Joining Together

Joining Together

Posted: Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
By Jon Stinnett The Cottage Grove Sentinel

These days, a small, humid lab tucked amid the many greenhouses and outbuildings at locally owned Log House Plants houses the first stages of a process that could revolutionize home gardening in America.

The technique is not a new one—Chinese farmers have been grafting, or joining tissues of one plant to those of another so the vascular tissues of the two plants grow together, for thousands of years. Grafting also made possible the domestication of fruit trees such as apples and cherries, whose method of reproduction prevents useful genes from being passed down consistently through successive generations of trees. Asian and European farmers have likewise been using grafting techniques to produce superior vegetables for decades. But the grafted vegetable plants currently making their way to retail outlets in the Pacific Northwest and via catalog orders through another local company, Territorial Seed Co., all have their origins at Log House Plants near Dorena Reservoir.

Alice Doyle, who has co-owned Log House Plants with Greg Lee for 37 years, said the wholesale plant grower constantly introduces new varieties of the flowers, vegetables and herbs it sells to regional retail outlets each year.

“We’re trying to make independent retailers different from those at chain stores,” Doyle said. “That’s our primary goal.”

Searching out new plant varietals over decades has introduced the tight-knit group at Log House to an ever-expanding network of friends, plant breeders, seed companies and retailers intent on discovering the next innovation in plant husbandry. The pace of their discovery has picked up since 2000, when a trip to Crete and another to a flower show in Calcutta, India allowed Doyle and others to view potential that had not yet been tapped in this country.

“It’s been an interesting last few years,” Doyle said. “We realized that commercial produce growers have been growing grafted vegetables, and it occurred to us, ‘Why can’t home gardeners have the same benefits that commercial growers are getting?’”

Much research and many conversations led to the artisan growers at Log House perfecting a technique for successfully grafting vegetables.

“It’s an exciting time,” Doyle said, “because there’s been a lot to learn about production and techniques. We had to figure out what rootstocks to use and how to explain to gardeners how to deal with grafted vegetables.”

Springtime finds workers at Log House growing tomato plants from seed. The top part, or scion, of a tomato plant known to bear plentiful and delicious fruit is painstakingly attached to the rootstock of hybrid crosses of wild tomato species that grow well in adverse conditions. Through careful monitoring and manipulation of their growing environment, the two plants eventually grow together. The result is a plant with the best characteristics of its predecessors, a plant whose rootstock contributes vigor and disease resistance, while its scion produces exceptional-quality fruit.

While developing their grafting techniques, Doyle said Log House also became concerned about the proliferation of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, whose character is altered by means of spliced genes, in the nation’s food supply.

“Last season, companies were asking us to grow genetically altered or engineered plants,” Doyle said. “Instead of cross-breeding to produce better plants, companies behind the growth of GMOs are getting the added profit of selling chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides that are spliced into plants’ genes to provide resistance to bugs and weeds.

“Traditional breeding is a great thing, but we’re against genetic engineering of food because we don’t yet know how it affects those who eat it,” Doyle said.

Thus, in 2009, Log House dropped all plant varietals owned by chemical giant Monsanto from its roster, and the search began for specialty breeders to offer new plants to replace those that Log House would no longer sell. The resulting discoveries stretch the imagination of vegetable aficionados: The cross of Brussels sprouts with Kale produces a leafy sprout with delicious leaves; the “squashkin” combines the best features of a squash and pumpkin, and the cultivation of ‘Indigo Rose’, a tomato plant that is actually includes a different species from typical tomatoes, and has one fifth the anti-oxidants of blueberries. Log House sourced from Holland the hardy rootstocks they would need to create their newest product, the “Mighty ‘Mato,” a grafted varietal and powerhouse of tomato prowess that is currently finding the soil in gardens nationwide.

“Anyone that grows a grafted tomato will never go back (to traditional plants),” Doyle said. “Once you grow grafted, you always will. It’s a no-brainer.”

“’Mighty ‘Mato’ has an extraordinary ability to defend against pests, diseases, temperature extremes and poor soils, while producing early, long and abundant harvests of big, beautiful fruit,” according to company literature, which adds that the ‘Mato will soon be joined by grafted peppers, eggplant, squash, cucumbers and melons.

The promise of the Mighty ‘Mato led Log House to seek a method of distribution nationwide, a method found close to home with Territorial Seed Co., whose mail-order catalog has brought a wide variety of plants to home gardeners for 26 years.

“Tom and Julie (Johns, Territorial co-owners) and Josh Kirschenbaum (horticulturalist) have been wonderful to work with,” Doyle said.

“It’s been a great relationship and a lot of fun,” Tom Johns said. “Log House is primarily wholesale, and we are more involved with mail-order, though we also grow plants on our own farm. We know how to pack and ship plants to home gardeners, so it made perfect sense for us to team up.”

Johns said he has also witnessed the superiority of grafted tomatoes.

“It’s crazy how much more productive they can be in some settings,” he said. “If you look at them side-by-side with conventional tomatoes, you’ll say ‘Wow, there really is a big difference.”

Log House also recently formed another partnership with California-based company Plug Connection, which sells the ‘Mato as a “plug,” or small grafted plant packed in soil for wholesale growers to finish for retailers.

And their work appears to be paying off. Doyle said the Mighty ‘Mato is much in demand locally at The Bookmine and Territorial Seed and Log House other outlets, and retailers nationwide are currently offering the tomatoes’ distinctive liners.

Doyle said these new partnerships will ensure that efforts to bring grafted vegetables to a wider audience continue to grow, especially during a time of renewed interest in home gardening. Johns agrees.

“There aren’t many times in one’s working career where you come upon something this truly innovative,” he said. “I’d say in the next 10 years, grafted vegetables are going to be very common. There’s just so much of an advantage to growing them. People are becoming more and more aware of their food supply, and they’re interested in growing their own vegetables because of the health benefits they can provide. It’s great to see an effort like this germinating and hatching right here in Cottage Grove.”

For the complete article see the 05-02-2012 issue.