plants don’t cross pollinate with other varieties of the same species, their offspring will carry the distinguishing characteristics of the variety. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated plants that produce seeds passed down from one generation to another, often with historical connections and stories. Heirlooms carry special value and are usually old varieties.

Deciding which seeds to save requires a basic understanding of how plants reproduce:

Very simply, plants either mate with themselves or they mate with other plants. Self-pollinating plants have all the flower parts (anther and stigma) to transfer pollen within their own flowers (achieved by physical contact of male and female parts), or between separate flowers on the same plant (helped by wind or insects). In other words, they mate with themselves. Cross pollination takes place when pollen is transferred from one plant to another plant by insects, birds, or wind. Crossers can’t move pollen without help as the selfers do. Offspring of plants that cross pollinate may have different characteristics than the original variety unless they are isolated from plants of the same species.

Seed packet with description designating F1 seed.

If a package is labeled F1, seeds should not be saved, as they are unlikely to reliably reproduce the same plant as the parent.

A couple of tips on planning a garden for seed saving:

  • Start small and keep it simple.
  • Balance the many factors that comprise the art and practice of seed saving.
  • Begin by choosing a couple of self-pollinating annuals. Peas, beans, tomatoes, and lettuce are easiest to save. Insect- and wind-pollinated annuals may require isolation distances so they don’t cross pollinate.
  • Thoughtfully map out the garden to make efficient use of space. Growing plants for seed may take up more room for a longer period of time. While radish may be harvest-ready after growing 30 days, it may take much longer for your radish crop to produce its seeds.  

Take our classes during the Super Seed Weekend to learn more about planning a garden for seed saving.

Seed savers contribute! Come to learn, swap seeds, and share stories at Super Seed Weekend and experience the satisfaction that comes along with being a seed saver. A broad community of seed savers (new friends) awaits!


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

President’s Day was established in 1885 as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present. It also seems to be just the right day for me to share the highlights of my visit to the White House with you.

Smack dab in the middle of last fall’s Cubs playoff series against the Mets, on the same day that Vice President Joe Biden walked into the Rose Garden to announce to the world that he would not be pursuing a run for the White House, I was…well, I was there in that hardworking garden. I’d been invited to visit the vegetable garden at the White House and tour the grounds. I repeat, I was at the White House visiting the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden!

PHOTO: Lisa Hilgenberg in the White House Kitchen Garden.

Cool season vegetables and herbs planted in the White House Kitchen Garden

PHOTO: The White House beehive.

The White House beehive supplies the first family with honey.

The White House is “The People’s House” and its garden is the iconic “America’s garden.” I’d come on a visit facilitated by Andrew Bunting, director of plant collections and assistant director of the Chicago Botanic Garden—a fresh leader in a generation of garden advocates, a man with gardening friends in high places, possessing the ability to cut through red tape with a machete (stealing a lyric from a Cake song). The White House gardener, Jim Adams, graciously received me as a consultant for the White House Kitchen Garden, an arrangement we’d made when he visited the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden only a month before.

Established in 1791, the President’s Park is the official name for the 82 acres surrounding the White House. Originally laid out by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who fought in the War of Independence, the French formal perspective stands today much as it was planned. Working with George Washington, a farmer and horticulturist, together they envisioned the official residence surrounded by a botanical garden, and the building began.

John Adams became the first president to occupy the White House in 1800, and he requested that a vegetable garden be plowed as a means to supply fresh produce for the nearly 30 people he was responsible for feeding. His request was never realized as he lost his bid for reelection to none other than America’s founding gardener, Thomas Jefferson. Our third president had a strong interest in plants and took on the planting of specimen trees around the grounds and cultivated figs, strawberries, orange trees, and his favorite geraniums inside his sunny office. While none of his trees survive today, it was he who planted rows of sycamore, poplar, and cedar with oak, chestnut, and linden trees on the north side of the White House. (The south grounds were more private and pastoral in design, and eventually iron fences secured the interior 18 acres of private garden around the house, dividing it from the public garden.) Today, 500 trees thrive within this iron fence.

PHOTO: Jimmy Carter's Cedar of Lebanon, planted in 1978.

Jimmy Carter’s Cedar of Lebanon, planted in 1978

As one of the earliest proponents of forestry in the United States, President John Q. Adams planted an American elm (Ulmus Americana) in 1826. (With all the monumental trees, there is a succession plan, so when it needed to be removed in 1991, Barbara Bush’s propagated replacement was planted in the same place.) In 1830, President Andrew Jackson planted the famous Magnolia grandiflora. President Rutherford B. Hayes planted Ohio buckeyes (Aesculus glabra) in honor of his home state. Hayes was the president who introduced the idea of planting commemorative trees to honor presidential tenure or upon historical events. He wanted a tree representing each president and his state as well as each state in the Union. Today, 40 commemorative trees stand on the grounds, cultivated to be excellent specimens of their genus.

PHOTO: Under the Jackson southern magnolias (planted in 1830).

Under the Jackson southern magnolias planted in 1830

President Dwight D. Eisenhower planted northern red oak, Quercus rubra in 1959, President John F. Kennedy planted four Magnolia × soulangeana in 1962. President Clinton planted a pair of white dogwoods, Cornus florida, and President Barack Obama planted littleleaf linden Tilia cordata in 2009—the same tree President George H.W. Bush planted with Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. I held the shovel that commemorates the day each president dug the first shovelful of soil to plant his great tree!

As we walked around the grounds, passing by the putting green and the basketball court, the deeply personal nature of this botanic backyard garden became clear. I could only imagine the solace the garden provided to the families and children while they lived here. This was most evident in the intimate Children’s Garden that had been added to the south lawn by Lady Bird Johnson. Many of the presidents’ grandchildren have impressions of their hands of the paths of this secret garden.

Making our way down to the southwest corner of the lawn, we finally arrived at the White House Kitchen Garden. Centuries ago, President John Q. Adams planted fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables on the grounds; First Lady Michelle Obama was the first to plant vegetables since the Roosevelts planted a Victory Garden at the White House.

The four-season garden is grown in raised beds planted with more than 50 varieties of seeds, many of them heirlooms. One of the beds commemorates the varieties Thomas Jefferson planted in his garden at Monticello. Heirloom lettuce, brussels sprouts, beets, kale, and artichoke seed have been saved and passed down in preservation of our agricultural history. Mrs. Obama intended the garden to be an instructional space, emblematic of her concerns about food security, childhood obesity, and her Let’s Move initiative. I had a chance to meet Cris Comerford, White House chef, in the kitchen to confirm that the bountiful garden harvest is regularly used for State dinners and family dinners.

PHOTO: The White House Weather Station.

The weather station in the White House Kitchen Garden

The White House gardener of today is a weather watcher, as the founding fathers and colonial gardeners were. A rain gauge was installed in the First Lady’s vegetable garden in March of this year, where it not only informs the schedule for watering the lawn but also monitors amounts and reports to the largest Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS). It collects precipitation amounts while also contributing to a broader citizen science effort documenting regional weather patterns and snow.

Just as we got the word of the impending press conference in the Rose Garden, we needed to clear the grounds. On our way back in, I noticed a silver plaque on a pillar and marveled at the affectionate handwritten note, thanking Jaqueline Kennedy from those who worked with her in the White House.

PHOTO: The Jacqueline Kennedy dedication plaque in the White House garden.

“This garden is dedicated to Jacqueline Kennedy with great affection by those who worked with her in the White House-” April 22, 1965

PHOTO: Lisa Hilgenberg with presidential dogs.

I asked Bo and Sunny not to dig in the garden. Only Sunny needed a leash (which is appropriately patriotic)!

My memories galvanized forever in my heart, I’ve returned to the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden with a new appreciation for our connection to the broader national perspective of growing food as a democratic expression of individuality, health, wellness, self-reliance, and honor. This President’s Day, we can feel proud that our work at the Garden is part of this national movement.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Cool Crops for Fall

Lisa Hilgenberg —  September 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Now that the leaves are turning and the days are growing shorter, if you’re tempted to pack away your gardening gloves…don’t!

PHOTO: Baby brussels sprouts budding at the end of September.

Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea) enjoy the cooler weather of fall for producing their delicious edible buds.

At the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, we’re as busy as ever. Our cool-weather crops include brussels sprouts, spinach, and toscano kale. Fall is a great time to grow vegetables—insects die off, weeds wither, and moisture is plentiful. If you don’t have much space, remember that you can grow vegetables in containers, window boxes, and hanging baskets.

Don’t say good-bye to your summer garden yet

  • Document the good, the bad, and the ugly. Walk around your garden making notes, drawing pictures, and taking photographs; document challenges and successes, problems, tasks, and ideas for next year. Make a list of the plants that worked and should be planted again.
  • Bring in twigs, nuts, berries, and seedheads to dry for fall decorations or winter wreath making. Gather the stems into bunches, and secure them with a rubber band. Hang the bunches for several weeks to dry in a warm spot (but out of direct sun).
  • Harvest herbs to dry, freeze, or use fresh.
  • Lift tender perennial herb plants like rosemary and lavender to replant in pots. Annual basil lasts for several additional weeks in a sunny kitchen window.
PHOTO: Dried plants and seedheads.

Now is the best time to gather plants at the end of the season for beautiful arrangements for the fall table.

Other prep work

  • Remove debris such as leaves, clippings, and bits of fruits and vegetables. Garden sanitation is important to remove the overwintering habitat for many insects. Cucumber beetle and squash bugs overwinter on leaf litter and create problems in the spring.
  • Perform bed prep and broad forking—break up densely packed soil now to avoid working heavy soils in the spring (when you do so, you further compact the soil and destroy soil structure). Fall prep ensures that the bed will be ready for early peas around St. Patrick’s Day.
  • Add organic matter to feed the soil rather than using fertilizers to feed the plant.
  • Add mulch, thumb deep, to help maintain soil temperature and moisture.
  • Everbearing raspberry bushes produce their fall crop on the top half of the canes. After harvesting, prune out the top half of the plants. The lower half of the canes will produce fruit early next summer.
  • As you harvest, remember to save seeds for next season! Got extra? Join us for our annual Seed Swap.

 

PHOTO: Butternut squash.

Harvest warm-season vegetables, including winter squash and pumpkins, before the first frost.

PHOTO: Tropaeolum majus 'Kaleidoscope Mix' nasturtium.

The edible flowers of nasturtium last well into fall and make a wonderful planting in the garden or containers.

Plant cool season crops

PHOTO: Spotted cucumber beetle.

Thorough fall cleanup is important to avoid pests like spotted cucumber beetle, whose larvae overwinter in leaf litter. Photo by Pollinator at en.wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

  • Short-season crops and salad plants—radish, spinach, 
arugula, lettuce, mustard, mizuna, and tatsoi—should be sown 30 to 40 days before the first frost (roughly October 15 in Chicago-area suburbs and a bit later downtown).
  • Plant cool-season herbs like parsley (flat or curly), chervil, cilantro, and edible flowers such as calendula and nasturtium.
  • Get edible bulbs—such as garlic bulbs, shallot, and onion sets (small onions for planting)—into the ground by Halloween; they’ll be ready for harvest in July.
  • Harvest hardy vegetables after the first frost, when they become sweeter—kale, brussels sprouts (remove the tops of the plants in early September), cabbage, broccoli, collard greens, and cauliflower.
  • Harvest warm-season vegetables, including winter squash and pumpkins, before the first frost. Don’t let the first frost touch your peppers and tomatoes; if they’re still green, they’ll ripen a bit indoors.
  • Think about ways to extend the growing season—with row covers, garden blankets over raised beds, cold frames, etc.

For more ideas or inspiration, drop by the Fruit & Vegetable Garden (in October, come see the giant pumpkins on display). Did I mention that fall is a good time to plant fruit trees for spring blooms and fruit? Plant the trees in cooler weather, under less stress—and they’ll be ready to soar in the spring.

For more seasonal gardening tips, tune into my weekly Saturday morning audio podcast on news radio WBBM. Get past tips online at chicago.cbslocal.com/audio/gardening-tips.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Grafting Tomatoes

To graft or not: that is the question.

Lisa Hilgenberg —  May 25, 2014 — 4 Comments

Grafted tomato plants are available at garden centers and through mail order nursery catalogs, but sell out quickly, as the idea has captured the interest of home gardeners, farmers, and professional greenhouse growers.

PHOTO: Tomato graft with silicon tubing holding the graft in place to heal.

The finished tomato graft: this will be placed into a “healing chamber” for a week while the graft seals.

An ancient art and science long used on fruit trees, grafting is the placement of the tissues of one plant (called a scion) onto another plant (called a stock). The rootstock is thought to impart disease resistance and increased vigor to a less vigorous—perhaps heirloom—tomato grafted on the top, producing more tomatoes over a longer period of time.

Curious about the process and whether the price tag could be justified—grafted plants run from $9 to $18 a plant—I decided to graft some tomato plants myself and grow them out. My first foray was in winter 2013. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s propagator in the plant production department, Cathy Thomas, had just returned from a conference at Longwood Gardens, where one of the topics was grafting vegetables. She willingly supported my quest and enthusiastically discussed the details with me.

The process seemed fairly straightforward after we settled on which varieties to graft together. Deciding to graft the cultivar ‘Black Cherry’ onto ‘Better Boy’ rootstock, we worked with tiny, 3-inch-tall tomato starts, taking care that the top and bottom stems of each plant were exactly the same diameter at the place they were to be grafted. Our grafting tools included clear silicon tubing cut to 10 to 15 millimeter lengths, a new, unused razor blade, and our tomato seedlings.

Starting by sanitizing our hands, we used a new razor blade to slice the stem of the scion (top graft plant) off at a 45-degree angle. The plastic tubing, soon to be the grafting clip that would bandage the graft union, was prepared by splitting it in half. All the leaves were removed from the scion, leaving only the meristem. (The meristem is the region of stem directly above the roots of the seedling, where actively dividing cells rapidly form new tissue.) Two diagonal cuts were made, forming a nice wedge to fit into the rootstock. The rootstock was split and held open to accommodate the scion. A silicon clip was slipped around the cleft graft. Newly grafted plants were then set into a “healing chamber,” a place with indirect light and high humidity, for up to a week. In the healing chamber, the plants can heal without needing to reach for light, which can cause the tops to pop off. We placed our new grafts in a large plastic bag in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden greenhouse. The healing began.

PHOTO: Slicing the top off the rootstock tomato seedling.

Cut the root stock off at the meristem; discard the top of the seedling to avoid confusing it with the scions you will be grafting.

PHOTO: Slicing the top of the meristem to insert the scion graft.

After cutting off the top of the rootstock, user the razor to vertically slice the top part of the remaining meristem.

PHOTO: Removing the leaves from the tomato scion graft.

Remove the extra leaves from the scion, leaving only the top set.

PHOTO: Sharpening the tip of the scion to a point.

Make two 45-degree cuts to the end of the scion to create a sharp tip to insert into the rootstock.

PHOTO: The scion is inserted into the rootstock of the tomato graft.

Using the razor’s edge to pry open the split rootstock, gently insert the prepared scion.

PHOTO: Closeup of the finished tomato graft.

Slice the silicone tubing open and wrap the cuff around the graft, entirely covering the graft to support the top plant and speed healing.

Two weeks later, we had a dismal one-third survival rate! Much to my relief, the lone survivor was a superlative tomato plant in almost every way. Oh, what a strong tomato we had! My excitement rose—what if heirloom tomatoes could be as delicious and more prolific and adaptable? When soils warmed, we planted our grafted tomato out in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, positioned right next to a ‘Black Cherry’ plant growing on its own root, so the differences would be easy to discern. Our hope was that we could address some of the ins and outs of grafting for the public, and the feasibility of DIY (Do It Yourself) for gardeners. Do grafted heirloom tomatoes have more vigor, better quality, and bear more fruit than ungrafted “own-root” heirloom tomatoes? Which has a more abundant harvest over a longer period of time?

Last summer, our grafted tomato plant certainly provided the earliest harvest. Comparatively, it was earlier to fruit than the plant grown on its own root by two weeks, and was prolific throughout the season. That being said, in the organic system of the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, our soils are nutrient-rich and disease-free in large part due to crop rotation and soil-building practices. The question used in marketing “Is the key place for grafted tomatoes in a soil that has disease problems?” didn’t apply to us. Are grafted tomatoes the answer for those with less-than-ideal environmental growing conditions? For greenhouse growers unable to practice crop rotation as a hedge against a build-up of soil-borne disease, or home gardeners who contend with cool nights and a short growing season, I would say yes, I think so, but at a cost.

PHOTO: Grafted tomato in healing chamber.

Place the finished graft in a humid location, out of direct sunlight, to heal for up to one week.

When planning on grafting, growers must buy double the amount of seed and need to double the number of plantings (to account for the graft failure rate) to maintain the same number of viable seedlings to plant. Cathy and I tried our grafting project again this spring and are looking forward to growing ‘Stripes of Yore’ and ‘Primary Colors’ on ‘Big Beef’ hybrid rootstock. I swapped seed for these unusual varieties with a tomato enthusiast who attended our annual Seed Swap this past February. Our rootstock has excellent resistance to common tomato diseases: AS (Alternaria Stem canker), F2 (Fusarium wilt), L (Gray Leaf Spot), N (Nematodes), TMV (Tobacco Mosaic Virus), V (Verticillium Wilt). So far, three of our eight plants are viable, healed, and strong.

We are looking forward to planting the grafted tomatoes the week of June 8 in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, right alongside some of the other 52 varieties of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes. So whether you choose a regular or a grafted plant at the garden center this weekend, come on over! It’s time to talk tomatoes! @hilgenberg8

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