Book Review: The $64 Tomato

Last night in the middle of watching "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," just as the polyjuice was wearing off the faux Mad-Eye Moody, I realized I hadn't set the watering timer on my garden, and I had to jump off the sofa, into the night, and turn on the hose. I missed a pivotal part of the movie, but at least my tomatoes will survive to grow another day... and hopefully through the rest of the summer.

Not everyone in our household is as infatuated with gardening as I am. My sons like the chance to eat snap peas off the bush, and two nights ago dinner was interrupted as one of them protested the stir fry by sprinting outside to "eat out" by the bush instead. But, ask them to pull weeds, and I might as well be doing it myself. Also, my wife thinks that my urgency to water and tend to the plants is misplaced. "Why are you doing that instead of tucking in the kids?" she asks, and no matter how much I explain that the plants will die (yes, DIE!) if I don't help them out, she still questions my priorities.

So, given the occasional troubles you might ask "Why do I garden?" Coincidentally, this is the same question raised in by William Alexander in his memoir "The $64 Tomato." The subtitle to Alexander's book is "How one man nearly lost his sanity, spent a fortune, and endured an existential crisis in the quest for the perfect garden," which is an unwieldy tag line, but an apt summary.

The book consists of slightly over a dozen essays about his gardening habit, spanning roughly twenty years, and the title essay is one of the least interesting. I wanted to know how he could possibly grow a $64 tomato but in the first essay, when he writes about hiring a garden designer to lay out his two-thousand "Gentleman's Farm," I got the idea right away. My idea of gardening includes buying a couple bags of "Bumper Crop" compost from Portland Nursery. His idea is to pay $1000 for topsoil dug from the glacial deposits of the Hudson Valley and trucked to his home along the Hudson river. Throughout the book Alexander continues to drop a good amount of cash into his garden, which in a way reminds me of the struggles Peter Mayle had in his "Year in Provence" books, except that the characters in Mayle's stories seemed to have more life breathed into them. Alexander, by contrast, seems to have only fully realized a few characters: himself, his wife, and their handyman Christopher Walken. Ok, it's not really Christopher Walken, but he looks and acts so much like Walken that we don't need to know his real name (In the course of the essay Walken goes from creepy to downright offensive, and Alexander is too afraid to actually fire the man. Instead he lets him go by lying that there's no more work to be done). Aside from those three, the real characters in this book aren't people: they are the plants, weeds, trees and the land itself which he describes with enough detail that I can picture myself in his Garden.

My favorite essay is entitled "No Such Thing as Organic Apples." Alexander describes a memory of his father growing apples in New York City. His father would prevent pests by spraying once with a wax, and then carefully wrapping each apple in a plastic bag so it could mature unblemished. The author then tries to recreate his childhood by choosing four appropriate trees and following his father's recipe. Of course he has problems with tent worms, failures in pollination, and other blights, but the essay peaks when he has a Proustian moment while opening a canister of Malathion. Even if you don't read the whole book, you should read this essay.

He also has a fun essay about weeds. With a large garden comes a larger space to weed (Alexander prefers to think of it as "cultivating"). He tries weeding by hand, using black plastic to kill the weeds, and reading books about gardening without weeds, and then finally discovers the hoe. Which works fine, except for the backbreaking work required by a short hoe handle, and also the advent of purslane. Purslane is a leafy plant which can be eaten like spinach, and since the tenacious plan spreads by seed, root, or cutting, it can quickly take over a garden. He fights the purslane, pulling and hoeing it from his garden almost constantly, until he has another epiphany: a local gardener up the street has started growing and harvesting purslane as a crop, and the seeds must have spread to the gardens downwind. Thus the quote: "One man's weed is another's dinner." This reminded me of the time I planted fennel, which grew and went to seed. Next spring I noticed fennel starts everywhere in my yard, as well as up and down the block. Fennel still grows the cracks of the sidewalks and in any bit of dirt along our street. Maybe I should start my own urban farm.

Alexander eventually answers his question of: Why garden? The short answer is because he likes to eat, and there's only one way to get food when it's the freshest: grow it. I agree with him on this point (I share another trait with him: I can't ever remember the names of flowers, especially the "p flowers: petunia, pansy, peony, poppy, potentilla, even impatiens." As he says, it's embarrassing as a gardener to have to say "Isn't that a nice -- uh, you know, P flower."). His naivete in approaching gardening is obvious: he assumes he'll be able to bend the land and the plants to his will, and it will grow as idyllically as he envisions. Each essay points out the futility in that point of view: when it's man vs nature, nature will prevail. Even if you think you've got all the gopher holes covered, one more will pop up to surprise you. But, despite everything, plants will grow and Alexander ends up with wonderful tomatoes, bounties of apples and peaches, fresh greens for the entire year, and a well-fed family.

So, to summarize my opinion of "The $64 Tomato": this book has less charm than "A Year in Provence," and less gardening insight than John Jeavons' "How to Grown More Vegetables..." But, it's engaging to learn along with the Alexander as he describes his problems with landscapers, pests, and weeding. I'd recommend reading the "Organic Apple" essay even if you pass up the rest of the book.

A side note: if you read "The $64 Tomato" and enjoy it, or if you like "A Year in Provence," then you'll also like Barbara Drake's memoir "Peace at Heart" about her experiences moving from the city to the country and learning about "the sacramental character of country life." I'm biased, since she's also my mom, but the book's really a good read.

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