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

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

by William Alexander
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

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

by William Alexander


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565125575
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 03/02/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 524,369
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.81(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Gentleman Farmer 1
Whore in the Bedroom, Horticulturist in the Garden 3
We Know Where You Live 21
One Man’s Weed Is Jean-Georges’s Salad 47
No Such Thing as Organic Apples 75
You May Be Smarter, But He’s Got More Time 96
Nature Abhors a Meadow (But Loves a Good Fire) 131
Shell-Shocked: A Return to the Front (Burner) 146
Christopher Walken, Gardener 162
Cereal Killer 186
Statuary Rape 208
Harvest Jam 220
The Existentialist in the Garden 238
The $64 Tomato 247
Childbirth. Da Vinci. Potatoes. 256
Acknowledgments 267
Suggested Reading 269
Recipes for the Paperback Edition 271

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“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.”

—Katherine Whiteside,
author Antique Flowers and Classic Bulbs

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