This is the story of the thousand-dollar tomato.
It all began not with the need for a garden, but for a vacation. The annual mid-summer trip to Maine was a distant dream when I began casting about for something to break up the work months between Christmas and August.
Idly paging through the course catalog of the Omega Institute one icy winter evening, I noticed a mid-May gardening workshop called “Paradise Lot.” I signed up, dreaming of warm, idyllic days in the garden.
But when I arrived at Omega, I discovered that I hadn’t read the catalog very closely: I’d signed up for a workshop in permaculture.
What exactly was that? As someone who has always had a rather temporary relationship with his garden, I thought it sounded awfully, well, permanent.
Workshop leader Eric Toensmeier told us that permaculture is a method of “growing food to meet human needs while improving the health of the ecosystem.” It strives (in part) for the maximum output of food with the minimum addition of external, carbon-intensive elements such as imported soil and fertilizer.
In a time of climate change and dwindling supplies of phosphorous for fertilizer, that sounds like a very good idea.
Eric and his buddy Jonathan Bates met some years ago at the Institute for Social Ecology, in Plainfield, Vt. They ended up sharing a house and gardens in rural western Massachusetts – a beautiful place but one they found was unhappily devoid of eligible young women.
They eventually decided they’d rather do their gardening in a city, where there were more women.
Their goal was to create “an intensively managed, backyard foraging paradise” where they could grow their own salad greens year-round and have fresh homegrown fruit four months of the year. And, as single young men, find girlfriends.
The story of how they succeeded is told in the book Paradise Lot. Like Eric’s other books, it’s put out by Vermont-based Chelsea Green Publishing.
I entered the workshop thinking I’d learn how to grow better tomatoes. I left it with 20 pages of notes, a five-year plan, and my head spinning with Eric’s tales of growing hog peanuts, goumis, Siberian pea shrubs, edible native pawpaw fruits and other exotic plants that, he swore, I could grow in my very own back yard.
After all, Eric and Jonathan had managed to turn a featureless Holyoke, Mass., duplex on a tenth of an acre into a fertile cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, fish, chickens and banana trees. Their place hosts regular garden tours and has been written up in the New York Times.
My house in Cornwall, by comparison, is surrounded by oaks, various weed trees such as buckthorn, and a lawn consisting of clover that, left uncut, would devour the entire house.
Which brings us back to the thousand-dollar tomato.
Like everyone else in Addison County starting from scratch, I realized that our infamous clay soil is not the gardener’s friend.
Clay might be fine for growing corn and hay in established fields that are tilled with heavy machinery. But it’s a small nightmare if all you have is a shovel, a pitchfork, and a bad back.
The Paradise Lotters succeeded in turning their lead-laced construction fill into fertile loam through what’s called “lasagna gardening.” It combines layers of various kinds of compost, newspaper, cardboard and mulch.
But I was starting my growing process on Memorial Day weekend with little lead time and a shorter season.
So I threw permaculture into the compost pile. I reached for my credit card instead.
Researching online, I had read multiple articles about how to construct and garden in raised beds. The process taught me that for every good gardening tip, there is an equal and opposite piece of contradictory advice.
But after I settled on a simple design, I found that our local garden centers and hardware stores gear up for Memorial Day the way a host city gears up for the Super Bowl. They were ready to deliver lumber on the basis of a phone call. They were stocked to abundance with seeds, starts, mulch and ready piles of plantable compost.
Eleven cubic yards and $400 of delivered dirt later, I had the makings of a garden.
Now all I needed was a raised bed in which to put it. Fortunately, I had a partner who was up for the task.
We laid used cardboard boxes and newspaper over the clay. Using a power saw and drill that I hadn’t touched in a decade, we spent Saturday creating two raised beds from $300 of raw spruce, wood screws and metal braces.
I’d purchased boards that were 12 inches wide for the raised beds. That’s a normal-looking depth for such a garden.
But it didn’t seem quite deep enough for my Eric-inspired plans to go big. So I stacked one of the raised beds two feet high. It’s also four feet wide and 12 feet long – making it look, in my partner’s words, “like a raised grave for a giant.”
That gravesite now holds a multitude of vegetable seeds and seedlings. All told, the bill for the weekend’s endeavor approached $1,000.
Which is why the first tomato that comes out of the new garden better taste pretty damn good.
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