Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review: 'The $64 Tomato' by William Alexander

William Alexander (1953- )

The $64 Tomato (2006)

304 pages

William Alexander describes his adventures in building a garden that  satisfies both his desire for home grown food and for the aesthetic landscape of his imagination. The book is a humorous look at the many issues facing the serious gardener, as Alexander tries to share his passion with his wife and kids, while doing battle with insects, diseases and mother nature, and dealing with fickle contractors.

After buying and fixing up an old house on 3 acres along the Hudson River  north of New York city, Alexander and his wife turn to their yard, deciding to put in what ends up being a 2000 sq ft, terraced vegetable garden. Once in place the beautiful beds of soft, deep soil have him dreaming of the  beautiful garden and tasty harvest that is now almost at hand.

That dream quickly runs head on into the reality of rodents, insects and weeds. The dirt that seemed pure and clean sprouts a variety of weeds  almost instantly. And, once the plants do start developing, if various  insects don't decimate them before they begin producing, then deer and groundhogs often beat him to the harvest. His descriptions of his escalating attempts to mount a defense against a world seemingly intent on destroying  his garden are often hilarious, though if you are a gardener you sometimes  feel like crying with him in frustration.

Particularly interesting is how he begins the project wanting to be as environmentally friendly as possible, but, as his losses mount, he gradually takes more aggressive and more environmentally compromised positions. As he describes it at one point: "Notice the progression of degree of contact  with the insect as the battle escalates. First you start out with physical contact (pinching); then you move on to direct contact with a spray; finally you dispense with contact altogether and slather the bush in a chemical with  a residual effect that kills the invader while you are in bed or at work. [I] found that, while I coveted the organic ideal, one of the problems with  organic pest control is the degree of contact it requires with the invaders.  Most of us hobbyist gardeners aren't around our plants enough hours of the  day to become that intimate with the pests." This pattern repeats itself over and over in different parts of the garden (and small accompanying apple  and peach orchard), both with the chemicals he ends up using and the fence(s) he builds to keep out the bigger animals. It is a frustration that will resonate with many a backyard gardener.

Alexander's battles against squirrels, groundhogs and deer are especially   funny, as he describes watching the animals as they learn to defeat his  increasingly complex and electrified fence. One groundhog in particular, that he dubs 'Superchuck', engages him in a weeks long battle, as the animal  thwarts the garden defenses to sample the just ripe tomatoes, taking always just one bite from each.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:

The $64 Tomato Website

NPR Interview

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