As Oscar Wilde once observed, a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We think about that each summer when nongardeners look with wry amusement at the labors of those who plant a few rows of produce for the summer table. Wouldn’t it be cheaper, these skeptics ask, just to buy those fruits and vegetables at the local grocery?
But there are satisfactions to gardening that transcend its sometimes-dubious price tag, as William Alexander reminds readers in “The $64 Tomato,” a book first published a few years ago, and still being actively circulated and enjoyed by green thumbs in many places.
Alexander lives and gardens in New York’s Hudson River Valley, but the basic challenges of his Northeast garden will be familiar to those of us who try to grow things south of the Mason-Dixon line.
As the title of Alexander’s “The $64 Tomato” suggests, the price of growing your own food can get pricey — sometimes unreasonably so. To arrive at his price tag, Alexander began adding up all the things he’d bought for his garden — tools, gardening books, mulch, etc. There were some rather-extravagant costs involved for garden design and construction that a typical gardener might not encounter. After Alexander counted how many tomatoes he’d gotten for this expenditure, he figured a price tag of $64 per tomato.
Maybe Alexander’s computation has been exaggerated a bit for comic effect, but his basic point remains. When viewed as a matter of mere dollars and sense, a garden tomato doesn’t always seem like a bargain. That’s a reality many summer gardeners confront here in south Louisiana.
So, why do gardeners grow their own food? Alexander explains: “There is really nothing like a fresh August tomato ... a homegrown, vine-ripened tomato is probably more different from the store version than any other crop you can grow. I start salivating in June for a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich made from a freshly picked, sun-warmed tomato. (Unfortunately I usually have to wait until August.)”
Of course, Alexander’s growing season is a bit later than ours. Tomatoes ripen here much earlier, one of the small pleasures of living in south Louisiana in summer.
In discussing garden economics, Alexander mentions a quote from E.B. White that might prompt nods of agreement from many Louisiana gardeners Here’s White: “We will gladly send the management a jar of our wife’s green-tomato pickle from last summer’s crop — dark green, spicy, delicious, costlier than pearls when you consider the overhead.”