Let's do a quick history of Thompson & Morgan, the British seed company. It was founded by William Thompson in 1855, in a garden shop behind a bakery. A few years passed. Then in 2013, Thompson and Morgan released the TomTato.
Thompson & Morgan sells thousands of plants and seeds, from unique hybrids to rare, heirloom varietals. But since it released the TomTato — a grafted plant that produces both potatoes and tomatoes — all other products have taken a backseat. “In my time here, we have never, ever, ever had a product launch that came close to the TomTato,” says Paul Hansord, director at Thompson & Morgan. “Not by a long stretch.”
Hansord’s a busy man these days, but Modern Farmer managed to get him on the phone.
MF: Can you guess what we want to discuss?
PH: I think so.
MF: Please tell us about your line of currants. Just kidding, let’s talk about the TomTato.
There’s nothing Frankenstein about it — just good old traditional grafting.
PH: Might as well!
MF: How did you stumble on this brilliant idea?
PH: Fifteen years ago there were some potato/tomato experiments that didn’t work out. We decided to give it a go, mostly for the novelty. Then the project started generating a lot of interest; it occurred to us this might have real potential.
MF: It took 10 years to make this happen. What was the holdup?
PH: It’s very important not to have any viruses; both plants are susceptible. You also need to make sure the tomato and potato stems are the exact same width. And we were also looking for varieties with good yields, good flavor.
MF: What did you settle on?
PH: We picked a cherry tomato that’s just beautiful, packed with flavor, great for cooking. The potatoes are a typical white-fleshed variety, great for baking and steaming (but not so much for chips). Good for mashers, too.
MF: How does the TomTato growing cycle work?
PH: You plant in the spring and start getting tomatoes by July. The TomTato produces massive trusses of fruit. Lots of vigor. You’re going to get abundant tomatoes through the summer. And when they finally settle down, the potatoes will be ready to harvest.
MF: The world is eagerly anticipating your next grafting project. Carrots and peas?
PH: I don’t think so. Potatoes and tomatoes work because they’re both from the solanum genus. Not every plant can be grafted together.
MF: We were kidding. But do you have any cool grafts in the works?
PH: I’d rather not talk about it yet.
MF: Has Thompson & Morgan ever made anything this popular?
PH: We’ve created all sorts of interesting new plants – scented begonias, climbing petunias, giant pumpkins — but this is light years more popular.
MF: Why are people so crazy about the TomTato?
PH: That’s a very good question. I suppose there’s sort of a “never been seen” factor. It seems like magic, or genetic engineering. But there’s nothing Frankenstein about it — just good old traditional grafting. People have been doing it for hundreds of years.