Breaking Ground 10:

Grafting and Hard Graft

Did you have a vegetable garden this year? Not an unreasonable question for a South Florida gardener to ask a friend, but probably a given to most people who live in more temperate climates.

How big was it? Did you grow a dozen cabbage, twenty? Perhaps fifty or a hundred lettuce? A couple of plants of courgette, perhaps one or two of which went on to make marrows ? (Marrows for our North American friends, are bloated, water-filled versions of zucchini that give rise to over-the-fence rivalries about size, and which sometimes have to be eaten.) A few tomatoes (however you say the word) and some eggplants?

Pretty simple, wasn't it? Prepare the ground, direct-seed some of them , fuss with others in pots to get them out as plants as soon as the danger of frost was past. Would you even have bothered if you had to go to the trouble of grafting every single one, using a special rootstock grown from seed and a scion piece of the variety that you want eventually to harvest?

I was astonished recently to learn that what I had heard of as a curiosity, almost a lark - a tomato grafted onto a potato for instance- was a standard commercial practice in many countries. A recent issue of the journal of The International Society for Horticultural Science reports that in Japan more than half of the field-grown cucumbers and 96% of those grown in greenhouses were grafted. This is not a hundred or so plants, there are more than 22,000 acres of field and 12,000 acres of greenhouse production of grafted plants, and impressively substantial percentages and acreage of eggplant, melons, peppers, tomatoes and watermelons in both Japan and Korea. The practice is spreading in Europe in intensive cultivation situations like hydroponic growing .

Clearly there must be very good reasons for adopting this labor intensive and intricate procedure. They turn out to be just like those for fruit trees or roses, crops in which we have long accepted grafting as an essential part of propagation. There are rootstocks that, ungrafted, would form absolutely useless vegetables from a culinary standpoint, but which are resistant to disease, able to grow under bad conditions, cold tolerant and so on, or may simply improve the yield of the plant grafted to them. What is hard to imagine is the labor involved, and the dexterity of the little fingers that do all this.I am constantly reminded of how easy my life has been, and grateful for it.

This technique is not genetic modification, and can have no harmful impact on the environment. Thank goodness for one scientific advance in culture that we can accept with wholehearted thanks to the scientists and technicians who have developed and perfected it. And, again, awe at the people who carry it out.

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