Kate Garland horticulturist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension plants a tomato seedling into a bucket in May 2017 while talking about container gardening.

If you’re out and about in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties this spring, there’s a chance that someone may try to give you a tomato seedling.

And if you take it home, congratulations! You’ve just become part of the One Tomato project.

The project was launched in 2009 in Sarnia, Ontario, and was inspired by the Victory Gardens grown in the United States and Canada during World War II. Back then, the goal of the gardens was to support the war effort and grow food by turning any available space into a garden plot. In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt even had the front lawn of the White House plowed up to turn it into a Victory Garden.

The One Tomato project did not come about in a time of war, but shares the same goal of encouraging regular folks to start gardens so they can help to feed themselves and their communities. The motto is “growing healthier communities one tomato at a time,” and when University of Maine Cooperative Extension Professor Donna Coffin learned about it several years ago, she thought the simple project could be a great fit for rural Maine, and especially Piscataquis County, where she is based.

“Our goal, and why we started this, is that we wanted to think of a way to encourage people who have never gardened to start gardening,” she said Wednesday. “The goal is to just start growing your own food. To grow and consume food that you know is raised in Maine.”

Maine has been contending with rising rates of food insecurity for several years, and encouraging people to garden is one way to combat that, Coffin believes. Lots of Mainers already garden and start their own seedlings, but others don’t know how or don’t believe they can. The One Tomato project aims to help change that mindset. This year will mark the fifth anniversary of the One Tomato project in Piscataquis County, with 400 seedlings expected to be given away throughout the area.

Cooperative Extension in Penobscot County is also distributing seedlings. Last weekend in Orono, they gave them out to people who attended the Bangor Flower and Garden Show. They will also be distributing tomato seedlings in June at a few food cupboards in the area.

“It’s such a clever idea and such a simple idea,” extension horticulturist Kate Garland said this week about the One Tomato Project.

Over the first four years of the Piscataquis County project, 1,274 people were given tomato seedlings, all of which were grown by volunteer Richard Neal. The retired carpenter from Parkman said he likes to keep busy and has some extra space in his little greenhouse, and so it wasn’t too hard for him to grow all those tomato plants.

“I think it’s a wonderful project,” he said. “I’ve always been a believer that people should know how to grow food. If people knew how to grow food, maybe there wouldn’t be so much hunger in the world.”

This spring, a different grower, Ellis’ Greenhouse & Nursery in Hudson, will be taking over the seedling starting duties from Neal. Tomato takers this year will receive one of four cherry tomato varieties: Sun Gold, Esterina, Jasper and Sunrise Sauce. The last three are meant to be disease resistant, which should make tomato gardeners’ lives a little easier and less troubled by foliar diseases.

“We want folks to have success,” Coffin said.

In addition to a seedling, project participants also are given fact sheets about gardening and asked for their contact information so the extension educators can follow up with them. Coffin has been tracking how well the plants have done and estimating the value of fruit they have grown, which she figured totaled more than $9,600 over the first four years of the program.

This spring, tomato seedlings will be given away at events such as the Black Fly Festival in Milo, held on Saturday, June 2, and at locations such as the Piscataquis County Cooperative Extension office, located at 165 East Main Street in Dover-Foxcroft. They’ll be available beginning at the end of May, Coffin said, adding that lots of the seedlings find homes with people who have never gardened before. Her hope is that they will find they don’t want to stop gardening with just one tomato.

“We try to encourage folks,” she said. “We try to remove as many barriers to gardening as we can.”

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