Bill Alexander had no idea that his simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard in his backyard would lead him into life-and-death battles with groundhogs, webworms, weeds, and weather; midnight expeditions in the dead of winter to dig up fresh thyme; and skirmishes with neighbors who feed the vermin (i.e., deer). Not to mention the vacations that had to be planned around the harvest, the near electrocution of the tree man, the limitations of his own middle-aged body, and the pity of his wife and kids. When Alexander runs (just for fun!) a costbenefit analysis, adding up everything from the live animal trap to the Velcro tomato wraps and then amortizing it over the life of his garden, it comes as quite a shock to learn that it cost him a staggering $64 to grow each one of his beloved Brandywine tomatoes. But as any gardener will tell you, you can't put a price on the unparalleled pleasures of providing fresh food for your family.
William Alexander is the author, most recently, of "Flirting with French." His previous books include the bestseller "The $64 Tomato" and "52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust." The New York Times has said about him, "His timing and his delivery are flawless."
I was reminded of this book over the weekend when I watched my husband shell out 70 bucks at Lowe's on wood and narrow plastic pipe to make some sort of cage to keep the birds off our blueberry bushes. I so wanted to mention the fact that we get less than a pint of berries from those plants, and that blueberries are currently two pints for $5.00 at the supermarket . . . but I didn't.
Sometimes keeping your opinions to yourself is the secret of a happy marriage.
William Alexander, you are a talented writer. In less capable hands, I probably would have dispensed with the book entirely or thrown it across the room. Unfortunately, that is about the only nice thing I can say because Mr. Alexander, you are a pompous boob.
The book itself is a train wreck of a tale about bourgeois "gentleman farmer" (the term gentleman farmer is his, not mine) who spends a fortune on the ideal of a garden that never quite realizes its Platonic form. Alexander spends less time enjoying his garden or the garden experience, except for the (er, organic?) food, then complaining about this or that pest, weed, etc. Throughout, Alexander repeatedly demonstrates that this or that problem is really brought about more by his own stupidity than any inherent aspect of the gardening process. And his solutions - I really am an organic gardener but that organic solution didn't work so I'm going to spray some heavy pesticides on it instead but I still am an environmentalist - resoundingly failed to impress.
Next time, Alexander, move to an English country estate and hire a gardener. That way you can have the garden of your dreams and I do not have to suffer your upper-middle class whining. Thanks.
This is an enjoyable memoir about a married couple who design an elaborate vegetable garden, but it quickly turns into a more expensive, ambitious and time-consuming project than they anticipated. Toward the end of the book, the author adds up his gardening expenses and calculates the worth of the produce he's grown -- and he realizes that it cost him $64 to grow each of his 19 heirloom tomatoes that summer.
There were several amusing chapters, including William's experience in trying to grow a meadow, or their frustrations with hiring a contractor, or his ongoing battle with deer and squirrels and beetles and caterpillars and every other garden pest you can think of. I think any gardener (or wannabe gardener, in my case) would enjoy this book.
Update Aug. 2013: I liked this book so much that I sought out another Alexander memoir, "52 Loaves," which is about his obsession with baking bread. There are some fun references to "Tomato" in it, including some gardening scenes because he decides to grow and mill his own wheat to make bread. (It was so much work that his wife makes him promise that they won't grow any cotton!) He was also invited to speak at a fancy luncheon in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a town known for its beautiful gardens, and he is instantly insecure about how his garden isn't as pretty.
I have recommended "The 64 Tomato" to numerous friends since I read it, and it's so delightful I think I'll get my own copy. I just wish he had included some photos of his garden project in it. C'est la vie.
i expected this to be something in the vein of all those sustainable gardening/lefty quasi-gentleman farmer memoirs making the rounds these days, with page after page dedicated to the author's environmental rights decision-making processes & lofty pronouncements on the superiority of home-grown tomatoes. what i actually got was so much funnier & more satisfying! i mean, yes, the dude acknowledges that he could conceivably be seen as a gentleman farmer, he describes himself several times as a liberal khaki-wearing NPR-listening satchel-toter, & he does spill a little ink on the superiority of his home home-grown brandywine tomatoes, but there is so much more here! i actually laughed out loud a couple of times, which i almost never do while reading.
the author & his wife buy a house in the hudson valley. it needs a lot of repairs, but it has a huge yard & they daydream about growing the garden of their fantasies. they even hire a landscape designer & her husband contractor to arrange it for them, which kind of blew my mind. the hijinks start right away, as the house is located in a region that used to be rife with brick factories, thanks to the brick-quality clay in the soil. the contractor drags his feet digging the beds for the garden until the frost has started, & then can't complete the job because the yard is just one enormous brick.
but eventually the garden is dug & plants are planted. & the rest of the book documents the many foibles that ensued, including the author's attempts to grow a "sound of music"-quality meadow, culminating in the near-decision to arrange a controlled burn to combat the unwanted weeds choking the meadow, the darwinian progression of woodchucks living under the woodshed, evolving to one super woodchuck willing to brave an electric fence to loll about in the garden & eat tomatoes, the horrifying karma that followed the capture of an oppossum in the live animal trap, etc. i personally do not garden & am not really interested in gardening, & i still thought this book was awesome. all of my gardening friends should definitely check it out.
Reading about everything that goes wrong and nothing going right gets depressing. After I read the chapter about the author trapping animals in his garden (and purposely leaving them in the trap in direct sun for several days hoping they would die because he was too afraid to release them alive) I knew the author was a moron and I couldn't stand to read the rest of the book.
At a certain point reading this book felt like being forced to listen to yet another privileged North American male get everything he ever wanted in life, but complain about it every step of the way. Lots of hot air and wind-baggery. Eventually, I went outside to garden.
A delightful and entertaining look at how obsessive gardening can become. Not only is the author, William Alexander, interested in gardening but he also bought a 90-year-old house on the verge of falling down. He and his wife, Anne, spent a fortune on renovating it and then spent a continuing fortune developing and maintaining the perfect garden. Hysterically funny at times and full of oddball characters both human and animal, this is a relaxing and fun excursion. In some sense, we have all done this. The lure of eating what you produce with your own hands is a common and lovely fantasy and results, as the author entertainingly points out, in a $64 tomato!
It seems from reading this book that Bill Alexander is a lot of things, a decent writer among them. But he also seems a pretentious, insufferable, lecherous whiner, whose entire purpose for writing this book was to humble-brag about his disposable income and gripe endlessly about the unmitigated gall of other people to, well, exist.
Right off the bat, Mr. Alexander takes us through his thinly-veiled desire to sleep with the landscape architect (Bridget) he and his wife hired. It was one thing to note she was attractive, but the detail he went into was straight up creepy, punctuated by his “lighthearted” reference to Bridget’s “Maximus Clitoris.” The frying-pan-in-the-face style sexual references continued intermittently throughout the book: he once explains how he “mystified” his wife with vigorous lovemaking after he self-pollinated an apple tree, he talks about growing roses that would remind him of “blushing Victorian maids and sex in the bushes” and I swear the word “whore” appears in this book more than it is spoken in the film, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”
The book isn’t totally without merit. There’s good gardening information scattered throughout, particularly about apple trees (the sex story not withstanding). I enjoyed the bits about his growing up on an orchard and buying/renovating the old house where he and his wife live. But this man is so obnoxious, so entitled and indeed very obsessive about his garden. It gets kind of exhausting to the point where I started rooting for the bugs and fungi about midway through.
Mr. Alexander shows contempt for the blue-collar workers in his town, shows contempt generally for women in any sense that isn’t sexual (he does pretty clearly acknowledge his wife is a better human than he is but then gives her the good ol’ “what do you expect from a woman?” treatment to the reader a time or two), and he shows contempt for his neighbors repeatedly (poor Larry). In fairness, he tries to play this off as self-deprecating humor. For me, it didn’t land.
Overall, this is the best-written bad book I’ve ever read. I do not recommend.
I’ve had a heartbreaking few months and the past two days brought more difficult news. This book unexpectedly made me laugh repeatedly. I read entire sections aloud to my husband who also laughed and didn’t complain. I also learned a lot about gardening.
I’m going to read every book this guy has written. He’s hilarious. His wife is a saint.
We have had some exhausting hilarious-in-the-telling-later escapades with groundhogs and squirrels here. William’s Superchuck has relatives here for sure. We also have superhero squirrels who believe THEY are our overlords. They also believe cars belong to them- it’s a long funny story.
I gravitate toward books about gardening, and this seemed a likely choice. I was a touch disappointed because the author was quite negative--he kept saying how much he loved gardening, but then complained about the bugs and weeds and too abundant harvests, and the critters. Some things he brought on himself by trying not to spray for bugs, until it was too late, then he sprayed a lot, also he was gardening in the Hudson River Valley and he didn't want to put up a fence to keep out the deer--is that dumb or what? (Of course, they can't just shoot them in New York.) Instead he had all sorts of electric fence contraptions which can't have been that beautiful either. Perhaps his view point was a bit skewed by the fact that near the end of the book he learns that he has a herniated disk--so his lifting and mowing and hoeing days are over. He had a few good lines and some funny situations. One of my favorite quotes: "Gardening is, by its very nature, and expression of the triumph of optimism over experience."
I laughed out loud several times while reading this, and also couldn't help but read the section out loud to my fiancé about Red Delicious apples (and how much the author hates them, and why he cannot for the life of him understand why people choose to eat them. All I can say us: Amen, brother!)
All of that aside, I didn't love the book quite as much as I think I could have. At the end, he has no great epiphany, he doesn't come to any understanding about the way his life needs to interact with gardening. Instead, he just basically shrugs his shoulders and says he's just trying to figure things out. This is real life, so I know that it doesn't always end with a neatly tied bow, but there needs to be a conclusion at the end. I just didn't feel like this book had one.
He's a computer programmer, and it shows. This book is just a little stiff. I don't feel like I really got to know William.
Cute. But jeez, talk about privilege. I couldn't relate to a 16,000 dollar garden. Like the last book I read, I felt like this guy characterized his wife in a negative light for the sake of good storytelling. It annoys me. I expect that if I am reading a memoir or story-telling non-fiction, that the main character is the writer and everyone else is part of the story of the author. But WHY must these guys characterize their kids as cute and funny and their wives as road blocks or antagonists to the hero's quest? My little pet peeve, I suppose, over a totally light-hearted beach read that took a day out of my life.
The title takes up the allotted space that blogger allows for a title! But the book is by William Alexander, a man from New York's Hudson Valley, who's love for gardening turned him into, truly, a small-scale farmer.
I had this book on my library wish list for over two years. I decided it was finally time to read this sucker. And I'm so glad I did...
Although the author and setting is in New York, the publisher is Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. I was thrilled to see a local connection to it, especially after enjoying it so much.
The $64 tomato is the final spreadsheet number that Alexander comes up with, for his prized Brandywine tomatoes, after including all of his expenses over the past 20 and multiplied, then divided, and discovered how much growing these tomatoes actually cost him.
But that's just one side of the story...the rest is entertaining as hell and despite being a green thumb (but I do love gardening and have been successful at it), I could relate to his story to other aspects of what I consider as my own hobby.
But Alexander starts with a new, old house, in the Hudson Valley, which has about three acres of space for he and his wife to build their dream garden.
This account takes the reader through the entire process and Alexander is sarcastic, funny, and just blunt about pointing out his mania at building the ideal garden.
He continues through a twenty year journey of ups and downs, mostly accounting for the downs, but behind the lines of the negativity, I can read the love and passion this man has for the labor of growing, harvesting, and tending to the garden.
There is an underlying connection to life in general, with his gardening accounts. I compare it to the short and sweet book, Good Dog. Stay., but an account of the life span (that still continues today) of this garden vs. the lifespan of a loved pet.
It's mesmerizing and really gets one thinking about things...and some of the things he states I found comparable to my own life.
When he compares his wife's view on 'tending to the garden' vs. his own, I felt the same comparison between the way my husband looks at things and the way I do. When he gets upset with his wife, because she hadn't tended to the garden as he had expected. And by "expected", I mean she DID work on the garden, just not to what his expectations were.
Instead of weeding the overgrown vegetable garden, his wife had cleaned up the flower garden. And Alexander felt that this was ridiculous, as no one cares about the flower garden -- but the veggie garden is the one that is an unseemly mess!
He states: I came to understand that Anne saw nothing at all incongruous about her morning in the garden. Her goal that morning was a few hours of relaxation -- deadheading, tying, cutting flowers for the house. My goal for the morning had nothing to do with the pleasures of gardening and everything to do with the often unrewarding but necessary work of gardening.
He continues with: I am goal driven in the garden. I head out there with a job to do, and I don't leave until it's finished. Anne heads to garden when she feels like gardening, and unless I specifically direct her, she will spend the next few hours pursuing whatever activity brings her the most gratification
The existentialism to this novel, while interwoven throughout the novel, comes close to the end, as 20 years has past, Alexander is 50 years old and has been diagnosed with herniated disks. Age has caught up and he is no longer able to bend over, digging, hoeing, pushing barrels of mulch, manure, soil, etc. Things will have to change and by this time, he has a love-hate relationship with his "garden", which has now turned into a small-scale farm.
He ponders the question "If you were doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, would you choose the life you are living now?" Deep thoughts that continue into "If the answer is no, then why are you living the life you are living now? Stop making excuses, and do something about it."
I think we all tend to wonder these things. Sometimes it has to do with work and sometimes, more often than we like, it has to do with life in general.
So far, my answer is YES, with the caveat of changing some terrible decisions, which do not include my children, my husband, or my pets. :-)
A great book, stylized in a first-hand account of a hobby-turned-to-job. William Alexander is a great story teller, in the same vein of David Sedaris. You will laugh more than you'll realize, and I think, you will ponder your own life as you walk through Alexander's.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
"The $64 Tomato" is a light laugh out loud look at one man's over-the-top gardening obsession on his three acre property in New York's Hudson Valley. Though the title may lead one to believe this to be a story about trying to grow a few tomato plants and the headaches and costs incurred with even that simple task, this book is much more broader in scope then that. The author, William Alexander, purchases a somewhat large piece of property in upstate New York and immediatly has delusions of gardening grandeur. He plants a 2,000 sq. foot vegetable garden, a fruit tree orchard and even attempts to recreate a honeymoon meadow on his propery. Along the way are adventures with masochistic groundhogs, Christopher Walken the Gardener and phallic symbol statuaries. If you've gardened in a bucket or large landscape, you will find something to relate to and something to laugh about in this book. A great read while your sitting in the sun next to your garden listening to the weeds grow...
of all the things gardening can do to you, the rarest seems to be inspire humorous self-assesment. this man is a gem. instead of some self-righteous monologue on the superiority of locavores and organics, glossy photos of the beauty his hands have wrought, his children eating off the fat of the land, and his wife as a piece of wallpaper, we have here the hilarious tale of a man, a family, and an obsession.
i have to point out that the tomato didn't really cost $64 dollars. he worked out his costs over years of gardening, valued every other bit of produce at farmer's market value, and lumped all the remaining expense on a single crop of brandywines. to be truly accurate he should have evaluated all crops at market value, taken that number and subtracted it from total expenditures, and then the difference as a percentage of total expenditures to be applied as a markup percentage to the market value of the brandywines equally with other crops.
I am a gardener and by the title I thought I would find this book relatable. I too have been swept up in expensive purchases for gardening. However, this book’s tone was off putting. The author seemed to be in a constant state of whining. Something was always going wrong and rather than weathering the bad times and realizing pests and drought and failed plants are a part of being a gardener, the author was constantly whining. His kids and his wife didn’t help enough with his garden. His architect that he hired didn’t make his vegetable garden fancy enough. The constant “woe is me” attitude wasn’t a fun read.
What really drew the book down the most was the authors tales of animal cruelty. I have nothing against taking measures to deter pests away from your garden, but capturing an animal in a trap then leaving it in the trap to dehydrate to death because you are too much of a scaredy-cat to live release it or shoot it is something the author should be absolutely ashamed of.
This was a book that had potential--- the author has a funny, warm, engaging side, some of the gardening stuff, the family stuff, the cooking stuff is really relatable. But then he has this other side that I think his editor really ought to have pushed harder to get rid of, where he needs to tell you minutia about how deep to bury the fence wire to address groundhogs and precisely how many stakes you need if you're edging a garden like his with metal. Where they're part of the overall story, okay, but too often, I was left thinking "tell me again why I'm reading this? He lives in the Hudson Valley on three acres, I live where I live with about 25 linear feet of garden, total, and his in-depth explorations of techniques for defending an orchard against pests that do not exist in my climate are of virtually no use to me."
I had such high hopes for this in the first few pages. I didn't think it was negative (as several reviews imply), it's just that gardening IS difficult. It's full of setbacks. It never quite matches our dreams. That's not negativity, that's reality. Initially I related, I laughed...and then he started talking about pests. And that's where he lost me. A so-called environmentalist doesn't resort to malathion or diazinon under ANY circumstances. And for me, you cross the line when you can't coexist with animals. Jesus, the guy tried to drown an opossum! That sickens me. What a wuss for one thing, and secondly, possums are harmless. He only half jokes about taking out a rifle to control the deer and the groundhogs. I mean, it's an effing tomato! Get a life!
I'll read almost anything about gardening: blog posts, seed catalog copy, magazines, books... A gardening theme is the reason I picked up The $64 Tomato; well, that and a mention from a friend at my community garden. It was an enjoyable and quick read. The only criticism I have is the basic premise of the book: that it costs a lot of money to have a garden. Yes, if you hire a garden designer and a contractor and outsource the installation of edging, it can be expensive. Most gardeners don't do any of those things. Read this book for what it is, a humorous look at the pitfalls of gardening. including invasive plants, animal pests, and the vagaries of weather…just don't read it as an accurate portrayal of what gardening can mean to you.
Enjoyable and well written. "Gardening is, by its very nature, an expression of the triumph of optimism over experience." Mr. Alexander's book reminded me of the time I ran into a friend at the nursery and said to her, "I could save myself a lot of grief if I just threw a couple of twenties on the ground and walked away."
The storytelling was somewhat engaging, however the author's quirks were so irksome that it made this read a bit painful. At times I wanted to pull him aside and tell him what an arse he is but, all I could do was roll my eyes and flip the page.
An entertaining look at one man's attempt to tame the "back 40" - William Alexander and his wife purchase the Big Brown House - a project in itself - and with it, also get a barn/outbuilding and a piece of land suitable for a nice garden. He's not talking about a little garden - a few tomato plants, some green peppers and jalapenos, and a few herbs. No, this is Garden with a big G - he wants to have potatoes and greens and the perfect Brandywine tomato, not to mention peaches and apples and squash and leeks and...well, you get the picture. This is more than a hobby - it's an all-consuming passion. He enlists professional help - I think it would quickly be overwhelming without it - to design and construct it. Anyone's who has ever grown a tomato knows the pleasure of eating the first vine-ripened fruit and, at our house, it's not summer until that first BLT in June. We've also seen the despair of losing tomatoes to bird pecks or deer (at least until we enclosed our small patch) or blight. I can definitely sympathize with some of the situations, if not the scope, that the author describes. It's a fun read.
Quotes to remember:
There is no point in even trying to discuss this with the animal-rights people (except to say that if they would divert just half the energy they spend on animal suffering to reduce human suffering, the world would be a far better place).
When it comes to gardens (if not life), absolutes are easy; balances are tricky.
Rituals are as old as civilization. They provide comfort and safety. Insurance against tragedy...The extinction of life is tragic; the extinction of a ritual seems unthinkable, impossible.
...a homegrown, vine-ripened tomato is probably more different from the store version than any other crop you can grow...The food from your garden really does taste better.
Gardening is, by its very nature, an expression of the triumph of optimism over experience. No matter how bad this year was, there's always next year.
Could relate to his struggles with all the local wildlife! In my garden, the raccoons beat us to the corn, the squirrels and chipmunks take an exploratory bite of every tomato, and the local rabbits adore my arugula. Yet every winter I dream and plan the perfect garden, every spring I plant in hope.