A terrible thing happened when I returned from Denver a couple of weeks ago. After I pulled all the bolted spinach and lettuce (except for one or two of each left to go to seed) out of the greenhouse and uncovered the eggplants and peppers I’d planted just before I left, I started setting out tomato plants in the raised box beds in the garden. (See my article in Real Media about raised beds at http://thisisrealmedia.com/2014/06/02/why-raised-beds-by-jeanie-french.) It was slow going, because I had over 30 tomatoes to put out. I knew I had too many for the beds and would have to put some in the ground. I also had to figure out what was going where. Accidentally dumping all the seedlings on the greenhouse floor into an unmarked jumble early this spring put a kink in my organization. It’s hard to decide what to plant where when you don’t know which variety you’re planting. All of this to explain why I placed six pots of tomatoes on the surface of a raised bed and then went to bed myself without planting them.
The next morning, when I went out to the garden to start putting the tomatoes in the soil, I found the terrible thing. Some animal (visiting cat or dog? raccoon? although we haven’t seen one of those in years, so probably a cat or dog) had tipped over all the pots. My guess is that it was a cat, rubbing up against them or playing. At any rate, they were all tipped over, and the tomato plant in the heavy clay pot was broken at soil level. For a gardener, this is a truly terrible thing.
I considered grafting it. I’ve done this before with fresh breaks. You just take some grafting or florist’s tape, or failing that, masking tape works just fine, and wind it in a bandage around the broken stem. But this works best when the wound is fresh, and this one wasn’t. Both ends of the break were already drying out.
This was an Early Girl, that old standard which always does well for me in our short growing season. I had six, and had put one aside to pot up for my daughter. I decided to plant the one I’d set aside for Amy, and root the broken one for her. Some people refer to this method of plant propagation as cloning. This salvage method works well if you can wait a bit longer for fruit. Amy’s tomatoes (the Early Girl, a large cherry tomato, a grape tomato, and a Brandywine) will be sitting in pots in my garden until we return from our trip to Great Britain this summer, in late July.
I cut the tomato stem at the break and trimmed another quarter-inch off it to get to fresh tissue. Then I put it in a vase of water and put it in the house. It’s cooler in the house than in the greenhouse, which decreases the stress on the plant while it is growing new roots from the stem. I also pulled off a small green tomato which had set in the greenhouse, and cut off the flowering spur. When you want a plant to root, you don’t want it distracted by having to bear fruit at the same time. Some people cut off the main branches too, leaving a mostly bare stem, but I can’t bring myself to mutilate a plant this way. And I do want fruit just as soon as the roots are capable of supporting the plant.
And that’s all there is to cloning a tomato. Just plop your cutting into water and wait a few weeks for it to develop roots from the stem before planting it in soil. Keep the water in your container topped up. Tomatoes tend to root at or above the water line, so you should trim away any foliage below the spot you want roots to develop, if possible. You can root tomatoes in soil, and I have done this when I had a lot of cuttings, but for one plant, it’s easier to use a vase and do it in water.
You can take cuttings from a fruiting branch of the tomato plant, or you can “top” it. I find this method useful if my tomatoes get a little too leggy in the greenhouse before I get them planted outside in the spring. If you are growing a tomato with an indeterminate habit, you can cut the top out, root it, and increase your stock as well as encourage more bearing branches on the plant you pruned. It’s also an economical way to get more tomato plants for less money, if you buy a few early and clone them before it’s time to set them out. Don’t do this with determinate-habit tomatoes (some examples are Roma, Celebrity, Marglobe, and Rutgers). They bear fruit on the terminal buds and then are done, unlike tomatoes with indeterminate habits, which will continue to branch, sucker, and bear and grow until frost.
I used to use this cloning method when I lived part of the time in Las Vegas and part of the time at home in northeastern California. I cloned 3 or 4 plants from my garden at home in July, rooting them in soil in large pots, then I’d move them down to Las Vegas in late August when school started. They lived on apartment terraces and on the back patio when I bought a house there. Most years, they would bear in the fall, live all winter and start bearing again early in spring. Then I’d bring them back home to the garden in May and set them out. Sometimes, I’d clone a few more before I left Las Vegas, so I’d have plenty of plants for the garden at home.
My broken tomato is already putting out tiny roots.
It should be ready for potting up before we leave again for Denver and Amy’s graduation from her periodontal program, and then for Great Britain. This Early Girl plant should be carrying green tomatoes by late July, when it will find a home on my daughter’s patio. Disaster averted.