'$64 Tomato': A Quest for the Perfect Garden Like many aspiring gardeners, William Alexander wondered what it would be like to be able to wander out into the yard, and pluck a ripe, juicy tomato from the vine anytime he wanted. In a new book, he explores the true costs — and joys — of working one's own soil.
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'$64 Tomato': A Quest for the Perfect Garden

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'$64 Tomato': A Quest for the Perfect Garden

'$64 Tomato': A Quest for the Perfect Garden

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: The story begins innocently enough, as author William Alexander and his wife gaze at the weedy lot just outside their kitchen window and imagine the garden of their dreams.

WILLIAM ALEXANDER: What we failed to remember is that one of the things that made great Victorian gardens great is that they came with great Victorian gardeners.

: Servants, basically.

ALEXANDER: Yes, yes. And by the time that reality had sunk in, we were looking at a 2,000 square foot garden with 22 beds.

: After you've actually got the garden, a lot of work, laid out, read if you would a little segment that in a sense foreshadows everything that is to come.

ALEXANDER: Alone in my new garden, kneeling over a bed filled with rich, dark brown topsoil, I scooped up a handful of soil and took in its earthy, almost aphrodisiac smell. Ahh, I love the smell of earth. No perfume ever invented by man has matched the smell of rich, loamy soil. I scanned the empty beds and saw blood red tomatoes, tall stalks of corn waving in the sun, snow white heads of cauliflower. A disembodied voice from above startled me out of my reverie. Gonna be a lot of weeding.

: That of course is your next-door neighbor peering down.

ALEXANDER: Gonna be a lot of weeding, he repeated. Cultivating, I said under my breath. Gonna be a lot of cultivating.

: So the weeds hit you pretty hard. That was the beginning of a lot of, what would you call it?

ALEXANDER: Battles?

: Surprises? Battles?

ALEXANDER: Surprises.

: What would be the next thing?

ALEXANDER: Just trying to keep the various types of wildlife out of the garden.

: Starting, by the way, with the deer that your neighbors fed.

ALEXANDER: The neighbors were feeding the deer. And deer aren't dumb, and when someone puts out food, deer, and the family of the family of deer, all get the word, and they all come. So we just had hoards of deer.

: So there was your garden, there were the deer. You decided that you...

ALEXANDER: Electricity.

: Electrocute...

ALEXANDER: Electricity was the answer. So I thought. I put up a 3,000 volt fence. And that kept the deer out for a while. But the deer really are not the big problem. The groundhogs are really harder to keep out of the garden. Because groundhogs will dig under a fence.

: Which brings us to what you describe as your Darwinian experience, the groundhog that you nicknamed Superchuck.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, and they weren't doing me any harm at all, but the neighbor had complained they were getting into his garden. So I started to trap them. I just kept trapping these things and letting them go and a week or so would pass and I'd trap again, let them go. And one day I looked out and a huge fat one had gotten through my electric wires. And he was just going through my heirloom tomatoes by the day.

: Good taste though. I love heirloom tomatoes.

ALEXANDER: So I worked on the fence a little more. And the way an electric fence works, I should explain, is that it sends out this 10,000 volt pulse. I watched him approach the fence, pause, and jump through in the one second pause between the 10,000 volts.

: Wow.

ALEXANDER: And I realized that I had actually made this groundhog that, in a very Darwinian way, I had been removing the dumb, easy to trap ones, and those were actually the ideal tenants. Those were the ones that I just should have left.

: So the title, The $64.00 Tomato, is taken from an experience you had, as you say, egged on by your wife Ann.

ALEXANDER: Later I started to think, how much did this Brandywine really cost me? So I went back and I looked at what we had spent to build the garden, and then I amortized that over 20 years, and then I added in the costs we had spent that year. And then from that, if you're still with me, I took out the farmstand value of all the other products that we had, and was left with my crop of Brandywines. And it came out not to $20.00, that would have been great, it came out to $64.00 a tomato.

: Were your horrified?

ALEXANDER: I was actually sorry that I had done the entire exercise.

: Pricing your priceless, some things...

ALEXANDER: You just don't want to know. It's not really about what it actually cost to eat this piece of fruit. It's really about lifestyle. And the garden, really, for us was kind of a family member, for better or for worse.

: You still like to garden?

ALEXANDER: Until I remind myself that next year will be better.

: William Alexander wrote the book The $64.00 Tomato. A complete breakdown of the costs he encountered on his way to reach that precious tomato, starting with the pack of seeds, is at npr.org.

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