Fruit or vegetable, now that is the question! Much confusion exists around tomato’s classification, but that doesn’t make homegrown tomatoes any less delicious. Believed to have originated in South America, the tomato plant has made its way up through Mexico to the US and Canada and even to Europe via Spanish conquistadors, where it has since become a beloved ingredient in all manner of cuisines. While the “fruit” part of the plant is clearly edible, the rest of the plant is, in fact, toxic and should be grown somewhere away from small children and furry friends who have a tendency to explore the world with their taste buds. The tomato plant comes in a plethora of varieties which vary in shape, color, size, and taste, so we recommend investigating all your options and selecting varieties that cater to your preferences prior to growing!
The Cherokee Purple tomato is a lovely, true heirloom variety that was passed on from the Cherokee tribe in Tennessee to surrounding neighbors over 100 years ago. With a resurgence in interest for heirloom varieties, the Cherokee Purple tomato has taken farmers’ markets and restaurants by storm, garnering rave reviews from everyday diners to food critics. Its flavor is described as being sweet and slightly smoky with no overt acidity, which can be the case with conventional tomatoes. As its name would suggest, the thick skin of this tomato takes on a deep red to purple color once mature, which makes it as beautiful as it is tasty!
Seed Depth: 1/4″
Space Between Plants: 18–24″
Space Between Rows: 3–5′
Germination Soil Temperature: 70–90°F
Days for Germination: 6–10
Sow Indoors: 6–8 weeks before average last frost date.
Sow Outdoors: After all danger of frost has passed and soil is at least 60°F. Cherokee Purple should not be planted outdoors until the weather during the day is consistently warm and night time temperatures are above 45°F.
Vegetative: Can be easily propagated by taking root or stem cuttings or by layering. Cuttings will root in an aeroponic system or soilless media.
As the Cherokee Purple tomato hails from Tennessee, it grows best in regions with similar climates (i.e., warm weather and long growing seasons). If you live in an area with a short growing season, be sure to start your seeds indoors in early to mid-spring to allow time for ripening once your plants are outdoors and before the first frost. If your summer is extremely hot (regularly over 90°F), some light shading will help tomatoes stay happy. Not frost tolerant.
Natural: Full sun. Prefers partial afternoon shade in warm weather.
Artificial: Grows best under HID lamps due to their need for tons of light. Use metal halide for the vegetative growth and switch to high pressure sodium when you want the fruit to start forming.
Soil: Prefers a well-drained loamy or sandy soil with a high amount of organic matter. A pH between 6.0 and 6.5 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Start seeds and root cuttings using a soilless mix. Mixes with perlite, vermiculite and/or coco coir will keep your growing medium airy, allowing your plants to produce healthy root systems.
Hydroponics: Thrives in a variety of hydroponic systems, including NFT, slab, and media-based systems. Use perlite or mineral wool as the growing medium.
Aeroponics: Cuttings will root in aeroponic systems.
Water: Requires moderate levels of water. Once established, they are fairly drought tolerant. Even soil moisture is necessary to prevent cracking fruits and blossom end rot. Avoid getting water on the leaves.
Nutrients: Requires high levels of nutrients. Amend soil with compost and aged manure before planting. Fertilize 3–5 times during the growing season using a balanced liquid fertilizer, compost tea, and/or liquid seaweed.
Pruning: Remove suckers—the auxiliary buds that form at the intersection of leaf and stem—to divert that energy into fruit production.
Mulching: Use mulch to conserve soil moisture. Black landscaping fabric can be helpful in warming the soil more quickly and allowing for earlier planting in addition to suppressing weed populations.
Support: Indeterminate varieties like the Cherokee Purple need staking, trellis, cages, or another type of support for best results.
Deficiency(s): A calcium deficiency can lead to blossom end rot. To remedy, try adding a small amount of crushed eggshells to the soil around the base of your plant.
Rotation: A 3-year rotation away from all plants in the Solanaceae family is recommended. Plant after a cover crop or nitrogen-fixing legume like peas or beans. If nematodes are a problem, plant after tilling marigolds into the soil.
Companions: Grows well with basil, asparagus, beans, bee balm, borage, carrots, celery, chives, cucumber, garlic, lettuce, marigolds, mint, nasturtium, onion, parsley, pea, pepper, and sow thistle. Avoid dill, corn, kohlrabi, potatoes, apricot, fennel, cabbage, and cauliflower. Don’t plant tomatoes under walnut trees.
Harvest: Pick fruit at the peak of ripeness when there is no green or orange color left for the best taste. Check plants daily or every other day to make sure you don’t miss any ripe tomatoes. They don’t need sunlight to ripen, so be sure to reach all the fruits in the middle of the plant. Some gardeners have suggested waiting until the end of the summer to pick the majority of your fruits since being left out in the sun longer can reduce wateriness, making them crisper. If you decide to give this strategy a try, keep a close eye on your plants to ensure that you aren’t losing many of these delectable fruits to rot, especially in humid climates. Wear long sleeves and gloves when harvesting to protect your skin from potential irritation that some people experience after contact with tomato leaves.
Storage: Keep fresh tomatoes at room temperature for 2–3 days for the best taste. Handle gently and store ‘upside down’ with the stems carefully removed. If you can’t eat your entire harvest, we recommend preserving tomatoes rather than refrigerating them, since this alters the texture of the fruit.
Seed Saving: To save heirloom tomato seeds, select tomatoes at their peak ripeness (not too soft and not too firm) that display characteristics you value (e.g., size, shape, color, heartiness, and/or taste). Cut your tomatoes in half, scoop out the seeds and jelly-like liquid inside, and place in a jar. Add about ½ a cup of water and put jar in a dark location for 3—4 days until the seed coatings separate from the seeds. As this happens, viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the jar. If a mold forms on top of your jar, don’t be alarmed! This is a natural part of the process and won’t negatively impact your seeds. Pour off the top layer of the mixture (the mold, seed coatings, etc.) and place the seeds that are left in a strainer and rinse. Lay out seeds on a cookie sheet or coffee filters to dry, and then store in an airtight jar until ready for use!
History: The history of the Cherokee Purple pre-19th century is a bit hazy, but what we do know is that this heirloom was grown by the Cherokee Indians and then made popular in the 1990s by a group of tomato lovers/members of the Seed Savers Exchange. A man by the name of John Green from Tennessee sent a packet of seeds to a fellow exchange member and tomato aficionado Craig LeHoullier who was blown away by the plant and decided to introduce seed companies to the variety. Not surprisingly, consumers went gaga for the beautiful purple fruits, and today it’s now one of the most popular heirloom tomato varietals around!
Preserve: Tomatoes are easy and fun to can as sauce, cubes, or peeled and whole. Green tomatoes can be made into a chutney or salsa and canned or pickled.
Prepare: Can be used to make sauces, salsas, ketchup, and soup, or used raw in salads or on sandwiches. Green tomatoes are delicious sliced, breaded, and fried.
Nutritional: Provides high levels of vitamin(s) A and C. Also a good source of B vitamins, potassium, and calcium.
Medicinal: Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant compound that is currently being investigated for its cancer fighting and cholesterol lowering abilities. Lycopene may also help your skin protect itself from UV damage. Regular consumption may also help protect against heart disease.
Warnings: Tomato leaves can be a skin irritant for some, so wear long sleeves and gloves when harvesting.
All tomato sauces are NOT created equal, and we’re sure you’ll feel the same once you try this Roasted Heirloom Tomato Sauce. While this recipe can be made with many types of tomatoes, the author suggests using all Cherokee Purples if you can, and we wholeheartedly agree.