I just read a really outlandish proposition written by an aspiring gardener named William Alexander 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.
The author loved growing his own produce and decided he would calculate the total cost of his garden’s output. He calculated that each tomato his garden produced cost $64. You’d think that he was either a bad mathematician or the least green-thumbed gardener out there, but his supposition is a little misleading.
The $64 Tomato Farce
He spent thousands of dollars constructing a garden, building fences to keep out animals, and trying to build what I would consider almost a “mini-farm” to grow his tomatoes. He took gardening seriously and sought high yields. So when he started to fall short of his high yield goals, the garden became an irrational money pit.
How to Avoid The $64 Tomato
Right off the bat, remember that if you are more balanced about your gardening expectations, you can strike thousands of dollars off the expense list that Mr. Alexander incurred. I think this book and experiment are useful in illustrating to everyone about the challenge and the economies of scale of building a farm-let can be if you are inexperienced. The first year may be a bust, but the out-years will pencil better.
If you want to plant a field of tomatoes to feed your family and sell at a local farmer’s market, you may fall into the same trap as Mr. Alexander. But if you use your backyard to supplement your diet, tomatoes are a great choice because this type is especially low maintenance and a low upfront investment cost.
A modest sized tomato plant will cost you about $3 at a local garden store which can yield 20 to 25 pounds of tomatoes. Just recognizing the plants costs, that 12 cents a pound (plus water), maybe 15-20 cents a pound of produce to grow your own.
Or, starting in early February, you can germinate 50 tomato plants from one packet of seeds for about 11 cents for each seed, plus the cost of the germinating soil – about 25 cents a plant. If each of your germinated-from-seed plants yields 25 pounds of tomatoes that a penny per pound. Incredible.
Suppose that your good intentions fail and you become a half-hearted gardener and your plants get only half the potential yield, about 10 pounds of tomatoes. That’s still a savings of over $15 for one plant.
Now tomatoes are easy to grow if you pay attention to a couple of things. It is best to use stakes and strips of old shredded cloth to tie them up and prevent them from falling over and breaking. You also need to be careful that you have excellent drainage as tomatoes are very susceptible to rotting and other diseases that are a result of soggy ground.
Worst of all, you have to contend with squirrels and birds and all other sorts of hungry creatures that will try and get at your plump and juicy tomatoes. However, if you were to plant 5 tomato plants in your backyard or in pots, you’d probably be able to yield at least 20 pounds of tomatoes at the minimum which isn’t too shabby. It saves you money, reduces your carbon footprint because you aren’t consuming vegetables that have been driven hundreds or thousands of miles to you, and you are sure that the vegetables you are consuming haven’t been sprayed with harmful chemicals or pesticides.
You shouldn’t be deterred by experiments like Mr. Alexander’s because when you look a little deeper, his tomatoes were so costly because of his ultimate goal. If you keep your garden more manageable you can have plenty of tomatoes for you and your family while saving yourself money and reducing your carbon footprint.
The carbon footprint reduction comes from the do-it-yourself aspect. There is a considerable amount of embodied energy that goes into the wholesale production of growing tomato plants: warming the greenhouse, transportation then growing the tomatoes and shipping them grown to your market,….this can all be avoided with local production.