For tomato-lovers, it doesn't get much better than this: a plant that combines the famous taste of heirlooms like Cherokee Purple and Brandywine with the traditional high yields and disease resistance of hybrids.
This dreamy marriage has brought forth the grafted tomato, which tests show has a longer, healthier growing season and tastier fruit, with as much as 50 percent to 75 percent more tomatoes a season.
"It's one of the hot issues, and it makes sense right here and now," said Chelsey E. Fields, vegetable product manager for W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the home gardening giant in Warminster, one of a growing number of companies that are jumping into the grafted-vegetable market.
This spring, for the first time, Burpee will sell 10 varieties of grafted tomatoes at garden centers across the country. The process is simple: The heirloom top, or scion, is spliced onto the hybrid's rootstock using razor cuts. A plastic clip holds the graft in place until the two pieces have grown together. The resulting plant looks just like an heirloom, but with way more vigor.
Sounds great to Lyn Hecker, an experienced gardener in Southampton Township, N.J., who grows 70 tomato plants a year, many of them heirlooms she nurtures from seed.
"The problem is, heirlooms don't hold up as well as hybrids," she says. "Now if you graft them, they will."
Tomatoes are considered heirloom if they're at least 50 years old, often much older, and naturally pollinated. They're famous for their distinctive flavor and quirky colors and shapes.
With the boom in home vegetable gardening, and heightened interest in fresh, local food, they've become wildly popular at farmers markets and restaurants. But in the backyard, they are prone to cracking and disease, and not known for producing truckloads of fruit.
Hybrids are crossbred tomatoes. They're generally tougher, have a more uniform shape and generate more fruit, although many - not all - tomato aficionados prefer the heirlooms' taste. (Three delicious tomatoes - Early Girl, Sweet 100 and Sun Gold - are all hybrids.)
Two other factors brought the idea of grafted tomatoes to the fore, according to Fields: weather extremes over the last few years that stressed or killed tomatoes and the late blight epidemic of 2009, which destroyed commercial and homegrown crops across the country.
"It really brought people's attention to how quickly you can lose everything," Fields said. "Not just that, but the increasing number of stories about plant diseases and viruses.
"Grafted tomatoes are just having their time now."
An ancient technique that dates to the origins of agriculture, grafting is now used around the world on a long list of vegetables and fruits, ornamental trees and plants. Heirloom tomatoes are a relative - but promising - newcomer.
For the last few years, Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, has been supplying hybrid tomato seeds for grafted rootstock to growers. And demand is building fast.
"It makes sense, especially if you're growing in a greenhouse, which costs so much to heat," said Johnny's researcher Stephen Bellavia, who's also experimenting with grafted cucumbers. "With grafted tomatoes, you get a much bigger yield."
Territorial Seed Co. in Cottage Grove, Ore., is selling grafted tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. "Customers appreciate the fact that grafted plants can be planted earlier, and withstand cooler temperatures and more difficult conditions like we have in the Northwest," said marketing coordinator Tim Russell.
Because labor expenses are higher - grafting is done by hand - consumers will pay a few dollars extra per plant or more, depending on the variety.
But early buyers haven't seemed troubled by cost.
In 2011, Burpee offered online only limited quantities of six grafted tomatoes. They sold out practically overnight. In 2012, more plants were added, the same six varieties, online and by catalog. By season's end, every plant was gone.
This spring, Burpee will sell its 10 "Bumper Crop" grafted varieties, three for $22.95 - online, in the catalog and in garden centers: Black Krim, Big Rainbow, Brandywine Pink and Red, Cherokee Purple, Gardener's Delight, Mortgage Lifter, Rutgers, San Marzano and Yellow Pear. (Garden centers are listed at www.burpeehomegardens.com.)
While none can withstand the airborne spores of late blight, the grafted varieties either tolerate or resist soil-based problems, such as spotted wilt virus, tomato yellows, tobacco mosaic virus, nematodes, verticillium and fusarium wilt, and several kinds of rot.
So Scott Guiser, an educator with the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Bucks County, Pa., has a suggestion. "For my money, there are some relatively new hybrids that work just fine," he said, one being Burpee's Brandy Boy, a hybrid of the Brandywine heirloom.
"It gives you a respectable yield, it has a uniform shape, and if you lose a little flavor, it's still a high-quality tomato - and it's cheaper than buying grafted plants," Guiser said.
He thinks grafted tomatoes may be oversold but concedes they're bound to be the talk of the garden set in 2013.
"Home gardening is for fun," he said, "so if I see one of those grafted plants, I'm going to stick one in and see what happens."