I picked up this book at a local bookstore because the author lives in my area and I wanted to see if his gardening experience was similar to mine. Oh my goodness, I think we can all relate to author William Alexander's quixotic quest for the perfect garden and the perfect heirloom tomato. Perhaps the full title of this book, "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", should have been a tip off. Thankfully, he has a good sense of humor about it, although we all know how stressful it can be while you are going through it.
Alexander and his wife decide to put in a vegetable garden. Again, simple enough. After a few years of planning and no earth turned, they hire a designer to come up with a plan. Perhaps that was their first mistake, because the vegetable garden gets grander and grander and larger. Somehow this novice gardener winds up with a 2,000 sq. foot vegetable garden and a small orchard.
Let the fun begin. The clay soil required a pick axe, making gardening more like mining. And when the contractors did not finish before winter and did not take their backhoe with them, it sat there throughout winter and was slowly sucked into the wet clay with the spring thaw.
As someone who unwillingly shares a vegetable garden with a groundhog, I especially enjoyed his battles with ‛Superchuck'. Alexander was truly tilting at windmills with his attempts to outwit this animal.
Another great defeat comes when he tries to grow his apples organically, as his father claimed to have. When he finally succumbs to the use of a pesticide, the scent is strikingly familiar from his childhood. Well, at least he can still have faith in his electric deer fencing. How can deer get through when it almost kills his contractor?
Alexander is not as incompetent as he paints himself to be, but it is great fun listening to his antics and musings. He has a great turn of phrase and an unexpected quirky way of looking at things. "Nature Abhors a Meadow (But Loves a Good Fire). But it is the relatability of his experiences that really brings the humor to life. Alexander has a keen eye for the absurdities gardeners will undertake to ensure a successful harvest. "I've been guilty of imposing the Madonna/whore complex on my garden, asking it to be both whore and horticulture. Seduce me and feed me." That's a huge insight for a first year gardener.
Which brings us to the title. When all is said and done, at the end of the season Alexander sits down to add up how much he has spent on this garden, the one he started so he could taste a homegrown ‛Brandywine' tomato. When he divides the total by the number of tomatoes it yielded he comes up with a price tag of $64 per tomato. You've got to give him credit for doing the math. How many of us would face that reality?
To be honest, I think I half expected this book to be the pretentious musings of a gentleman farmer wannabe. It took only a few pages to put me at ease. I laughed a lot while reading this book and not always at Alexander. As they say, "Been there, done that." If your garden is stressing you out or you've lost the joy of being in the garden, there is no better tonic than "The $64 Tomato". Just don't pull out the calculator.
- Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (March 2007)
- Format: Paperback , 304 pp (also available as an ebook)
- ISBN: 1565125576
- Retail Price: $13.95
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