The Best Things In Life Are Cheap


Img_0618_6When William Alexander’s garden memoir 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 came out in 2006, the concept so annoyed me that I kept picking the book up and flipping through it in stores, only to stick it back on the shelf unread.   

Sure, certain kinds of ornamental gardening are a costly crap-shoot.  I tend to agree with one of our new commentators, somebody named Parking Structure Dude! who wrote here recently, "…not that I hate flowering perennials, just that they mostly all suck. That is, they suck independently of my hating them.  I’d have to think about them to hate them." I’m assuming that by "suck," Parking Structure Dude! means "languish and die."

But vegetable gardens–at least in the Owens/Alexander part of the world–are a complete miracle once you’ve got the spot plowed and the fencing right.  Stick 30 different kinds of seeds in the ground, and 29 will produce something delicious.  The one variety that gets buggy or rots or bolts before it matures can safely be laughed off.  Vegetable gardens are only tricky or arduous or expensive if you are a particularly witless beginner, or are pursuing some other agenda that has nothing to do with growing beautiful food (book contract, impressing the neighbors, "the perfect garden.")   

Of course, while I was railing against poor unread William Alexander, my husband pointed out that I grow the $200,000 tomato, since we have a country house that doesn’t serve any purpose except allowing me as big a vegetable garden as I somehow require. 

I’m sorry, the tomatoes cost a few cents apiece at most.  It’s our city/country conflict that’s expensive.

So I thought until I opened the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog this year.  I became a Fedco woman half a decade ago, but I always liked Johnny’s offerings.  This year, I was just floored by their prices.  Most of their "minis," which are truly stingy in my recollection, are between $3 and $4.   A packet of 15 seeds of a Charentais melon called ‘Edonis’ is $4.55.  Ten seeds of a watermelon called Orange Sweet’ are $6.95.  Half an ounce of a parsnip called ‘Javelin’ is $7.25.  ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry,’ a little tomato that I always found superlatively delicious, is $8.95 for a thirty-second of an ounce.  Okay, THAT one is definitely worth the price, and please don’t buy it all up before I can get my order in.

But what goes on?  Can we blame the same stuff that is sending Brent & Becky’s prices up: the rising cost of oil, the sinking value of the dollar, and the fact that half of this country actually returned Bush to office in 2004? Or does it have something to do with Johnny’s business structure?  The letter in my catalog explains that the company is in the process of converting to employee ownership.  Maybe Johnny’s costs more because it pays its people decently.

I’d cheer if the product in question were shoes or coffee beans.  But it makes me very grouchy when anything–Johnny’s, $64 tomatoes, $10 melons–interferes with my argument about growing a little food: cheap, easy, full of transcendent joy.


  1. I guess you’ll have to start saving your own seeds and give up on having some of the fancier produce hybrids and cultivars.

    The times may be a commin’ when food won’t be so cheap anymore period.

  2. Yep. I definitely noticed some major price inflation going on in a couple of catalogues this year. We ended up getting most of our seeds (all greens, brassicas, and potatoes–the stuff we’re no good at re: seed saving) from Pinetree Garden Seeds. They are WAY cheap, around a dollar for most stuff, and they’re independent, organic, and all that stuff.

    I agree with Christopher; between oil prices and inflation trickling down to the cost of production and shipping, seeds are going to get expensive in the coming years. Not to mention the fact that gardening in general seems to be getting more popular (that’s a good thing!) and with popularity comes a chance to make a couple extra bucks.

    On a whim, we ordered Matt’s Wild Cherry tomatoes from a local business–Amishland Seeds. We’ve never had them before so I’m glad to hear the good review!

    And on the subject of The $64 Tomato … I read that two summers ago and could go on a whole ‘nother rant about it, so I’ll just say that you were wise to put it back on the shelf.

  3. Thank. You.
    I read Fedco’s catalog first, and was pleasantly surprised by the prices – you don’t mention the 60 and 90 cent packages offered for many of their varieties. I ordered 33 packets from them and it came to a little more than 35 dollars.
    Compare what you get to Johnnie’s, Cook’s or even Baker Creek, and it’s winceable. I understand that there’s some difficulty in getting some seeds, but most plants produce a plethora. Would it hurt to include a few more? I’ve found vegetable packets containing as few as 9 seeds. That’s a significant investment, especially for a beginning gardener, or someone who plants thickly and then thins the plants out.
    I’m going to try saving self-pollinators this year. I live too far north to fuss with biennial seeds, but if this is a sign of things to come, it’s worth going to the extra trouble for the “easy” seeds. (Or, you know, get Fedco to carry the seeds we need.)

  4. Ah, Michele, but we expect our food to be cheap, too, as a kind of American birthright.

    Save your seed, trade with others is my answer. Not nearly so sexy as getting packages of clean envelopes in the mail, but it’s another little life skill that is being lost in this world.

    By saving MY seed, I justify the splurge on something zany for the garden this year.

  5. Of course, you’re all right about the seed-saving. I talked to a woman last year who farms at a museum house in Massachusetts, and she was passionate about the advantages of saving your own seed–that if you take your seed from the best plants, you wind up in a few seasons with a strain uniquely adapted to your own site.

  6. Last year I interviewed several nursery owners/pond builders for an article on water gardens and aquatic plants (If you want to read the article, go to and click on “Liquid Assets. Digger. June 2007.”).

    When I asked Neil Lucht, owner of Pacific Water Gardens in Molalla, Oregon, what his biggest challenge is, he answered, “‘Fuel, fuel, fuel. It’s related to one system or the other: transportation or heat. Since 1999, I’ve seen rates for heating fuel rise 300 percent.’ Transportation costs can be especially hard on specialty nurseries, he says. One truck may carry orders for 50 customers; the many stops eat up time and money.”

    I’ve heard Lucht’s fuel laments repeated by many others in the nursery industry. It’s not the only factor affecting business costs, but it is a major one and it eventually impacts costs for the us gardeners.

    Other cost factors reported to me by growers include propagation success rates and product development costs. For example, Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) is not only hard to find but generally costly. Turns out it’s notoriously difficult to propagate and graft so the few plants that make it to the market cost more.

    I’m not making any assumptions that these factors affect Johnny’s costs but knowing a little of what growers face helps me gain a different perspective about plant costs. It doesn’t mean I like seeing prices go up. Heck, no, that means my plant dollars don’t go as far! It just helps ease the pain, even if it’s only slightly. After all, they need to make a living, too, otherwise they won’t stay in business and then, oh, woe, I’ll have fewer places to shop for my green fix!

  7. Michele,
    I’ve never gardened because I thought I was saving money, even in the vegetable garden. Beyond the seeds there is the overhead, tools, equipement, soil amendments, maybe even a worm farm, which can be amortized over years if you are careful, but really, the point of gardening is to enjoy the tasks, and the the enjoyment of meals where the produce is fresh, beautiful and nutritious.

  8. Commonweeder, I don’t garden to save money, either. I’d do it no matter what it cost, and I’m interested in beauty, so I spend lots of money on unnecessary things, like a nice picket fence for the vegetable garden.

    However, it is possible to save money by growing your own food. And that’s as good a reason as any to start.

    It makes me mad when people suggest that growing a nice salad has to be difficult or expensive.

  9. Lisa Albert, you make me think that even when I’m eating my own organic vegetables grown from organic seed, I’m still eating oil.

    There is no way around it. Oil is woven into the fabric of our lives.

  10. Well, to get started collecting seeds ya gotta buy some to grow the plants. For veggies, I do find to have good prices, good amounts, and amazing choices. And if you grow in bulk, or are willing to help continue heirlooms, they are great! And organic to boot.

  11. Johnny’s barely eked out a living for years and lost money some years. They probably finally realized they had to raise their prices to survive, since they’re not intentionally a non-profit org. Postage, printing, shipping, health insurance, fuel — when was the last time any of those prices went down? At some point, a business has to cover those costs, or go out of business.

  12. Yes, prices have risen, but I ‘d rather support small businesses like Johnnies, Pinetree, Nichols,Territorial than Park or Ball. Not everything I want to grow is an OP. I like some of the hybrids & I’m willing to spend the $$ for the pleasure. I don’t need to spend it on jewelry, shoes, clothes….growing my own is still cheaper than anything else.

  13. I used to work in Maine in summer not far from Johnny’s. Good people, great attitude. I think they are at or near employee ownership. Life in central Maine is tough financially, very few opportunities beyond the Walmart level. But Johnny’s-thats a bright spot in an area that is beautiful, but generally hovering just the better side of poverty. Acres are getting more expensive thanks to second homes and the like. Some seasons in Maine just don’t produce well. Oil is high. And the dollar falling.

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