The Great Tomato Debate

Some of you may have noticed a new kind of tomato began to appear on the shelves of

Nurseries in the spring of 2010.  These are grafted varieties.  Grafting is a method of growing the top of a plant (the scion) onto the rootstock of another plant.  It is done to achieve hardiness, manage the size of a plant, increase production and disease resistance.  In the 19th century the wine industry in France was saved from devastation by phylloxera by grafting grapes on to disease resistant rootstock.  Dwarf fruit trees are often grafted onto different rootstock to ensure their size will be small.

With those successes in mind, a local grower, Log House Plants, began introducing grafted tomatoes into the retail market.  This year, they hit pay dirt.  The plants flew off the retailers’ shelves even though they carried a hefty price tag — three times the cost of a regular tomato.

After a year of standing by, watching the action, fielding questions from clients and talking to people in the nursery business, I have to admit I was as curious as I was skeptical.  So, I set up my own less than clinical but credible experiment.  I bought two tomato plants of the same variety, an heirloom tomato named “Brandywine”, one grafted and the other non-grafted.  I planted them side by side in an amended bed with the same exposure to sun and the same watering patterns and stood back and waited…

A bit of background would be handy here:  Heirloom tomatoes typically bare fewer tomatoes than their other contemporary hybridized cousins.  So grafting heirloom varieties could be a really fine idea if one of the outcomes was more luscious fruit.  The other point of interest was the claim by the grower that this method can extend growing time because the wild rootstock the plant is grafted to is significantly more robust and cold hardy.  Well, that got my attention since we live in the Pacific Northwest where we are starting to count our summers in days instead of months!

The harvest mostly in, the votes counted and the findings are:

  • When I finally did harvest a ripe tomato, it came from the un-grafted plant.  The grafted plant had significantly more fruit but the FIRST tomato, the one we all wait for, came from the “Plain Jane”.
  • The grafted plant was about (remember this is not a clinical study) 20% bigger and fuller than the non-grafted tomato which is both a blessing and a curse because current grooming protocol calls for pruning the side shoots (the unproductive greenery) from tomatoes to focus the plants on fruit not leaf production.  This meant I spent at least 20% more time pruning the grafted plant and frankly in early September, I gave up keeping up.
  • The sizes of fruit from the grafted tomato were all approximately 30% bigger than those from the regular Brandywine with thinner skin.  The color of the fruit was pinker and lighter, not the red/orange of the “regular” Brandywine.
  • But, here’s the most important outcome…taste.  Taste testing the fruit with a few brave gourmands, picked simultaneously and hauled into the kitchen and eaten without accompaniment, the non-grafted Brandywine tomato won hands down.  TA DA!  The grafted Brandywine’s taste was diluted and watery in comparison.  It lacked that wee bit of acidity we all crave in a fresh, sun warmed tomato and the texture in contrast, was mushy.

There you have it.  Grafted Tomatoes are larger and more robust but the crop they produce pales in comparison to the non-grafted tomato in the taste test and will cost you three times more.

So…Why bother?  Next year save your money or spend it on a few more regular, old, non-grafted, tried and true tomatoes with exotic names like Green Zebra or Black Krim.  Take a bite out of a tomato, not your wallet.  


Hell Strips and Other Unmentionables

There are always “problem children” in every garden.  You know where yours are…those locations that never are quiet right, the areas that try as you might, just don’t support plants well.  They may be too boggy and wet or have poor soil or be bakey and hot.

Typically the parking strip—that area between the sidewalk and the curb is one place that is a challenge for gardeners.  These spots are referred to as “Hell Strips”, they are so called for a reason.  More often than not Hell Strips are hot spots, filled with compacted soil and subjected to pollutants because of the proximity to the street.  They are often forgotten and neglected, left to default to a boring strip of lawn or a swatch of river rock collecting weeds.

There are alternatives to the default approach.

With lot size growing ever smaller as urban density increases capturing the “Hell Strip” and making something of it is becoming more attractive to gardeners.  Hell Strips are being planted with everything from drought tolerant plant material to evergreens and edibles (although I question if it is smart to plant things you want to eat within inches of traffic and pollutants).

The first step in re-claiming a Hell Strip is amending the soil properly.  There is no point of investing in plants if the soil is so poor that it won’t support plants well.  Most soils in the Portland area are clay which means compaction is rampant, you won’t find an earthworm for miles and water runs off without penetration.  Digging in a mixture of topsoil, compost and gravel or course sand will give you a good start (at a ratio of 40:40:20).  I recommend digging the amendments in by hand but if you must rototill, show restraint and do not over till the plot.  The goal is to separate the clay and combine the amendments NOT powder the soil into a fine dust the consistency of cake flour. Whatever method you choose, hand or machine, wait to dig until the soil is not muddy or you will do more harm than good to the soil structure.

Irrigation is the next consideration.  It is not always necessary to have permanent irrigation in the Hell Strip but consider where your nearest water source is and how easy is it to access.  ALL plants (even the most drought tolerant species) need water for two to three summers until they become established.  If the source of water is difficult or complicated to use, you will find yourself inadvertently avoiding watering the new plantings. It only takes one hot day to lose your investment of time and dollars.

Now, make your design decisions about this new bed.

How should it function?  Remember this will be a very public planting.  It is at the edge of the street.  People will tend to treat it for what it is…a public place.  They may feel free to pick the blooms, eat the fruit, and walk through the plantings on the way to the street or the car.  Be prepared for all these events because they will happen.  So choose plants that are tough and not fussy.  Choose plants that will look good for at least three seasons of the year because this will create the “curb appeal”.  Choose plants that are just fine if they are walked near (or on).  And lastly choose plants that are not rare or expensive so if one disappears you will not be heartbroken.

What’s the character?  Will this be mostly edible landscape?  A Mediterranean look—lean and spikey?  An ode to Northwest Natives?  An English cottage garden?  What is your vision?

These are questions and issues to answer BEFORE you take a trip to any nursery, not AFTER you return home with a car load of “must have” plants and no plan.

Happy planting!

Bonnie Bruce is owner of Celilo Gardens, a Portland landscape design studio.  For more information:



Interplanting Edibles in the Garden

Black Hungarian Chilies with Echinacea ‘Harvest Moon’

Almost everyone thinks when raising vegetables they need their very own spot in the yard.  A Pea Patch, a raised bed, a piece of ground where nothing else is planted except edibles.  Why?  Is this practice something we all were raised with?  Did our grandparents practice this technique?  Was it written in our 5th grade science books?  I don’t think so, but somebody sold us that idea and we have embraced it.

Let me introduce another alternative for those of us who have city sized lots and precious little room to devote a patch of the garden for only vegetables.  What about planting edible plants in between and along with our ornamental plantings? Picture it…tomatoes as a background planting to Dianthus (Pinks) or red leafed lettuce edging the deep green of a lawn or even more bold, scarlet red peppers planted beside sunny yellow Echinacea (Cone Flower)?  A veritable riot of color, texture with good eats sprinkled in.  It makes a person swoon, doesn’t it?

For years now I have interplanted food with flowers and it has brought me the best of all worlds.  Vegetables planted in the right places for their sun and water requirements–not just in the spot where the vegetable patch happens to be.  Vegetables companion planted with plants that attract bees, birds and other insects creates a richer environment for pollination which gives bigger yields. Companion planting can also attract beneficial insects which can cut down on pests. AND when the harvest is done there are no bare, muddy, unsightly “parking lots” in the yard for the duration of the winter.

The tricks are few but important to pay attention to:

Pick your vegetables as much for the tastiness of the harvest as for the beauty of the plant.  For example, I happen to love eggplant.  There are many, many varieties out there on the market.  Some are large, heavy bearers of the traditional purple bulbous, egg-shaped fruit, some have furry leaves, some are tall or short.  But my choice is a variety named “Ichiban”, a Japanese eggplant which is the most lovely plant with nearly black-purple stems, bright green leaves and star shaped purple-blue flowers with yellow centers.  You (almost) don’t care that the fruit is long, narrow, delicate and does not require weeping when cooked.  THIS is what I plant in my garden because the plant is as valuable for its contribution to the garden as the fruit.

Give equal consideration to a plant’s habit as you do to its cultural requirements when locating a vegetable in the garden.  That is, the height and spread of a veggie is as important in the placement as is its the sun (or shade) and water needs.  For instance, tomatoes will grow 3′ to 5′ tall and should be located towards the back or midpoint of your beds NOT front and center, while small and fluffy radishes can be used as edging material at the very front of a bed.  Leaf vegetables (spinach, lettuce, chard) cannot take a hot, bakey location, they will bolt, so choose a spot with dappled sun or very little afternoon sun.  When planting also consider the water requirements a particular vegetable has and plant it near perennials with the same needs.

Treat vegetables as annuals in your garden and you won’t be disappointed.  Let them fill in the holes and give fullness to your existing beds. At the end of the growing season, when the harvest is done and you clean out the vegetables, the loss will be nearly unnoticeable.

This spring, don’t let the fact that you have not created raised beds or cannot devote the space to a Pea Patch stop you from growing your own food.  It’s all about being bold and using your garden to its fullest potential.

Purple Peruvian Peppers with Trachelium caeruleum