Monday, December 17, 2007

Gardening Book Review #1: The $64 Tomato

Now that the growing season is long over, I have taken to reading and reviewing gardening books. The best of these books remind hibernating gardeners why we take an interest in growing our own food. The others, alas, are a mixed bunch. Some are worth keeping, despite their flaws; others are fit material for compost. The first book to be reviewed is one of those slightly flawed narratives, intermittently enjoyable despite its bruises.

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

William Alexander is a gardener with more than 25 years of experience, and the portion of that experience that is communicated in this book is interesting, if not always particularly insightful. But he digresses. He digresses about his landscaper’s blond hair and pretty teeth, about his car accident on the way to the tree nursery, and about the renovation of his tumbledown house. He writes too much about his sex life. In this context, his comments about sex, sparse though they may be, are uniformly cringe-inducing. In essence, the book ends up being more about the author's psychology than about the garden itself.

That’s too bad, because when he does dig into his actual gardening experiences, he turns up some useful information and entertaining anecdotes. He goes to war with the local animals with mixed success, and ends up with ever higher voltage in the electric fence surrounding his prized vegetables and fruit trees. As the penultimate chapter shows in fascinating detail, he spends astronomical amounts of money on supplies, labor, and seed, something to which any gardener who has ever gone over budget will easily relate. He tries and fails to produce apples without using pesticides. At the end of each growing season, he and his wife do their best to cook and preserve the burgeoning harvest.

There is much in this book for the backyard gardener to contemplate, but this book doesn’t quite live up to the drama of its extra-long subtitle. The “existential crisis” comes after the author, at age 50, suffers a herniated disc in his spine and begins to reconsider his relationship to a garden that has become part of his identity. Such consequences might reasonably be expected after so many years spent hoeing and shoveling a plot about 2,000 square feet in area. That’s almost 20 times the space in my garden. Alas, the “quest for the perfect garden” doesn’t quite pan out, either. Alexander is not seeking the perfect garden; he’s just trying to keep up with the extremely large, pretty good garden that he already has. If he had kept a more intense focus on writing about those efforts, this would have come nearer to being the perfect gardening book.



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