Week 9: 🍅 + 🍆 = 🍅 ?! The beginnings of a tomato grafting project

Tomatoes are on the way! Most of our plants here at the farm school have little green tomatoes on them. I know that they still have a few more weeks—maybe even a month to go—but I am unbelievably excited.

Hands down, tomatoes are my favorite vegetable thing to grow and eat.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the nights never get very warm, so growing tomatoes can be a challenge. For that reason we are growing most of our big slicer tomatoes in tunnels. We are growing some of our cherry tomatoes outside and we are using a couple different pruning techniques depending on the type of tomato and how much vertical space we have to grow it.

This image is from last season on Echollective Farm, where we pruned cherry tomatoes to have two “leaders” and removed all the other “suckers” from the plants.
This tomato plant has been pruned to have two “leaders” in a V shape to increase yield and make harvesting easier. Photo by Cassondra Ruprecht.

Pruning and trellising tomatoes is one of my absolute favorite tasks at the farm (second only to sewing seeds). Every farmer does this task differently. We learned several techniques last season at Echollective and are doing a couple different ones here. None of these techniques are right or wrong, just different ways of caring for tomatoes. Some people find tomatoes very finicky and don’t enjoy growing them for this reason. I actually enjoy them because they need so much from the farmer! Growing tomatoes is a beautiful mix of both art and science and I want to know it all!

Ethan with tomato plants in the high tunnel at OFS. They have grown so much, even in the week since we took this photo!

Sometimes I feel like I am really beginning to understand this crop. Then, I learn something completely new that shifts my whole perspective. This happened again recently when I learned about grafting tomatoes. You might have heard of grafting fruit trees, where you install a branch of an especially delicious apple variety (the scion) into a heartier apple tree that does not produce delicious fruit (the rootstock). The wound heals and they grow together as a single plant. Grafting allows you to grow the delicious fruit of the scion with the disease resistance, rigor, and strength of the rootstock.

Grafting might sound crazy or even unnatural, but it’s actually been practiced since ancient times. Grafting can be found in the bible, ancient Greek, and ancient Chinese texts indicating it has been around since at least the 5th century BCE.

I could not believe it when I learned the same is true for tomatoes! You can grow heirloom varieties on stronger, sometimes hybrid roots to produce higher yields and decrease disease. You can even graft certain plants together from the same family (for example, a tomato can be grafted to an eggplant or potato). This is done by making an angled cut in the scion and rootstock plants, then holding the two together with a clip as the plants heal and grow together.

This is not our tomato, but we hope we can produce some healthy looking plants like this soon!

My classmate and fellow tomato lover, Cassondra Ruprecht, and I are trying it out. We know that it’s a difficult process and will take a lot of tries and patience to get it right, especially for beginning growers. We also know that our grafted tomatoes were started too late in the season to ever produce tomatoes. However, growing tomatoes from grafted plants is not our intention—at least not this year. Our goal is to practice and make as many mistakes as possible as students so we can be the best growers we can be when we return home. I can’t wait to see the tomato operations we come up with one day!

Cass makes soil blocks for our tomato grafting project. We planted a couple different types of seeds including Tsakoniki eggplant, Wapsipinicon Peach tomato, and Cream Sausage tomato.

It’s special projects like these that encourage me to continue viewing the farm from fresh perspectives. I’m reminded of the following quote from Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: 

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”
― Shunryu Suzuki

When I first heard of grafting tomatoes, I thought what I always think when I hear a crazy, brilliant farming idea…. Who comes up with these things? But the truth is that innovations like these are being by growers everywhere, every day. This is thanks to new movements in agriculture that are not only helping us rediscover older, sustainable methods of farming but also push us forward toward new methods we haven’t even dreamed of yet! For now, we are focused on keeping our minds open to all the best of farming so we can steward our future patch of land in all the best ways possible. 

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