“Only two things
that money can’t buy,
And that’s true love
and homegrown tomatoes”
— “Homegrown Tomatoes”
by Guy Clark
It’s tomato season in Michigan and I am, indeed, loving my homegrown tomatoes. It’s undeniably true that you can’t purchase homegrown tomatoes, for a very good reason. Why would anyone sell off the delicious, delicious tomatoes they’ve watered, weeded, fertilized and heroically defended from crows since Memorial Day?
As the fruit started turning red last week, I became a tad obsessed with guarding my precious bounty. I knew things had gone too far when I read about an Ohio outfit offering personal flame-throwers for sale and thought, “Hey, nylon netting keeps some birds away, but what I really need is something that shoots a 25-foot column of flaming gasoline!”
While I’ll defend my tomatoes to the death (which, I suppose, is why they call a group of crows “a murder”), I’ll admit that you can get fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes at the farmer’s market that are every bit as good. And, not to be the kind of person who reduces everything to money, but the farmer’s market will give you a much better deal.
Who’s this Pete Moss guy?
Let’s look at the math. All told, between the plants, planters, fertilizer, peat moss (whoever he is) and more, my six plants have cost me $64.51 to get to harvest. At the farmer’s market, Mrs. Funny Money picked up six vine-ripened tomatoes for $4, which comes to 67 cents apiece. To be competitive, my six plants will need to serve up 96 tomatoes. At 16 tomatoes per plant, my produce is really going to have to produce.
If it’s only simple frugality that motivates you to put in a bunch of Better Boys, you’re out of luck, which is something Jennifer Reese, author of “Bake the Bread, Buy the Butter” found applies to much more than vegetables. When she lost her job, Reese, who blogs at TipsyBaker.com, decided to experiment with making most of her own food, from peanut butter to pancetta.
“It’s totally easy, but it costs more to make butter than it did to buy it,” Reese says, “and I don’t even think it was better. You can whip it up and you have butter, but why would you do that unless you had a cow?”
Raising chickens ain’t chicken-feed
Likewise, raising chickens wasn’t economical, but growing your own lettuce is a big bargain as a crop, Reese says, partly because you can cut it and it keeps growing. “Baking bread or bagels, all of that is a really big payoff, she says. “Most cooking projects at home are going to save you money. But baked goods are so much better than what you can buy that I would still make them.”
There is one way to make tomatoes pay off, as demonstrated in the 1930s by M.C. “Radiator Charlie” Byles. An amateur plant breeder, Byles ran a radiator repair shop (hence the nickname). After hours, he cross-bred the seeds of the four biggest tomatoes he could find and, after six years, created a stable plant that produces two- to four-pound beauties.
Byles then sold the seedlings for a $1 each, making enough money to pay off his $6,000 mortgage in six years, and earning his tomato the moniker of “the Mortgage Lifter.”
As for me, I’m just going to enjoy this year’s crop and plant more next year, even if it isn’t the most cost-effective approach to securing vegetables. Besides, winter’s coming and, when it comes to clearing the driveway, I’ll really appreciate buying that flamethrower.
Brian O’Connor is author of the award-winning book, “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”