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27 June 2018

How the magical art of grafting can give you a fruit tree to fit even the most bijou of gardens

A graft is an artificial combination of two plants that by a fair bit of horticultural skill are persuaded to meld their tissues together and grow as one. 

By Stefan Buczacki

t this time of the year, a gardening journalist’s post frequently brings with it some persuasive marketing information from one or other well-known horticultural company. So it was two weeks ago when a box from Suttons Seeds arrived with the enticing label: “Live plants – open immediately”.

The contents were three tomato plants in plastic pots. Although my tomatoes were already growing in the greenhouse, I found room for the newcomers because they were different. Unlike my own plants, which were raised from seed, these were grafted and examples of an increasing range of grafted tomato plants now being offered by seed firms.

A graft is an artificial combination of two plants, generally two varieties of the same species, that by a fair bit of horticultural skill are persuaded to meld their tissues together and grow as one. The benefits, as with tomatoes, are that varieties with, say, disease-resistant roots, will support other varieties that are high yielding or floriferous but whose roots are more feeble or disease prone.

By intriguing coincidence, only a month or so earlier my addiction to second-hand bookshops had delivered to me a slim 19th-century volume in French entitled L’Art de Greffer by one Charles Baltet. I wouldn’t normally have lingered long on a treatise about historic French grafting but the title page bore an author dedication: “A mon ami William Robinson”; and across the fly-leaf was a gigantic scrawled signature: “W Robinson, London 1882”.

I had in my hand a book once owned by the heroic Irishman who all but invented modern English gardening. And it dated from the very time he was writing his classic The English Flower Garden. What is relevant to my tomato plants, however, is that Robinson’s book – now mine – was almost pristine, and appeared hardly to have been opened. Clearly the great man had little use for it in his gardening activities – for Robinson was largely a man of the flower garden and herbaceous border, while grafting truly comes into its own with shrubs, some vegetable-fruits like tomatoes and melons, and fruit trees.

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It is with fruit trees that the grafter’s art has transformed life for commercial grower and home gardener alike. The days are long gone when planting a fruit tree in your garden was to give free rein to a gigantic object that darkened the sun. Modern grafted trees have changed that – and although the fruit tree planting season is some way off, demand always outstrips supply, so the coming weeks offer the perfect time to plan and order your fruit tree stock. Choose your fruiting variety according to personal choice – wonderful tasting apples such as my favourite Blenheim Orange, pears like Doyenné du Comice, plums such as Victoria and so on.

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Choose the rootstock varieties on to which they are grafted according to the space available. The immense contribution grafting has made to fruit growing is in conferring the ability to choose the ultimate size of your tree. For most gardens, the apple rootstock variety M26 is ideal (the “M” comes from East Malling research station in Kent where they originated) but in a tiny garden, opt for M27. I have a 30-year-old crab apple variety, John Downie, in a large pot, grafted on to M27 rootstock that is all of one metre high. And now, not far away, are the three grafted tomatoes, growing with vigour, while I wait to see if they out-yield my more traditional varieties. 

This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone