Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Eternal Gardening Optimism: A review of "The $64 Tomato"

As this year's gardening season begins to close I find myself taking stock of what worked, what didn't and what I want to try/change/do next year. This happens at the end of each season but the one noticeable characteristic of this yearly assessment is how quickly I focus on all the ways the garden will be *better* next year. My mind has almost tunnel vision, immediately forgetting the garden dramas of this season and instead imagining the garden of next year which of course will have no pests, no blights, perfect germination, amazing yields, and enjoy wonderful weather all season. We have been gardening for a few years now so of course we know this is not possible and yet, I spend most of the fall and winter of each year in this magical mind place. I never really thought about this little yearly leap from reality until I read the book "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" by William Alexander. 

I read this a while back and enjoyed it so much I had hubby read it too. The quick synopsis is that he and his family move to the Hudson Valley in NY and are able to build a garden, which he does on a mammoth scale which overwhelms him as the years go on. He chronicles his adventures some of which are laugh out loud funny and some that give him very amusing insights including why reel lawn mowers aren't worth the trouble (quotable observation "I bought this mower so you won't have to"); why you probably won't win against the critters eating your garden produce (quotable observation "you may be smarter, but they have more time"); why gardeners can't vacation in the summer; and one of my favorites, when he realizes that he created his own ultimate garden nemesis by accidentally encouraging an accelerated natural selection process of woodchucks on his property that weeded out all the dumb ones leaving only a very savvy "super chuck" who could get through the strongest electric fence to feast on his heirloom tomatoes. But his greatest insight will likely resonate with gardeners everywhere: he observes that most gardeners are filled with an overwhelming optimism each year that trumps whatever bad experiences they've had in their garden previously. Simply put, gardeners favor "optimism over experience." 

This struck a chord with me because I am the queen of this. Here are some of the flights from reality that I have been on at the end of seasons past: So what that the Mexican Bean Beetle ate all our beans this year; it can't happen two years in a row, right? (the reality check: of course it can!). Who cares that most of our heirloom tomato plants got burned from the extreme sun and heat this year; next year the weather will be perfect! (the reality check: it will likely be just like this year). What does it matter that we have not yet been successful growing cucumbers in the garden? Next year we will try a different trellis system/place in the garden/watering amount, etc and it will finally work. I could go on but you get the idea and if you love gardening you probably do this to. This used to drive my hubby crazy but thanks to this book, now he just chuckles at me and says "I know, I know...optimism over experience."

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then aren't all gardeners insane? No because we do try different things to fix the problems we've encountered. But as Mr. Alexander points out, for some reason we just forget all the bad stuff, or rather, don't forget it but give it less weight in our minds and instead seem to focus only on all the ways that our garden will be better next year. Given how much effort it takes to keep a garden going, especially an organic one where everything is grown from seed in a community garden that is hyper pest infested, this is probably what gives us (me and hubby) the mental energy to do this year after year. It is a little mental sabbatical that gets us ready to throw all our physical energy into the endeavor one more time. 

This matters this year especially because for me, this was a very frustrating gardening year. I was hugely pregnant and then had a newborn for most of the gardening season and had to leave all actual garden work to my husband, living vicariously through him. Sure I contributed a little, making seed tape, planting lists & diagrams, and diagnosing plant problems via cell phone pictures but it's just not the same thing. This experience could have put me off the whole gardening thing altogether. But remarkably, all that is already forgotten and my mind is already in that dream garden....of next year. 

Definitely read "The $64 Tomato" if you get a chance because it is definitely one of the best gardening narrative books I've read in a while.  

I should add as a disclaimer that some people found parts of this book offensive from an animal rights point of view because of how he deals with deer, opossums, woodchucks and other critters invading his garden (based on a quick skim through amazon reviews). I'm not going to judge him because I haven't gardened where he has and for people who are able to never use a pesticide and can live in harmony with their unwanted visitors, good on you. But some of us are in absolute wars in our gardens and sometimes extreme measures can be necessary if you want to feed yourself. Not saying I condone all the stuff he does in the book (re: opossum), but it happens.

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