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The pursuit of the perfect garden

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, April 26, 2008

It started with garden “porn.”

It ended with a $64 tomato.

William Alexander, a rational man with a steady job, a lovely wife and two upstanding children was pushed to the edge of madness trying to create a perfect garden.

Fortunately, he chronicled his efforts in a book called “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.”

It’s funny, touching and, most of all, instructive.

Alexander and his family live in Hudson Valley, north of New York City.

His family’s gardening journey started with a plot of land that he didn’t know was his.

“We thought it was the neighbor’s,” Alexander said.

But then they stopped mowing the lawn, and when Alexander asked about it, he was told it was his.

It was an alluring spot—sunny and seductive. Alexander and his wife, Ann, had visions of a perfect garden, one where good design would mesh seamlessly with productivity.

“We got a lot of those large format gardening books—garden porn,” Alexander said.

They planned.

They schemed.

They conspired to create the perfect garden, one rivaling the stunning fecundity of the great Victorian gardens.

They forgot something important:

“Great Victorian gardens had great Victorian gardeners,” Alexander said.

From the beginning, the Alexanders were confronted with nature’s innocent tyrants: Deer, psychotic possums, Japanese beetles, black spot, fungus, wilt, maggots, worms and the woodchucks who were willing to endure jolts from the electric fence for a taste of the Brandywine tomatoes.

In one chapter, he adds up all the expenses and discovers how much he paid for one of his heirloom tomatoes: $64.

Alexander published his book in 2006. Now, photos on his Web site,, show a marvelous landscape, replete with vegetables, fruit trees and flowers.

But he definitely learned the hard way.

Here are a few of his tips for keeping gardening finances under control:

-- “Always obey the rule of 32,” Alexander said. “Things will always take three times as much and take twice as long.”

-- Alexander acknowledged that he’s “not the poster child for organic gardening,” but he’s never bought a bag of fertilizer or used products such as Miracle-Gro.

He gets his fertilizer from his compost pile or from local farmers.

-- If you expect to garden for the long run, perennial vegetables such as strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus are good bargains. For a one-time investment, you can get years of joy.

“If you’re looking for the most for your buck, plant a fruit tree,” Alexander said. “I bought one peach tree, spent $14, and got 200 pounds of peaches this year.”

He acknowledged that fruit trees require work, but the results are wonderful.

Alexander’s book is available at Hedberg and Beloit public libraries, at local bookstores and at

Last updated: 8:54 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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