If you’ve ever wanted to feel a tiny bit like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and you grow plants for a living, you could try your hand at grafting.

Plant grafting is the vegetative propagation technique that connects two severed plant segments together. The resulting chimera, consisting of the scion and the rootstock, survives as a new individual after wound healing. Discussing the topic of grafting for stronger plants at the most recent Great Lakes Expo was Dr. Matt Kleinhenz, professor and Extension specialist with Ohio State.

“Why is it important?” Kleinhenz asked of grafting. “The genetics you choose and the management you impose are the only two tools you have, and grafting is a genetic technology.” Done properly, it can result in hardier plants that grow larger or yield more.

Grafted plants are physical hybrids which become production tools and products. Their performance has been evaluated for decades, but an oversized focus has been placed on Solanaceae and Cucurbit families, according to Kleinhenz. Growers can change that bias by experimenting with grafting on their own.

Vegetable plants that are grafted allow growers to make faster and more effective use of genetics and speed the delivery of desirable traits to other farms. Standard breeding and variety development require time and compromise.

There is also strong evidence that grafted plants offer growers the greatest return on investment when there are serious soilborne diseases to contend with; or if the preferred scion variety is susceptible to disease and stress; or if there is a small land base and few other management options; or if vigor and yield are very important; or if single plantings are picked as many times as conditions allow. Grafted plants tend to be better at fighting abiotic issues too.

Studies have shown that grafted plant use may enhance the effectiveness of microbe-containing crop biostimulants, increase yield in reduced-tillage systems, maintain yield at lower soil moisture and fertility levels while also utilizing higher levels more effectively and facilitate earlier planting and later harvest windows.

“We have some really good varieties but they all have an Achilles heel. No one variety will ever be perfect,” Kleinhenz noted. But grafted vegetable plants eliminate the need for relying only on trait delivery via standard all-in-one genetic hybrids. “We’re changing that,” he added. “With grafting, you get two plants and the best of both worlds.”

The number of rootstocks available for grafting increases every year, as does the number of listed traits on VegetableGrafting.org, the database being put together by Ohio State. On the site, resistance/trait “packages” are grouped for easy searching.

Whether making your own or purchasing grafted plants, however, it can get expensive. “The economics are personal,” Kleinhenz said. “They hinge on individual valuation of impacts – the costs and benefits. There are higher costs for production but higher and longer yields may be possible. Evaluation is ongoing – and it’s complicated.”

He noted that grafted plants can be made and used and be effective on any scale – for all growers and gardeners. “We know genetics work,” he said. “Anything can be overcome.”

Ohio State offers a free grafting guide (at u.osu.edu/vegprolab/grafting-guide) for those willing to turn their growing space into a laboratory. Many Extension offices also offer video tutorials, workshops and in-person programs.

“There is untapped potential and they are steadily increasing in use and value, even though there are genuine challenges involved,” Kleinhenz said of grafting. “My opinion is that it’s at least 51% good.”

by Courtney Llewellyn