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Former Extension Educator, Horticulture
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Tuesday, May 12, 2015
URBANA, Ill. - Grafting provides a natural method of achieving disease resistance and plant vigor for our favorite vegetable cultivars, said Kim Ellson, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
"We all have our favorite vegetable varieties", Ellson said. "Some love Big Boy tomatoes whilst others will insist upon Better Boy. These are specific cultivars that we are familiar with and that we trust and cherish."
"Many of us are creatures of habit and we head to our local garden centers with specific cultivars in mind," noted Ellson. "As a rule once we have found something we like and that works for us we do not deviate very much."
So the question arises, if it has always worked, then what is the problem? The problem is a combination of our modern-day weather patterns and planting in the same place repeatedly helps contribute to disease persistence in the soil.
"Violent rains and extreme temperatures seem to be becoming the norm," Ellson explained. "When we experience heavy rainstorms followed by high temperatures we have prime conditions for disease."
With our climates becoming increasingly hostile fungal resistance in vegetables important, and yet it is something that is lacking in old varieties. "Our favorite varieties, whether Heirloom or not, tend to be old varieties and do not have the vigor, yield and resistance of new varieties," she said.
So why do we cling to them? They have excellent flavor, it is as simple as that. Present day cultivars tend to lack the flavor and aroma of their older counterparts.
"This is where grafting comes into play," suggested Ellson. "Grafting allows us to combine flavor with vigor and disease resistance, thereby allowing us to enjoy the best of both worlds."
Unlike cross-breeding, with grafting the parent material and thus the character of the fruit is not altered in any way. There is no genetic modification involved and it is a completely natural way to reap the benefits of old and new varieties combined.
"We've all been in that situation where we've lost our prized tomatoes, squashes, melons or cucumbers to fungal diseases. It is a most upsetting and demoralizing experience," Ellson sympathized. "However we also do not want to give up our favorite varieties!"
Heirloom tomato varieties (Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Black Krim) and regular tomato cultivars (Big Boy, early Girl, Super Sweet 100) are all susceptible to fungal diseases and can succumb to early or late blight.
"In the case of grafted plants, a disease resistant rootstock has been grafted or joined with a desirable fruit or vegetable," clarified Ellson. "The disease resistant and vigorous plant does not have desirable fruit. By fusing the stems and connecting a top and bottom of two plants, we reap the benefits of resistance, vigor and desirable fruit."
Soil-borne diseases are persistent once they become established and can re-infect plants for years. "Sadly diseases are not only restricted to one particular plant," Ellson warned. "Closely related plants are also susceptible. So an infected tomato could infect peppers, eggplants, potatoes and tomatillos."
"Grafting protects from certain soil-borne disease yet it cannot eradicate all forms of disease," Ellson cautioned. "People must not think that grafted plants are simply immune to all diseases. Many common diseases are foliar and these will still require treatment."
"Always check plants regularly to detect any symptoms of disease at an early stage," Ellson advised. "Effective organic treatments can include products containing copper or sulfur, both fungicides that can be applied either preventatively or curatively".
So given the advantages of higher yields and soil-borne disease resistance why is everyone not using grafted vegetables? It is a combination of price and lack of public awareness. "Grafted plants are between 2-3 times more expensive than their regular counterparts and this puts people off," Ellson clarified.
"Can I personally recommend grafted over non-grafted plants," Ellson asks. "All I can say is, if you are happy with your plants and not experiencing problems, grafted plants may be unnecessary. However if you do suffer with disease problems or you want higher yields, than yes, grafted plants would be advisable."
Grafted tomato plants are becoming widespread and are now generally available at garden centers. "Hopefully as grafted plant sales increase and it becomes more common practice prices will get lower in time," Ellson instructed.
Other vegetables including cucumbers, squashes and melons are also grafted, yet the public is unaware of these plants and their benefits to a large extent.
"Regardless whether one grows grafted plants or not there are a few rules everyone should follow to reduce disease occurrence," Ellson recommended. "Be sure to always water in the morning, water plants at the base, space plants generously, rotate crops and provide a full sun location."