Many moons ago I wrote a dissertation on crop plants for the future, sadly it was pre computers and I doubt wethter I could lay my hands on a copy of it now. It was back in the days when the quest to save the world’s food crisis was all about feeding the starving rather than about making millions for huge corporate businesses. I was fascinated with the potential of plants to solve the growing problem of famine. Fairy tale scenarios of plants with productive roots and shoots were the pursuit of the scientists as they strove to breed plants that were disease resistant and that gave good yields of nutrient rich plants for man and beast.
The Grow Your Own phenomena has hardly reached the same levels as the war time Dig for Victory campaign, but for many families the supply of fresh homegrown produce supplements the diet, keeps them healthy and saves them money. Where space is plentiful and a generous greenhouse extends the season, the savvy gardener and grower can expect to provide at least half of their fruit, veg and herb needs as well as fill their garden and home with beautiful flowers for cutting and display. Experienced gardeners with all the time in the world can expect to do even better and store, freeze, bottle and juice enough to last through the winter. Those short of space have different criteria, choosing to grow cash crops that would cost more in the shops and give a generous, valuable yield, as well as the family favourites that taste better than shop bought and lift the spirits even if they are time intensive and take up a bit more space.
This year I chose not to grow tomatoes or potatoes. The former as I’d overdosed on them the previous year, filling my Hartley with 27 pretty high maintenance plants that demanded care and attention at all the wrong times in my travel diary. Granted the yield, variety and flavour were amazing, wonderful and delicious, providing luscious fruit, chutneys and roasted concoctions that froze and stored beautifully (still eating them now). But somehow, I just needed a year off from the Solanum family. Potatoes generally take up too much space in my deep raised beds and don’t do particularly well in my garden. I get better results with other edibles and choose to use my precious beds for a rich diversity of eclectic plants rather than a staple that I can buy from our local market gardener or farmers market. But things have changed. Now I can grow both in the greenhouse on one plant. The new TomTato from Thompson & Morgan (http://www.thompson-morgan.com) is a major horticultural breakthrough, producing sweet tasty tomatoes above ground and delicious white potatoes below ground, all on one plant.
It’s not the result of genetic engineering or incredible plant mutation. Instead it’s the very latest development in grafted plants. Grafted fruit trees are the norm, most of the commercially available tree fruit including apples and pears have been grafted onto specially selected rootstocks to control their size and produce healthy, productive trees. Some of them even use stocks and scions from a different genus, for example many pear trees use the smaller growing quince as its rootstock, which though related doesn’t work with every type of pear. It’s an ancient art used widely in horticulture with great success. More recently we’ve accepted grafted greenhouse plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and aubergines that have been carefully combined to produce earlier crops with greater yields.
The new TomTato plants have been hand grafted together, combining the roots of the humble spud with the fruiting stems of the tomato. Since potatoes and tomatoes are from the same family it was always a feasible combination, but it has taken 15 years to create a commercial plant. Perfect for greenhouse growing, each plant needs plenty of root space, but you get a greater yield of produce for the same amount of space. A 40 litre growing container is recommended. It’s not cheap at around £10 a plant, with a good tomato food included, so you do need to weigh up the yields to the cost. T&M suggests that you will get around 500 cherry tomatoes and up to 2kg of potatoes. A tenner could buy you a fair amount of both in the supermarket or enough seed potatoes and tomato seed to fill my greenhouse and veg patch anyway. But for its novelty value alone it makes a great teaching aid and a fascinating greenhouse talking point, so I for one will be growing it next season at least for one year anyway. Watch this space.