Careful: Plant Cherokee Purple tomatoes, and you may never go back to growing a, well, garden-variety again. At least that’s the hope of the team at Slow Food Asheville, which recently announced the Cherokee as the focus of the 2017 Heritage Food Project. They see it as a “gateway tomato” to the countless heirloom varieties out there — cultivars, they stress, that are easy to grow and taste better than what’s on offer at the grocery store, yet are in danger of being lost.
“The industrial agriculture system leads society to rely on less and less varieties of food — one variety of corn, one breed of cattle for milk,” explains Ashley Epling, chapter president. “We can work in the opposite direction by connecting people with flavor and experience.”
Enter the project, aimed at protecting Southern Appalachia’s unique foodways by providing greater access to them; a different rare food with cultural and culinary value is highlighted each year.
This spring, Slow Food Asheville will disseminate 1,700 Cherokee Purple seedlings to area individuals, as well as school, church and community gardens. To receive a plant (or two, the max per home gardener), growers must sign up with the project. They’ll get emails with growing tips, even recipes. And at the end of the season, they’ll be invited to a seed-saving workshop to learn how to make more ’maters next year, no new plant needed.
Cherokee Purple seedlings, and participation in the program, are free, although donations are encouraged. The plants are being grown and gifted by Banner Greenhouses in Nebo.
“It’s about creating that personal connection where people are savoring these foods,” Epling says. “That’s what’s going to make people want to save them.”
In conjunction with the project, the Slow Food community will be holding a “grow out,” growing their own tomato seedlings to maturation and harvesting the seeds. The organization will then have a seed bank to keep the Cherokee Purple — and other heritage crops — spreading to more gardens in the community in 2018 and beyond.
Shared, community, school and church gardens, as well as farms, are eligible for more than two seedlings; email firstname.lastname@example.org.