Tomatoes are the proverbial gardening gateway drug. At least that is what the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Piscataquis County is hoping. In the third week of June, staff members and volunteers handed out 220 cherry tomato plants to individuals and donated another 50 to the prisoners at the correctional Facility in Charleston, hoping to inspire new vegetable gardeners.

“The idea is if they start with one tomato, it is not as intimidating,” said Donna Coffin, Extension educator. She was inspired by a program that started in Ontario, Canada, created by a couple named Megan O’Neil and Darren Hakker for Earth Day 2009 to encourage more people to grow vegetables at home. “I was searching for something to promote gardening because we are aware that not everybody in rural areas gardens, and we were trying to find something that could spur people to do it.”

Tomatoes get the nod in part because they are high value; whether in a supermarket produce section or at the farmers market, they are often pricey. And the value is not merely monetary; anyone who has ever had one straight from the garden, warm from the sun and dripping down the chin knows how revelatory that experience can be. The National Gardening Association says tomatoes are the No. 1 most planted crop in home gardens across America. It typically vies for the No. 1 spot with potatoes as the most popular vegetable to buy (and yes, we know tomatoes are a fruit, but the consumer consistently classifies them as a vegetable).

Of the people who took the tomatoes as part of the Piscataquis County project, 25 said they had never gardened before. Eighty-nine had been gardening for more than 10 years. So why would they need an introductory plant?

“A lot of the folks that come to the food cupboards can’t afford to buy the seeds,” Coffin said, referring to the food banks where she distributed tomato plants, the Living Word Community Church Food Cupboard in Dover-Foxcroft and the Partnership Food Pantry in Guilford.

Or perhaps they don’t have much land. Carol Clark of Atkinson, who volunteers at the Dover-Foxcroft food bank, wasn’t about to say no to a tomato seedling she could grow on her porch and water “right out the back door.”

“I don’t have the land to plant a big garden or anything,” she explained. One year she gardened by piling dirt inside old tires, but getting rid of them later was more of a headache than she wanted. One tomato is just her speed, and the plant is thriving.

“I have seen one blossom on it so far,” she said. “I figure one of these days I am going to have a nice ripe tomato on it.”

In addition to handing out the plants (which the extension bought for about 50 cents each earlier in June and then scored a bargain on nearer to the hand-out days – more like 30 cents a plant) Coffin and another staffer gave tips on planting the tomatoes, including the dead simple approach – slit open a bag of media and stick the seedling right in. “We wanted it to be as simple as possible,” Coffin said.

The plants include Sun Gold, Yellow Pear and Sweet 100s, raised locally, although Coffin said she had to go out of Piscataquis County for the last batches she gave out; local supplies had been depleted.

She has asked the people who took the plants to stay in touch and let her know how their tomatoes are doing. The Cooperative Extension branches throughout Maine help anyone who asks with gardening, horticulture and livestock assistance and advice. If those cherry tomatoes develop say, early blight, Coffin will be there to make recommendations about how to thwart the fungal disease. Participants were also asked to post on Facebook whenever their plant reached a new landmark, say, the first bloom, the first fruit and the first ripe fruit. So far, Coffin is the only one to post a picture – her One Tomato is blooming.