When 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.