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Gardening as a Contact Sport

By Herb Gardener.

My neighbor’s domesticated rabbits, sprung from their hutch and loose in my yard, bounded for the parsley. Like a pair of animated bedroom slippers these impossibly cute critters transformed into terrorists threatening my container garden’s herbal order. The accidental invasion proved surprisingly upsetting. I thought of the incident as I read “The $64 Tomato,” one man’s tale of muscular suburban gardening and the forces arrayed against him. Yes, animals were harmed in the making of this memoir.

Author William Alexander’s wry take on home renovation, unreliable contractors and bemused teenagers (the book opens with “Why can’t Dad be more like other dads?”) produce an everyman likeability. Conversational prose and self-deprecating humor add to our appreciation for countless, back-breaking hours “cultivating” three acres of Hudson Valley clay.

Our hero revels in the sensuousness of handling soil and savoring the meager yield of heirloom tomatoes. Readers will learn something too: traditional farm-implement comparisons and conjecture on the disappearance of Anasazi cliff dwellers bracket stories of pitched battles against groundhogs and web worms.

Alexander begins with modest aims, but growing ambition for the perfect garden begets imperfect results. He is consistently duped by seed catalog glossy photos and promises of harvest glory. One wonders how through 10 growing seasons he failed to anticipate disappointment.

In the chapter “No Such Thing as an Organic Apple,” a childhood memory spurs Alexander to plant an organic apple orchard. Caterpillars and cedar-apple rust finally convince him to apply conventional pesticides, but a whiff of chemicals leads to a poignant twist.

It is said that Zen monks can see whole landscapes in a single bean. “The $64 Tomato” is just such a bean, a reflective and witty travelogue to a frontier visible from the kitchen window. With rabbits securely behind bars my latest challenge is bird guano spotting the tarragon.

(“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.” William Alexander. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006.)

-Flavors And More Magazine: August 2009

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