Growing Grafted Tomatoes In A Challenging Climate

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Earlier this summer, I started growing some Log House grafted tomatoes, just to see how they would do. I particularly enjoy eating fresh tomatoes, especially when their acid-sugar balance is a lively one. Sadly, tomatoes are hard to please in my Bainbridge Island backyard (a ferry ride west of Seattle). This summer we’ve had endless foggy, grey days when the marine layer just won’t lift. Night temperatures have dipped into the 40’s and low 50’s, even in August, which means soil temperatures are also lower than usual. For heat lovers like tomatoes, cool nights and cool soil create the perfect opportunity for blights, molds, and mildews and we gardeners must stay on our toes to keep tropical vegetables content.

Grafting tomatoes is utterly intriguing; just as with fruit trees, roses, or grapes, you partner a succulent but less-than-robust scion (the top part) with a vigorous root system that’s disease resistant and tolerant of temperature swings. Like green magic, the result is synergistic; earlier, bigger yields from healthy plants. Sounds great, and it certainly works in Oregon (we call it The Land Of Real Summer), but I was curious what would happen here in what feels like Little Siberia.

Our current home is on an acre of sloping land that hosts several herds of deer as well as an enormous population of raccoons. Thus, my vegetable garden is in containers that line a large, south-facing deck, 15 feet above the critters. I plant in tree tubs mounted on pieces of 2 x 4s to allow for good drainage and airflow to the roots.

We are also converting our old, cracked hot tub into a hot bed for fall and winter vegetables, which seems like a terrific exchange.

My tomatoes are getting all the sun there is to get and they are growing strongly despite the cool weather. If you give grafted tomatoes a try, it is vital not to follow the usual practice of deep planting or thick mulching, since roots formed on the scion lack the advantages the rootstock brings to the union. Keep the graft well above ground and pinch off any shoots from beneath the graft. I find I need to do this every week or so, since my pots are lightly mulched with lovely pit-washed dairy manure, which is extremely inviting to roots of all kinds. Though the main stems are very sturdy, the top growth still needs considerable support. I use stout bamboo poles, three to a pot, woven round with coarse garden twine that gives clambering arms a good purchase.

I’m trying out a pair of grafted tomato combos (Rose and Moonglow in one tub, and Brandywine Red and Brandywine Yellow in another) and am eagerly tracking the ripening of the first tiny fruit. After several weeks of seeing many flowers but no fruit, I realized that I was also not seeing any bees. Many local hives have collapsed this year and our wild bees are also in short supply. To lure in as many as possible, I planted masses of red and tawny double nasturtiums and plain white, honey scented sweet alyssum, a guaranteed bee pleaser. To please myself, I also tucked in pots of luscious, green-throated Black Velvet petunias mixed with coppery Sunray and Summertime Blueberry African daisies and Purple Flash peppers, with dusky leaves and glossy black little peppers that will sear the tongue out of your head. These also attract a range of pollinators, including hover flies and little native bees.

Now I have decent fruit set, I have given each plant a drink of seawater, which recent studies at Rutgers indicate will add dimension and extra savor to that classic tomato taste. The proper dose is 1-1/2 cups of seawater per plant, which inlanders can replicate with a sea salt/mineral extract called SEA-90. Interestingly, the Rutgers studies show that when farmers switched from sodium nitrate fertilizers to less expensive urea or ammonium nitrate, the missing sodium made for less-flavorful fruits and vegetables. I also know that high-nitrogen fertilizers can dilute tomato flavor as surely as too much water, so I am growing my tomatoes on the dry side, offering liquid kelp (I like Maxicrop) along with a moderate 5-5-5 organic fertilizer. Because my plants are in pots, which need frequent watering, I am feeding every few weeks, but if they were in garden beds, I would feed monthly. By late August, I’ll stop both food and water, and prune off any excess foliage to encourage better ripening.

If these plants are still productive when autumn arrives, I’ll trundle them into our sun porch, where they may grow on through winter. (Tomatoes are not annuals, but frost-sensitive perennials.) Onward!
Splendid Summer Salads

Our cool summer may be frustrating for tomatoes, but it’s terrific for greens of all kinds. I’m growing as many kinds of lettuce as I can find, along with arugula, radicchio, and brisk Italian chicories. My favorite salads also include plenty of fresh herbs, usually flat Italian parsley, basil or cilantro, and lemon or plain thyme. Here’s a current family favorite to try:
Summery Salad With Lemon Basil Pesto Dressing

2 cups Romaine, shredded
2 cups red Romaine, shredded
2 cups red Butterhead lettuce, shredded
1 cup blue kale, stemmed and shredded
1 cup joi choy, shredded
1/4 cup Italian parsley, stemmed
1/4 cup golden raspberries
2 tablespoons red onion, chopped
1/4 cup Lemon Basil Pesto Dressing (see below)

In a serving bowl, combine all ingredients, toss gently and let stand 20 minutes before serving. Serves 4-6.
Lemon Basil Pesto

1/4 cup roasted pine nuts or walnuts
1 cup lemon basil
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup grated Asiago or Pecorino cheese

In a food processor or blender, grind nuts to a coarse meal. Add lemon basil, 1 tablespoon olive oil, the shallot and salt and grind to a fine paste. Add oil in a steady stream while running machine on low, then add cheese and process for 3-5 seconds more. Toss with hot pasta or rice, stir into salad dressings, or add to soups and sauces. Makes about 1 cup. Cover leftovers with a thin layer of olive oil and refrigerate in a tightly sealed glass jar for up to 3 days.
Lemon Basil Pesto Vinaigrette

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons ponzu vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Lemon Basil Pesto
1 teaspoon nutritional yeast (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake vigorously to emulsify.
Refrigerate leftovers in a tightly sealed glass jar for up to 3 days.

Pestos can also be made with herbs other than basil, such as cilantro, parsley, and even spicy-hot chicory. Here’s a delicious one to use in cole slaw, salad dressings, or a warm potato salad.
Chicory Pesto

1/4 cup roasted almonds or hazelnuts
1 cup Barba di Cappi or any chicory
1 cup fruity olive oil
1 clove rose or any garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

In a food processor or blender, grind nuts to a coarse meal. Add chicory, 1 tablespoon olive oil, the garlic and salt and grind to a fine paste. Add oil in a steady stream while running machine on low, then add cheese and process for 3-5 seconds more. Toss with hot pasta or rice, stir into salad dressings, or add to soups and sauces. Makes about 1 cup. Cover leftovers with a thin layer of olive oil and refrigerate in a tightly sealed glass jar for up to 3 days.

Log House Editorial Note: Ann’s wonderful books are available through your local bookseller as well as the award-winning The Book Depository and other online sources.

We have some additional pesto recipes and also an article about keeping pesto green in the Log House Library.

This entry was posted in Pets & Pests In The Garden, Soil, Tomatoes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Growing Grafted Tomatoes In A Challenging Climate

  1. Pat says:

    Hi Ann,
    So good to see you on the LogHouse site! Tomatoes normally self-pollinate
    within the still-closed flower. One reason their seed is easy to save. Alice
    is definitely ahead of the US curve with the grafted tomatoes. I’ll be
    fascinated to see how they perform for you over time.

    I picked up on the salt water research also. It indicated a 7% solution
    (same as sea water in the Atlantic). I was told to use 1/2 cup to 1 gallon
    of water? to attain that percentage. Is that incorrect? My source for the
    dilution was a mathematician friend. Alas, math and I are barely compatible.
    Many of my listeners (The Hatch Patch) are trying it out so we’ll see what
    happens here on the Pacific side of the continent.

    I hope your garden thrives and that your family is doing well. Thank you for
    the years of great garden information.

    Pat Patterson
    Noti, OR

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Pat–
      Thanks for your intriguing response. I am sending you a copy of a short article I just wrote about why tomatoes may fail to set fruit (which you probably already know). We are having the worst weather for tomatoes and many people are just baffled about the low fruit set.

      As for the sea water calculation, my math-man son said about 1 cup seawater per whatever–it sounds like the dilution rate is not too important (quart or gallon both OK). Another article says that each plant should get 1-1/2 cups, and a third says sea water should be sprayed on the foliage, while many sources suggest that keeping foliage dry is important (my own experience agrees with this). Gardening is just not a hard science, and whether farming really is one is debatable–art? craft? magic? love?

      Anyway, here’s the article:

      Trouble With Tomatoes And Other Crops

      Quite a few folks are struggling with their tomatoes this year. Given our whacky weather, that’s no surprise, since tomatoes do not tolerate temperature swings well. For instance, poor fruit set can be triggered when temps drop below 55 degrees (as they have many nights this summer) and when temps exceed 90 degrees (as also happened). In both cases, tomato flowers often drop off before forming fruit.
      Tomatoes grown in too much shade may not set fruit well either, while overfed plants (too much nitrogen) may produce lush leaves and no fruit. Another possibility is overly dry soil; started too early, before fruits have formed, dry gardening can also cause plants to shed flowers.
      Tomatoes that crack easily got too much water after they started to ripen. The insides of over-watered tomatoes expand faster than the maturing skin can. Back off on water to fix this one.
      Tomatoes with dull orange patches are sun scalded, but still just fine. This can happen when tomato foliage has been heavily thinned or when the weather suddenly turns very hot and sunny. Is there a theme here?
      Persistently pink, yellow, or greenish-red tomatoes may be ripe; taste one to see. Again, both high and low temperatures can impair natural ripening, which works from the inside out (once the innerds are ripe, the skin will turn red). Some tomato varieties won’t turn red when temperatures exceed the middle 80’s, while night temperatures below the mid 50’s may retard tomato ripening for days or weeks.
      Blossom end rot occurs when hot weather causes plants to take up extra calcium. Maritime Northwestern soils are sadly low in calcium (that’s why there are no native land snails–all those stripy garden snails are imports from California). Calcium soil supplements are absorbed slowly, but milk works faster. Spray calcium-starved tomato plants with a solution of powdered milk and water. Use 2 parts powdered skim milk for every 10 parts water, shake well, and cover foliage thoroughly, top and bottom. Do this in the cooler morning hours and never spray this or anything but clean water when bees are around.
      Bees are the key to many crop failures this year. There has been a lot of hive collapse locally and many gardeners are reporting unusually low bee populations. That translates directly into poor cropping for berries, among other things. Some folks had boom years for raspberries and blueberries while others had hardly any fruit set.
      The difference seems to be flower power; gardens that always have something in bloom usually have better bee counts than those with sporadic bursts of bloom. Some of the best plants for bees this year include long-blooming lavender, chives, and oregano, all mannerly hardy herbs with few requirements. Also good are nasturtiums, all kinds of daisies, zinnias, and calendulas, which are almost always in bloom. The trick is to get the bees accustomed to finding flowers in your garden, and more specifically near your vegetables and fruit. They are quite clever and return faithfully to places where they regularly get fed.

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