Have you read the book, “The $64 Tomato,” by William Alexander? It’s the humorous story of a gardener whose cost-benefit analysis of his new garden, where just about everything went wrong, indicated that each tomato cost him $64. I’ve read the book twice, just for the chuckles and smiles.
Maybe one of the reasons I enjoy the book is that I’m just the opposite kind of gardener—the frugal gardener who tries to garden wisely without threatening family finances with a bankruptcy filing.
Let me tell you, for example, about my irrigation system for tomatoes. The cost: $0.00. That’s right, zero. I haven’t spent a penny out of pocket as my system has evolved over the last several growing seasons.
I started my experiment in 2007 using gallon milk jugs. Since Ellen and I don’t drink gallons of milk, I phoned a neighbor with three active boys and asked if she would save me a few empty jugs. Almost as if by magic, I had more plastic jugs than I could use.
I drilled quarter-inch holes in the bottom of each jug with my old electric drill and a bit and cut off the tops to make a good-size opening for hosing in water.
I pretty much buried each jug up to its top between two tomato plants and then mulched the bed with newspaper and straw as usual. That system worked well but was limited by the size of the jugs. Larger containers would hold more water for the plants and would be easier and take less time to fill, I reasoned.
In 2008 my brother donated a stack of 5-gallon buckets. I drilled five half-inch holes (actually 15/32”) in the bottom of each. The larger volume of the buckets let me place them strategically among the plants. For instance, I installed one bucket in the center of a square formed by four Celebrity tomato plants. That worked well, but the improved soil in our garden drank in the water so quickly that I seldom filled most of the buckets. And such huge buckets really were “overkill” for watering small numbers of plants.
This year my brother gave me a stack of medium buckets—probably about 2½ gallons or so. This time I drilled four half-inch holes in the bottom of each and have placed six of them strategically among 22 plants so each bucket serves three or four plants.
My simple system puts the water three to four inches under the mulch, where tomato roots await their needed “inch a week” of water. The six buckets I’m using this year shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to fill, and since I’m filling containers, I’m not splattering bare soil with disease pathogens onto the tomato leaves. And after October’s frosts, my simple system is totally recyclable if I’m too lazy to swab down the buckets with a mild bleach solution and store them for next year.
With holes ranging from a quarter to a half inch, my system really doesn’t “drip.” I suppose “ooze” is a better word. And is it really a “system” if the jugs aren’t connected except by a gardener hosing in water? Technicalities, technicalities, technicalities. But it works.
Your garden may be almost a mud hole today, but by early August your tomatoes likely will be shouting, “Water, please!”
If you’ve smiled or nodded knowingly as you read this, you probably are a frugal gardener too. So save-a-buck by being creative. Start collecting jugs or buckets to install this simple irrigation system in your garden.
Could be your tomato will cost only 64¢.