The Joys and Tribulations of Home Gardening

An excerpt from William Alexander's book about the joys and tribulations of home gardening.

The $64 Tomato

William Alexander's book The $64 Tomato shares the author's tips on gardening.


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Excerpt from William Alexander's book on home gardening. 

"I want death to find me planting my cabbages."
— Michael Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592).

I am sitting here, in late September, at my kitchen table, cradling a ripe, heart-size Brandywine tomato in the palm of my hand. A scarce few minutes ago, it was on the vine, a living, growing organism. Now it has brought the warmth of the September noon sun into my chilly kitchen, warming my hand, almost pulsing with life. In a few moments it will be lunch, but I am in no rush to slice into this lovely fruit, the last tomato of the season.

I will miss the fresh tomatoes, the crickety sounds of summer, the lobster rolls eaten on the porch. But I am also relieved that summer is over. Gardening is often thought to be a genteel, relaxing hobby, an activity for the women of the garden club as they dally about in their straw hats, fitting lotioned hands into goatskin gloves, sipping tea under the shade of a magnolia. For me, gardening more often resembles blood sport, a never-ending battle with the weather, insects, deer, groundhogs, weeds, edgy gardeners, incompetent contractors, and the limitations of my own middle-aged body. And it turns out to be a very expensive sport.

So why do I persist with home gardening? I can offer a few reasons.

First and foremost, I do it for the food. Some years ago, for better or worse, I crossed the line from gardener to family farmer, but truthfully, as long as I’ve gardened I’ve been motivated by the food. There really is nothing like a fresh August tomato. The leeks I grow taste more or less like the leeks from the supermarket; ditto the peppers and rhubarb. But 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.

(Unfortunately I usually have to wait until August.) The food from your garden really does taste better. If you have a garden, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t have a garden, find a few square feet and grow even just one or two tomato plants. And make it worthwhile: Grow an heirloom variety such as Brandywine or Cherokee. If you’re going to grow Supersonic or Big Boy, you might as well buy them from the farm stand. If you have more room, grow leafy lettuces and greens, including some arugula. And sugar snap peas. You may be astounded by what you taste.

But of course, I don’t garden only for the food. If that were the case, I’d have done away with beds and paths a long time ago and switched to a small tractor in a field. And now, one can buy baby spinach and fresh mesclun mix at the grocery store year-round. There’s clearly another imperative or two at work here.

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. Experience doesn’t count. Just because the carrots have been knobby, misshapen and somewhat bitter four years in a row doesn’t mean they’re going to be knobby and misshapen next year. No, sir, next year you will (1) work in twice as much compost and peat; (2) plant a new, improved variety; or (3) get lucky. Or even better, you can forget carrots and plant something exotic like blue cauliflower in that bed. Because every year starts with a clean slate, and the phenomenon I call garden amnesia ensures eternal hope. Even the cursed purslane weeds, being annuals, will die off during the winter, so as long as I didn’t let any purslane flowers form and go to seed, I will at least be starting off with purslane-free beds. And next year I’ll cultivate every week, instead of letting it go for two months. A mere 10 minutes a week is all it will take, and . . .

Blessedly, the voice of experience, the voice that should be crying, “Oh, puh-lease!” never pipes up in the garden. And I, for one, hope it never does. It is not wanted there.

I also find myself fascinated with the cycle of birth and resurrection in the garden. It surely is no accident that the Old Testament places the origins of humanity in a garden. Who can deny that his or her heart quickens at the sight of the first seedlings of spring peeking out from under the soil? First, there is the sense of wonder (and relief) each time a seed sprouts, a feeling of, “Wow, I did it! I guess I didn’t plant the seeds too deep/shallow/close/together/far/apart/dry/wet/early/late.” Then, to watch the miraculous: one tiny seed becoming, with the addition of nothing but dirt and water, a 20-foot cucumber vine, bushels of tomatoes, 30-pound watermelons; seeds no larger than a speck of dust — a speck of dust! — turning into tender, bright green lettuces. It doesn’t matter how many years of biology I’ve studied or how many genomes scientists decode: to me it’s still a miracle — incomprehensible, fantastic, and immensely rewarding. A human sperm and egg becoming a 50-year-old gardener, now that I can somehow understand. But how these seeds become tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuce, it’s all too fantastic and strange to fathom.

The perennials provide as much joy and surprise as the seedlings. Because of garden amnesia, every winter I hold the thin strands of what is undoubtedly dead clematis between my fingers and wonder what to plant in its place. And every spring, lo and behold, after everything else is green and vibrant and my clematis is still brown and dead, a day comes when I notice a couple of green shoots at the base, and a few weeks later the resurrection is complete and the plant is in full bloom, sporting glorious, broad, star-shaped flowers that wave in the slightest breeze.

And I tell Anne it’s not dead after all, and Anne says, “You say that every year,” and I say, “But this year it really looked dead.” This, too, is part of the cycle of life and rebirth and hope and comfort in the garden.

The Home Gardener’s Gamble

One of my garden routines is to keep a garden journal, really just a few hastily written notes about each year’s successes and failures, and reminders for next year. But the most significant piece of information I keep is the last frost date of each spring.

I still get a kick every year out of Katie’s reaction when I tell her we have to plant some certain seed one week before the last frost date ("Dad, that’s ridiculous. That’s like saying, 'Take the popcorn out just before the last kernel pops'"), and I do get a small death-defying thrill (although the daring is tempered a bit by the fact that it’s the seedlings’ lives at stake, not mine) out of getting a jump on the season by gambling that the last frost date will occur earlier than the cooperative extension’s forecast. If I put the plants I’ve raised from seed outdoors before the “official” date, and there is no more frost, I am rewarded with earlier crops; if I’ve guessed wrong, I lose all the plants and have to (shudder) resort to buying replacements from the garden center. A silly game? Maybe. So other people habitually play lotto; I annually gamble with my grow-light-raised seedlings. I think I do it because it keeps me closer to the cycle, the cycle of rebirth and renewal. And because I’m dying for fresh lettuce.

To order The $64 Tomato by William Alexander or other books on the Grit bookshelf, visit Excerpted with permission by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. © 2006 by William Alexander.