August 24, 2006

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The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune and Endured Existential Crisis in the Quest for a Perfect Garden, By William Alexander (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 270 pages)

Gardening and lunacy intertwine like vines on a stake.

A couple of years ago, I started growing a few herbs, a pot of flowers or two on the deck of my apartment. It was a relaxing hobby to help ease work-related stress. As work grew more stressful, I added more plants. By the time I left that job and had to move, my deck was so full of basil, sage and various cacti that it took me several car trips to move them all.

William Alexander knows about this kind of greenery escalation. He started off as a yuppie gardener living in the city. Then, he and his family moved out into the country. There, he began constructing a massive garden in a field behind his rambling old house. He saw it as a chance to fully indulge his love of the garden — planting heirloom tomatoes, fresh greens, a small fruit tree orchard, leeks and more. What might sound like a nice way to get exercise and some fresh veggies becomes a full-time job (one that Alexander has to work around his actual full-time job). He endures contractor-related frustrations to clear the field. Once he plants the vegetables, he fights off invasions from weeds to bugs to one seemingly unstoppable groundhog. He installs electric fencing to fight deer and (despite a devotion to organic ideals) eventually drenches his lawn in chemicals to get rid of grubs. The work is daily, back-breaking, frustrating and begins to consume his thoughts. And yes, after several years and some calcul
ation of costs, he did discover that each juicy Brandywine tomato he harvested costs him about $64.

His tales are familiar to anyone who reads gardening columns and yet, because this is a book and not a general audience newspaper, there’s more swearing and more introspection about what gardening means to his life. The book tells explains this “hobby” well — failure is constant, keeping up the job is difficult and you can almost never get your family to help you weed.

Alexander’s story is a fast read but engrossing and to someone who shares the gardening bug, motivating. Even as he describes gardening work so difficult it nearly makes him cry, he does it with so much passion and geeky excitement that you can almost smell the dirt, taste the fresh cucumber. You start to think that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to get a planter or two of greenery yourself. Hey, one little pot of oregano never hurt anyone. B+

— Amy Diaz


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