The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Gardenby William Alexander
Bill Alexander had no idea that his simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard in his backyard would lead him into life-and-death battles with groundhogs, webworms, weeds, and weather; midnight expeditions in the dead of winter to dig up fresh thyme; and skirmishes with neighbors who feed the vermin (i.e., deer). Not to mention the vacations that
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Bill Alexander had no idea that his simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard in his backyard would lead him into life-and-death battles with groundhogs, webworms, weeds, and weather; midnight expeditions in the dead of winter to dig up fresh thyme; and skirmishes with neighbors who feed the vermin (i.e., deer). Not to mention the vacations that had to be planned around the harvest, the near electrocution of the tree man, the limitations of his own middle-aged body, and the pity of his wife and kids. When Alexander runs (just for fun!) a costbenefit analysis, adding up everything from the live animal trap to the Velcro tomato wraps and then amortizing it over the life of his garden, it comes as quite a shock to learn that it cost him a staggering $64 to grow each one of his beloved Brandywine tomatoes. But as any gardener will tell you, you can't put a price on the unparalleled pleasures of providing fresh food for your family.
"Gardening as extreme sport. . . . Engaging, well paced and informative."—The New York Times Book Review
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- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Whore in the Bedroom, Horticulturist in the Garden
"Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above."
—Katharine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen
Bridget arrived for her interview late, breathless, and blond. As we drank herbal tea around the kitchen table, she dug deep into a leather portfolio, emerging with glossy photographs of gardens she had designed for previous clients. Anne ooh-aahed over the photographs, which looked like rather ordinary gardens to me, but to be fair, I was only seeing them peripherally. My eyes were riveted on the hands holding the photographs. Delicate, lightly freckled hands with dirty—filthy—fingernails. Real gardener’s fingernails. The effect was startling, at once repulsive and erotic. The phrase whore in the bedroom, horticulturist in the garden popped into my head. I tried to blink it away. When I finally looked up, Bridget smiled and squinted her crinkly green eyes at me. A winkless wink.
Had I been caught ogling her dirty hands? After reviewing her credentials and our project, we strolled through the property, Bridget and I falling into lockstep as Anne trailed slightly behind. Passing various anonymous plants and flowers, Bridget would point to what was to me some nameless weedy shrub and exclaim in a breathless whisper something like, “Ah, a beautiful Maximus clitoris.” She knew all the botanical names, the Latin rolling off her tongue like steamy profanity in the heat of passion.
We hired Bridget on the spot, without interviewing anyone else. It seems she’d made an impression on Anne as well.
“Did you notice her beautiful teeth?” Anne sighed as Bridget drove off in her battered Toyota, vanishing in a cloud of smoke and noise.
Beautiful teeth? Who were we talking about, Seabiscuit? My wife, a physician, tends to be a little clinical at times. Sometimes I catch her taking my pulse or listening to my heart murmur while I think we’re making love. So the fact that she would sit across from a beautiful woman and mainly notice her teeth should not have surprised me. In fact, Anne is fascinated with, and jealous of, anyone with better teeth than she, which is to say just about anyone born after about 1970.
“Her teeth? Not really,” I said, being more interested in my burgeoning dirty-fingernail fetish.
We hired Bridget even though she had never designed a vegetable garden. Who has, after all? People hire landscape architects to design entire landscapes, or patio and pool plantings, or civic gardens. Who hires a professional to figure out where to put the tomatoes? You put down a few railroad ties and throw down some seeds, right? Not us.
After two years of staring at “the baseball field,” the elongated, sloping piece of land in a hollow between our kitchen and the neighbors’ driveway, and after hours of studying garden-design books, we still hadn’t a clue how to proceed. We wanted something more than the usual boring rectangular beds. We wanted a little pizzazz with our parsley. And it was, to be sure, a challenging space. Bordered on our neighbors’ side by a railroad-tie retaining wall and on the opposite side by our ninety-year-old stone wall, the garden was oddly below grade and, after a rain, held water like a huge sponge. Furthermore, it sloped about fifteen feet along its seventy-five-foot length, so some type of terracing seemed inevitable. We needed professional help.
The fact that we even had a suitable plot for a garden had come as a bit of a surprise. We had nicknamed the area “the baseball field” because both before and after we moved into our house, the neighborhood kids used it daily for baseball. Not our kids, of course. Katie was still a toddler, and Zach—well, the most useful thing Zach had ever done with a baseball bat was to use it at age five to reach the screen door latch, locking me out of the house while I was waiting on the porch with my glove and ball. He wanted to stay inside and read, not play baseball with his dad.
So the four of us watched from afar as the kids next door played spirited baseball games in the field. We assumed the land belonged to our next-door neighbors Larry and Claire, whose two sons spent most of their summer afternoons on it. We watched curiously that first summer as the games became difficult when the unmowed grass grew ankle high, then stopped altogether when the grass reached knee height. One day I finally flagged Larry down while he was mowing the rest of his yard and asked why he’d stopped mowing the field. He looked at me as if I were an idiot and said, “Because it’s yours,” gave a tug on his mower, and was off.
Ours? My first, instinctive reaction was, “Wow, I’ve got more land than I thought! What a deal!” I ran inside to tell Anne. She was, well, unimpressed. Or more accurately, not interested. Clearly the territorial gene resides on the Y chromosome. But even my landowner’s euphoria quickly faded to a more sobering, “Jesus, this worthless patch of lawn is going to add another half hour of mowing every week.” Not to mention that it was now midsummer and the grass had grown to a height of two feet. My third reaction—if you can call a thought that takes several years to arrive a reaction—was, “What a great spot for a kitchen garden.” Not a mere patch for a few tomatoes and baseball-bat-size zucchini (we had already done that), but a real, landscaped, eat-your-heart-out-Monet, gardenmagazine- quality garden—only we would grow mainly vegetables instead of flowers in it.
Bridget, she of the Scandinavian green eyes and strawberry blond hair, with her perfect teeth and botanical Latin, would design it. Her husband, a landscaper who specialized in garden construction, would build it. One contractor, no hassle. That’s the way we like it.
Bridget had promised us a preliminary plan in two weeks. As it was just early summer, we had plenty of time. Our goal was to have construction started by Labor Day; that would allow plenty of time to complete the project before the autumn rains turned our yard into a quagmire of slick yellow clay. We really wanted the garden completed by fall, because we were eager to get early potatoes, peas, and spinach planted the following March. If construction was delayed till spring, who knew when it would be completed, and we would lose a half year of crops. Bridget readily agreed that Labor Day was no problem.
Two weeks came and went, then three. No plan. Two months passed. Finally Bridget called. She had the plans, behind schedule, she acknowledged, but worth waiting for. A few days later, Bridget arrived, still late, breathless, and blond. And smelling of the earth, of a fresh potato patch. She unrolled a large, professionallooking blueprint onto the kitchen table, smoothing it out under her dirty fingernails. It was a lovely work of art, with carefully drawn circles for shrubs, and smaller circles for plants, and little curly things for flowers, with (of course) Latin names indicated for everything. The content, however, was not what I had envisioned. Her design was essentially rows of rectangular beds, separated by two grass paths running up the middle and transversely across the garden. There were some nice touches: where the paths intersected, she had put in stone circles with birdbaths or ornaments, and she had a nice stone staircase descending to the sunken garden. It was a perfectly fine garden, it was just a little . . . I struggled for a word, just the right word, as Bridget nervously studied my face. “Cartesian,” I said.
Bridget blinked. “Cartesian?” I looked to Anne for help. She pretended not to know me. “You know,” I said. “Rectangular. Planar. I guess we had something more rambling in mind.”
Bridget looked at the plan and thought for a minute, and this is what she must have said to herself: “My husband is going to use Big Machinery to shape and terrace the land; therefore the terraces have to be perpendicular. Irregularly shaped terraces would require him to build them by hand, which he is not about to do at any price.”
Obviously, she couldn’t say that to a client. Here instead is the translation she supplied to the naive and gullible homeowner. “The problem is, Bill”—it was strange, tingly, and totally convincing to hear her say my name—“you have to terrace it to deal with the slope, and terraces have to be rectangular.”
Oh. Well, that shows how much I know. Of course, terraces have to be rectangular. (It would be some years before I realized the blatant untruth of that statement.) Okay, so much for winding, rambling paths. Rectangular is fine. I moved my attention to the broad, grassy paths. “I don’t know that I like the idea of having to mow my garden. Can we put something else in here?”
Bridget crinkled her green eyes at me. “But, Bill, the grass paths will look so grand,” she insisted. “So stately. And the mowing is nothing. Two swipes with the mower. You think about it; I know you’ll want the grass.” I looked to Anne for guidance, but she was gazing at Bridget.
The garden architect flashed her pearlies in Anne’s direction. Anne, I think involuntarily, smiled back. What kind of spell had this Valkyrie cast over us?
Okay, rectangular and grassy. Sounds good to me. And she does have all those beautiful architectural symbols and Latin names, and the great teeth. We wrote out a check and agreed we would see her husband around Labor Day.
What People are Saying About This
“Nature is meant to be accommodated, not dominated, and
The $64 Tomato is William Alexander’s insightful and often hilarious voyage of that discovery. With self-deprecating wit, he spins an engaging tale that teaches important lessons as it entertains.”
—John Grogan, author of Marley & Me
“William Alexander’s intelligent and funny memoir is a tribute to humankind’s irrepressible urge to cultivate the earth. His warm-hearted take on the domestic scene reminds us all that life began in a garden.”
author Antique Flowers and Classic Bulbs
Meet the Author
William Alexander, the author of two critically acclaimed books, lives in New York's Hudson Valley. By day the IT director at a research institute, he made his professional writing debut at the age of fifty-three with a national bestseller about gardening, The $64 Tomato. His second book, 52 Loaves, chronicled his quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread, a journey that took him to such far-flung places as a communal oven in Morocco and an abbey in France, as well as into his own backyard to grow, thresh, and winnow wheat. The Boston Globe called Alexander "wildly entertaining," the New York Times raved that "his timing and his delivery are flawless," and the Minneapolis Star Tribune observed that "the world would be a less interesting place without the William Alexanders who walk among us." A 2006 Quill Book Awards finalist, Alexander won a Bert Greene Award from the IACP for his article on bread, published in Saveur magazine. A passion bordering on obsession unifies all his writing. He has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition and at the National Book Festival in Washington DC and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times op-ed pages, where he has opined on such issues as the Christmas tree threatening to ignite his living room and the difficulties of being organic. Now, in Flirting with French, he turns his considerable writing talents to his perhaps less considerable skills: becoming fluent in the beautiful but maddeningly illogical French language.
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Whether you are a gardener or not, this book will make you laugh your *$% off. I have a real love/hate relationship with gardening, and can so relate to this book. Just today I spent all day pulling waist-high quack grass in my hoop house. Thank God for the author's hilarious trials and tribulations - recalling them helped me to laugh and not cry. Excellent book!
This book is so unique and made me appreciate the work that goes into produce. I am not a gardener however this book made me see clearly all the work (love and hate) that goes into gardening. Well written and laugh out loud funny!
"The $64 Tomato" is a light laugh out loud look at one man's over-the-top gardening obsession on his three acre property in New York's Hudson Valley. Though the title may lead one to believe this to be a story about trying to grow a few tomato plants and the headaches and costs incurred with even that simple task, this book is much more broader in scope then that. More of a collection of essays depicting all aspects of gadening then a singular linear story. The author, William Alexander, purchases a somewhat large piece of property in upstate New York and immediatly has delusions of gardening grandeur. He plants a 2,000 sq. foot vegetable garden, a fruit tree orchard and even attempts to recreate a honeymoon meadow on his propery. Along the way are adventures with masochistic groundhogs, Christopher Walken the Gardener and phallic symbol statuaries. If you've gardened in a bucket or large landscape, you will find something to relate to and something to laugh about in this book. A great read while your sitting in the sun next to your garden listening to the weeds grow...
Absolutely hysterical! If you've ever tried any type of gardening you'll be able to relate to the author's trials & tribulations. Some of the phrases he uses made me laugh out loud & some of the other material is thought-provoking & makes you really ponder things. If you're having a bad day & need a good laugh, read this book! Well done!!
A well written, enjoyable account of one man's duels with the forces of nature in establishing and trying to maintain a garden. His descriptions of encounters with beasts such as "Super Chuck" and a pair of smaller rodents he dubbed Chip and Dale had me chuckling while at the same time sympathizing with him. . .and his long-suffering wife! A good read for gardener and non-gardener alike.
Whether you actually garden and or farm or simply appreciate a well written book,this book is a MUST. As an armchair gardener familiar with David Austin roses, the joys of having outstanding tomato plants, the ability to share the bounty with others, and being educated about the perils of the pests encountered and the answers, I can tell you that you will have a Marvelous experience reading this funny funny funny book, which has historical data, current treatments for gardening problems and a healthy family situation. With many many many laugh out loud moments, this book captures whimsy and the desire of a person to improve his and her own property with complete persistence and dedication.
¿The $64 Tomato¿ at first glance may seem to be simply a gardening book. However, once you take a glance inside, you¿ll find William Alexander¿s story a funny and insightful tale of the author¿s ongoing attempt to gain a modicum of control over his fate ¿ in Alexander¿s case aptly represented by his own backyard garden. ¿Tomato¿ is as much about the struggle of a man with his nature, as man against nature. Whether trying to outsmart an alpha groundhog (which Alexander, with an appropriate, if not appreciative, nod to a formidable opponent, names SuperChuck), or contending with bizarre contractors(one of whom bears a striking resemblance to the actor Christopher Walken) or reassuring his wife and kids of his sanity after wandering through his garden in January, Alexander keeps us asking ¿Is it really right to be so entertained by someone¿s angst?¿ and ¿Why am I laughing out loud when he is hurting the most?¿. In between all of this, we learn fascinating facts about the food we usually take for granted. For instance, Alexander informs us the tomato originated in Central America with the Aztecs, was hauled off to Europe by Cortez and the conquistadors, returned 300 years later to the New World with the colonists, and was finally promoted to culinary prominence by none other then Thomas Jefferson. ¿The $64 Tomato¿ is both a funny and thought-provoking examination of how much emotional upheaval, consternation, and struggle we willingly endure in pursuit of our most cherished pastimes. In Alexander¿s case, it¿s so called ¿weekend¿ gardening.¿ Whether you are into gardening or just an observer of people and their foibles, ¿The $64 Tomato¿ may not compel you to rush out and buy a hoe and wheelbarrow. But it will undoubtedly leave you thinking about your own favorite obsessions and compulsions in an entirely new light.