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
Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh
“That’s a strange title,” I said, as I walked past The $64 Tomato on the display at the bookstore. It caught my eye a second time as I walked the other way to ask a clerk about the book I couldn’t find. The third time that single beautiful tomato on the dust jacket grabbed my eye, I stopped, picked it up, read a few pages, and laughed out loud. I forgot all about that other book.
William Alexander is here to tell us what we have always suspected. We’re not saving money by gardening! And if we’re not saving money, what are we doing? Well, according to him, we’re learning a lot of life’s lessons.
First, we’re learning about nature: about deer and woodchucks and grubs and sod webworms and rats and mice and a whole array of other interesting beasties. Alexander gardens in the Hudson Valley in New York so he has a lot of problems we don’t have in San Diego (thank goodness) but still, we can understand and sympathize (and possibly even match him story for story.)
My favorite story was about Superchuck, the woodchuck from Hell. Alexander thought he had the problem solved with an electrically charged fence around the vegetables and a Havaheart trap on the path from the woodchuck den to the garden. He kept trapping woodchucks and releasing them in the country, but each time he trapped one, a new one moved in. Still, he felt he was handling things until he met Superchuck, who turned his nose up at the trap and laughed as he climbed through the electric fence . . . and that’s the beginning of the story. (Warning: Some readers hated this section on eliminating pests. They found it cruel.)
Another part of life we learn about is the hiring and sometimes the necessary firing of people who, at least theoretically, are going to help with some phase of work in the garden. Examples include the sexy blond with filthy fingernails, (in his fantasy, a whore in the bedroom, a horticulturist in the garden) who helped with the original design and convinced Alexander that grass would make much better paths than gravel and the gardener who looked like Christopher Walken and behaved like one of his weirder character roles.
You’ll also read about Alexander’s attempts at organic gardening and his thoughts about deer. Gardening, it seems, forces you to deal with realities, and sometimes your principles don’t survive. He muses on the change in his wife, who at first wouldn’t even consider the possibility of shooting at the cute deer that nibbled in the garden, but came, over time, to be a person ready to annihilate them by “rifle, arrow, or plastique.”
There’s a lot to learn in a garden, and you’ll have fun learning it from William Alexander.
The $64 Tomato is 270 pages and includes a short list of recommended reading. Alexander has written two more books: 52 Loaves: A Half-Baked Adventure and Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart. You can check out his website at williamalexander.com.