Jill Henderson ~ Show Me Oz – I don’t really feel totally comfortable with the word clone. It’s a little too 2001 Space Odyssey kind of creepy for me, but if you have a seedling, transplant, or mature tomato plant break, you can turn a major-minor disaster into a gardening win-win by cloning it. I’ve saved more than my fair share of nearly-dead plants over the last 30-something years and it works almost every time.
I recently had the opportunity to prove this to myself once again just this spring. Some four-footed critter came in the night and stepped, not-so-gingerly, mind you, upon one of only a handful of our treasured tomato seedlings. The status of these tomatoes ranks pretty high up on my list of heirloom vegetable in the garden this year. Two beefsteak tomatoes represented by two very old and local heirlooms. The elderly gentleman who gave them to me was past his 80’s and hoping to preserve two genetically distinct tomatoes that had originally came from two of his older friends who had passed on to the Greener Garden.
This gentleman had continued their legacy and then gave these treasures to me. I promised not to let them disappear into genetic history where they might be lost forever. I had two goals for this initial trial. The first was to preserve both varieties by saving seed. The second was to test it’s tenacity. In other words, could it hack it in the wild… er, my garden when sown directly in the early spring and still produce the whopping 3 lb. fruits that both varieties had won blue ribbons for.
Check out the first flower that showed up on every single plant of both varieties… huge flowers with doubly-exerted styles (to allow for easy cross-pollination) and stems as fuzzy as a peach!
IOW: a very old tomato!
Anywho, I’m sure you know that tomatoes need warmth to germinate and grow rapidly, so our outdoor specimens grow very slowly at first focusing on putting down deep and extensive roots. The ones that make it, that is.
One morning, we came out and there it was – one of our 9” seedlings laying on the ground broken, leaves in the mud. One touch and it came off cleanly at the soil line. Broke and possibly done for. Yet, the leaves still had some firmness to them and the break was recent. With a crud or two and a couple of rats-ass-a-frass’es, I headed for the kitchen with the patient.
To clone a plant, all you need is a plant part that is willing to cooperate – that is, that it can grow new roots of it’s own apart from the mother plant. Luckily, tomatoes can do that very well. You may have noticed that in your garden if you allow some tomato branches to ramble across the ground (like they do in the wild, by the way). Where a branch or stem touches the soil, roots will form to anchor the plant and bring nourishment closer to the fruiting end.
If some part of your plant has broken off you’ll want to trim off the ragged end. If it’s a multi-stem branch, cut the suckers off the mature vine and use those. The older and tougher a branch, the less likelihood that healthy roots and new leaves will grow robustly.
Trim a few leaves off of big cuttings to reduce evaporation through the leaves and stick the stem end into a small glass of water. Voila! You’re done. Okay, almost done…Be sure to work it out so as to prop the seedling upright in vessel. As you can see here, I used the recess in this plastic clothespin and suspended the stem over the cup upright. Worked perfectly. Place your cutting clone in a bright place away from direct sunlight for four or five days, refilling the water to about an inch above the cut end of the tomato stem as needed.
This little seedling started rooted up in only four days. I kept it in the water for another three days and the difference in root mass was palpable.
I used no rooting hormone, fertilizer, et all. it is not necessary because the cutting itself has all it needs to support the new roots. After that, simply plant your bareroot cutting in the garden. Water deeply and provide all-day shade for the first few sunny or hot days outside and you should be good to go.
This method of cloning is perfect for propagating many new cuttings from overwintered, spring-grown, or spent tomato plants. Your new tomato clones will lag behind the originals for a few weeks but with warmth and time, you won’t know the difference between them.
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© Jill Henderson
The Garden Seed Saving Guide
Easy Heirloom Seeds for the Home Gardener
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons and Illuminati Agenda 21 can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a featured columnist for Acres USA and a contributing author to Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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