The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden
William Alexander, 2006
The paperback cover of The $64 Tomato quotes a line from the New York Times Book Review of the book: “Gardening as an Extreme Sport.” The reviewer hit the nail right on the head. William Alexander’s account of his first ten years with his garden at his “Big Brown House” on the hill in a small town in upstate New York provides a rollicking tale of adventures in vegetable growing. If his plan was to inspire people to have a garden, I’m not certain that he has succeeded. However, if his aim with the book was to make people think about their gardens, how they maintain them, and at what cost, he has met his goal.
With worry about a global food shortage spreading across the globe, and people starting vegetable gardens to grow and preserve their own food Alexander’s book is as useful and timely today as it was when it was published. In 2006, the “green movement” was just starting the meteoric climb on its S curve. People were not yet bombarded with green choices, green advertising and green panic. In 2006, the book was a fun book about gardening. It is still a fun book about gardening—and just a fun book in general—perfect for a plane ride or a day at the beach. I laughed out loud several times. Today, though, the book does live up to its review from Life Magazine as “Both an Inspiration and a Cautionary Tale.”
A Perfect Storm
The $64 Tomato illustrates the perfect storm that forms when an upper middle class person with lots of yard space and grand ideas decides to plant an environmentally friendly garden—free of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, plastic mulch and tacky garden ornaments. (He narrowly escaped the tacky ornament predicament. The chapter about his wife’s yearning for a large, pink obelisk would make any serious gardener shiver with horror.) Conditions are still ripe for such a storm, as more people become interested in growing their own food—whether to avoid pesticides, avoid rising food costs, or take up a “nice hobby.”
Anyone thinking about gardening for pleasure should read this book first. It is not that Alexander does not enjoy gardening—far from it. He is a wonderful and adventurous cook (the paperback edition contains several recipes highlighted in the book), and makes full use of all of the common and uncommon produce he grows. He does, throughout the course of a decade with his garden, learn things that you can only learn from experience—or someone else’s experience. Some of the lessons he learned, I would rather skip.
Superchuck and the Neighbor’s Deer Farm
The book is full of characters-two legged and four-legged (and six legged and eight legged). My favorite character was a groundhog named Superchuck. Despite Alexander’s 10,000 volt electrical fence charger, and multiple above and below ground fence lines, Superchuck manages to decimate the entire crop of prized Brandywine tomatoes one summer. Alexander tries to trap Superchuck in a “Havaheart Trap,” which he re-names the “Haveaheartattack Trap” after a nasty run-in with a mistakenly captured possum. Superchuck remains completely uninterested in the apples and other bait placed in the trap. No, Superchuck has a taste for tomatoes and learns how to jump through the electric fence between surges from the charger in order to get to the tomatoes. I won’t divulge the eventual way that Superchuck met his demise. You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Years of backbreaking gardening in brick-quality clay and enduring the onslaught of white-tailed deer turns even Alexander’s mild-mannered physician wife into a zealot. When one of her patients asks her how to get rid of dear, she says “KILL THEM!” at the top of her lungs. Nothing is more aggravating than spending hours and hours carefully cultivating and anticipating the taste of fresh produce and then waking up one morning to see the garden torn to shreds.
Remembrance of Things Past. . .
My favorite part of the book involved the apple orchard. Part of the reason Alexander started his garden was so that he could grow produce free of synthetic pesticides. While selecting plants for his planned organic apple orchard, a fellow town resident tells him that “there are no organic apple orchards in upstate New York.” Of course, he has to prove the man wrong, and prove to himself that he can grow apples without synthetic insecticides. He decided to plant the orchard in the first place because he remembers idyllic summers in his father’s (supposedly) pesticide-free apple orchard. After several miserable seasons involving apple maggots, squirrels, apple scab and more, he resorts to purchasing a container of broad-spectrum insecticide spray from his local hardware store. Upon opening the container, he writes:
“I was startled by a distinctive, familiar smell. You know how a certain smell can, through some miracle of brain chemistry, transport you back to a place and time, awakening a lost memory? That’s what happened when I opened the orchard spray. But these madeleines transported me back to the pesticide of my youth! I knew that smell!. . . Could it be? Could I have so romanticized my father’s “organic” apple raising that I and wiped out any conscious memory of pesticides? Or had he perhaps sneaked in a little malathion now and then when I wasn’t looking?”
At that moment in Alexander’s narrative, he eats the proverbially forbidden fruit, and, as he explains, loses his innocence. He realizes that his vision of a happy, joyful garden, free of any problems, is impossible. At that point, his perspective shifts from a dreamy, anything is possible viewpoint to a more practical and balanced viewpoint. He still remains fanatical about fingerling potatoes and recounts stories of gardening (or not) with his wife and children, but the “cautionary” part of the “cautionary tale” enters the picture. He never stops experimenting, but he thinks more about what he is doing in the garden, whether it involves a revolving door of vegetable givers (don’t leave your car unlocked or you will end up with a front seat full of zucchini), or sun drying tomatoes.
The $64 Tomato
At the beginning of the second-to-last chapter, E.B. White is quoted. “We will gladly send the management a jar of our wife’s green-tomato pickle from last summer’s crop—dark green, spicy, delicious, costlier than pearls when you consider the overhead.” And so William Alexander does the math to calculate the cost of each of his 18 Brandywine tomatoes harvested that summer. For all who enjoy gardening, and those who are considering the “hobby,” The $64 Tomato serves as a kind of reverse-instructional manual about growing produce affordably. Depending upon the type of soil preparation you do, the varieties of plants you grow, and your local weather, neighbor and animal conditions, a vegetable garden can save you money, or cost you a lot of money. Luckily for us, William Alexander shows us, in a fun and painless way, how to avoid the $64 tomato. The takeaway message: Start with a really tall fence, and go from there. (Or, shameless plug, get some I Must Garden Deer Repellent. It works!)
For anyone who loves to garden, or anyone considering planting a garden, The $64 Tomato is the best and most fun primer available.