Natural Perspectives: Murray, Murray, how much did your garden cost?

Somewhere I read that a person can grow a year's worth of produce for a family of four for $64 in seeds. I don't believe that for a second. My garden is a hole in the ground into which I pour money. With the new Huntington Beach Community Garden well underway, my outlay of cash has reached ridiculous levels.

I think that William Alexander is more on the mark. He wrote "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." After hiring a landscaper and spending a small fortune putting in a new garden, Alexander calculated that each tomato cost him $64. Ah, but he was battling deer, groundhogs and a bevy of bugs. Surely Vic and I could grow produce more economically than that at our new plot at the community garden, where there are no deer or groundhogs.

Or could we? The cost of leasing our 15-by-20-foot plot was $100 per year, with a $100 deposit. But that was only the beginning.

I chose a plot near the front gate, and my friend Judi Smith got the plot next to mine. Judi thought I was nuts because the plots in that area had been built over a former gravel parking lot. I thought that the gravel was going to be removed before we got our plots. I was wrong.

For those of us who were trying to grow a garden in a former parking lot, the technique of choice seemed to be to rototill the ground, and then shovel the gravel and dirt onto a homemade screen sieve to separate out the rocks. That looked like really hard work, so Judi and I hired someone for $75.

I wanted raised beds because gardening at ground level is hard on my old knees. And besides, the raised bed approach allows me to use the modern square-foot gardening technique. I bought redwood lumber because I wanted my beds to last. The redwood and metal corner braces were $110. The labor was free because Vic built the beds.

In another nod to my age and arthritis, I wanted a bench to sit and rest on between gardening bouts. Add $150 for a plastic bench with storage under the seat. Into the storage space I put a folding, padded kneeler, another essential for gardeners with bad knees. Add $52 for the folding kneeler, and about $30 for a watering can and a nifty long-handled nozzle to attach to the hose.

After the rocks were sifted out of the top 8 inches of my plot, all I had left was a layer of dust over compacted clay and gravel. Nothing was going to grow in that. I imported bag after bag of planting compost, redwood compost and steer manure and dug it in. Several days and $300 later, I had filled my beds. I was finally ready to begin gardening.

Judi and I joked about all the money we were spending on our gardens. It was becoming ludicrous. But by then, my grip on my wallet had become entirely undone. I got out my Gardener's Supply Co. catalog and ordered beautiful black metal trellises, plus sturdy galvanized-wire bean towers, pea fencing and cucumber trellises. The tab came to $400.

I planted marigolds to repel deleterious insects and alyssum to attract beneficial ones. I put in transplants of bell peppers, eggplants and tomatoes. I had ordered 100 onion starts last September when I thought that we were going to get our garden within the next month or so. The onions dried out over the winter. By the time I got them into the ground, a quarter of the starts were dead. Judi gave me three yellow squash plants. I watered everything and left for a few days.

Shades of Alexander and his deer and groundhogs! When I came back, I found that rabbits had eaten my eggplants down to the ground. The leaves of my peppers had been chewed. The tender tomato shoots were nibbled down to nubs. But apparently rabbits don't like onions or squash; those were fine.

Something had to be done about the rabbits. Other gardeners had experienced similar depredation from bunnies and had put in fences. The most popular kind was a 2-foot-high metal rabbit fence, which has small openings at the bottom and larger ones at the top.

I knew that we weren't supposed to have metal fencing because our gardens are under Southern California Edison's power lines, but the rabbits would eat through plastic. I bought vinyl-covered metal rabbit fencing and metal stakes and hired some workers to install it. By then, the dollar signs were beginning to blur in my head, but I think the fencing materials and labor cost $100.

But when all of those metal fences started going up, the folks at Edison reminded everyone that we couldn't have any metal in the gardens. Uh oh, my new metal trellises had already been shipped. I decided to use them in my home garden to replace the saggy string netting on which I grow beans and peas. I was amazed at how much better those trellises made my home garden look. That was the silver lining to the no-metal cloud.

The Edison folks also said that we couldn't have raised beds. That came as a big surprise. As a gesture of good will, Edison gave us until the end of the year to remove the raised beds that so many of us had installed.

Most people took their metal fencing out immediately and replaced it with plastic. One lady found that a bunny had eaten through her plastic fence, dug a burrow in her raised bed and built a nest in it.

I'm still waiting to hear if my vinyl-covered metal fence will be acceptable. I may have to replace it, but I don't know what else we can use that will keep the rabbits out. At this point, I'm thinking what a bargain a $64 tomato would be.

Vic and I are taking next week off to go to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the Photographic Society of Orange County. Our column will be back May 12.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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