Compound returns in the garden: How long-term planning pays off when growing your own food

What do growing home food crops and getting rich have in common? They're both best done slowly!

When many people think of growing their own food, they picture an annual vegetable garden with lush tomatoes, tall stalks of corn, leafy greens, and other salad-bowl crops. These edibles definitely have their place in a home-farming scheme, but I think of them as more of a short-term solution. Effort in the early spring pays off throughout the spring, summer, and fall, but you have to start over each year, not gaining much long-term ground.


Our vegetable garden in summer.

If you really want to reap the compound returns of a home garden, you'll need to expand your thinking to the long-term investment required for trees and other long-lived garden crops.

A patient gardener who plans ahead can start with small, inexpensive plants and let them grow over the long term. If you wait too long, though, you'll have to contribute a lot more to make up for the delay — at least if you want a big enough harvest to do anything with. A fruit tree is the perfect example of a gardening investment that can pay out far more than you put in — if you're willing to be patient for a few years while your investment matures.


A typical berry harvest from mid-July.

A Garden of Wants

When J.D. and I moved into our house seven years ago, the property contained 125 beautiful rose bushes — but not a single edible plant. Well, there are a handful of nut trees, but we never see any nuts. These are hoarded by the thriving squirrel population. (Okay, okay, I realize roses are actually edible, but that's a heck of a lot of rose-petal jelly and rose-hip tea!)

One of the first improvements we made was to even the balance between the “ornamental” garden and the portion of the yard dedicated to productive food crops. To put it into personal finance terms, our garden — heavy on roses, lawn, and flowering shrubs — was all discretionary purchases and instant gratification. Our yard was filled with “wants”.

These plantings, although appreciated for their beauty, needed a lot of upkeep (pruning, mowing, dead-heading) and didn't provide much in the way of useful goods in return. We needed to make some gardening investments that would pay off in the future by adding healthy food to our diets and removing costs from our budget.

Rose ("Gold Medal")
Pretty, but not much of a meal.

Waste Not, Want Not

Our first summer in the house, I labeled all the rose bushes with color information and made a garden diagram showing which roses stayed and which ones were to go. Then, we had a rose-adoption weekend and invited friends and co-workers to come dig. We exchanged some of the rose bushes for horse manure in a Craigslist trade. (We discarded a few sickly plants altogether.) Down to “only” 60 rose bushes, we had now freed room for an herb garden, a vegetable plot, and several blueberry plants.

Our first fall, we took advantage of prime tree-planting time to start our little orchard in the side lawn. Two apple trees, a grafted pear, and an Italian plum later, we had the “bare root” beginnings of our fruit portfolio. These spindly young trees didn't look like much, and we knew it would be several years before they truly began to bear fruit. But in that respect, a gardener must be like a patient investor.

By starting early in our home ownership, we could plant inexpensive small trees and allow time for natural growth. Now, almost seven years later, these trees are providing sizable annual crops for us to enjoy, and we've added two Asian pears and a cherry tree to increase our crop diversity, and to give us harvests through a longer season.

Our first spring, we dug up more areas of lawn to create a trellised grapevine and a caneberry patch. We planted strawberries between the rose bushes in the flower gardens. We were able to keep costs low on these projects because the grape cuttings came from our neighbors, and the strawberry divisions were contributed by friends. (Actually, the strawberries were divided from plants that we had given to these same friends from our previous home's garden. How's that for karma?) To build trellises for our grapes and caneberries, we used lumber donated by the real millionaire next door.

Sod Off
Shoveling Shit
An early investment of time and money pays off in the long run.

The Automated Garden

After our initial investment of money and hard work, we could sit back and watch our garden grow. We give it some annual maintenance (weeding and pruning) and periodic contributions of fertilizer and pest-control, but the upkeep is low in comparison to the return. (And low in comparison to the upkeep required by the rose bushes themselves!) We start with strawberries in May and June, keep eating berries of one kind or another through August, enjoy pears, plums and apples in the fall, and snip away herb dividends all year long. Nothing to plant, little to purchase. These parts of our home garden are almost on auto-pilot.

Some of the garden investments have paid off better than others, just as in our real-life finances.

  • The fruit trees deliver a bonus as they blossom in the spring. They've been both low-maintenance and high yield.
  • But the asparagus patch is only now beginning to be worthwhile (after five years!). J.D. would argue that the asparagus is a liability and ought to be yanked from the garden, but I like the spindly little ferns.
  • The gooseberries, attacked by sawfly larvae and only barely edible, were a bad choice that we decided to uproot.
  • Unexpected growth of the blackberries has crowded out the less-vigorous raspberries. I guess we shouldn't be surprised — this is Oregon, where blackberries grow like weeds.
  • The monster red currant shrub is threatening its blueberry neighbors.

I guess there's some garden portfolio rebalancing in our future.

J.D. and I are reaping the rewards of the gardening choices we made years ago. We dedicated space in the yard to items that had a delayed payoff, knowing that it would be worth it in the long run. Now our garden has both beauty and bounty, and we're relishing the fruits of our labors.

What do you have room for in your yard? How much effort and space do you already give to ornamental plants and grass? Can you make space for a dwarf fruit tree or two? How about some herbs or fruit-bearing bushes? Grow some food! You'll be enjoying the returns and dividends for years to come.

Simon in the Grass
Simon likes to help in the garden.
More about...Food, Frugality, Home & Garden

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retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

We live in a high rise and we have a community garden right down stair. We put really good soil down and that made a huge difference. The vegetable garden grew much better than the poor soil at our old house. We also have some compost bins so we can keep amending the soil each year. That’s probably the most basic thing our community did that made a big difference.

We had a cherry tree, two Asian pears and a fig tree at our old house. I missed those trees…

Erica
Erica
9 years ago

My mind is also turning to gardening. I’m in Massachusetts and currently under 3 feet (?!?!) of snow and wondering what will emerge in the Spring. I live downtown and have one little plot of dirt (3ft x 4ft) and lots of containers in my pretty small bricked in “yard.” I plant annual veggies and herbs each year with mixed results (plus ornamental plants), but never thought of fruit trees or berry bushes. Do you have any experience with blueberries planted in containers?

imelda
imelda
9 years ago

Even for this city-dweller who has never gardened, this post was fascinating. I am drooling at the thought of all that fresh fruit and veggies – and dreaming about a future home where this is possible. And I am crazy envious of your beautiful roses.

Also, I think the comparison of gardening to managing your investments is brilliant, enlightening and intriguing. Well done!

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

We just put in a peach and a mulberry yesterday. That’s added to our pecan and our fig (both of which are too small to beat the various wildlife to the few fruit). There is currently “wild” cilantro everywhere… and I think it’s a different kind than we planted last (it’s a little better than what we had last). Our regular herbs are going crazy. And, for the first time, our replanted Christmas rosemary tree hasn’t died yet.

We keep putting in and losing berry vines. It provides deep sorrow. Somehow the grape vine is still alive.

Mary
Mary
9 years ago

When I returned to living in the country a decade ago I thought I would have a large garden as I had in the past. However, between the hard clay subsoil and the relentless invasives (especially privet and bermuda grass) I went with raised beds and still have a horrible time keeping them maintained. I have some blueberries, asparagus, and I’m replanting blackberries this month (the bermuda grass killed the last ones). Also I plant a lot of annual year-round vegetables. Outside the raised beds I have two thriving fig trees and am planning for a couple of apples tress.… Read more »

Meredith
Meredith
9 years ago

Thank you for this post – as I look out into the 3 foot drifts out there – I can imagine serious dividends in our front yard. I feel warmer already!

Karen
Karen
9 years ago

I’d love to see a photo of the fruit trees. I have a raised veggie garden that does well in summer. I also tried miniature apple trees in huge pots. Got a few apples from one of them for two years before it died, while the other one died straight off!

indio
indio
9 years ago

Kris, so happy to see your post here. In terms of plants that are edible and perennial, you should consider garlic, rhubarb and asparagus. They keep on giving year after to year, though the asparagus will slow down after about 20 yrs – haven’t gotten to that point. I did a lot of work with soil enhancement last Fall, and enriched the soil in my beds and around my peach, pear, apple, cherry and fig trees. Not sure if you know about Brix index. It’s about sugar in the veggie/fruit that shows when it is optimal for picking and how… Read more »

shash
shash
9 years ago

Loved this! Thank you! And, yes– a pic of the fruit trees would be grand. I grew up with a garden which I hated weeding as a child, but now miss. There is a small plot of garden in front of my apt. in the city, but it gets hardly any sun and is often prey to dust and debris from the facades of older buildings, etc. While that means no edibles– I have been working very hard on a shade garden of flowering perennials, various bulbs, ground covers, whatever I can jam in, etc. It is definitely a garden… Read more »

LauraElle
LauraElle
9 years ago

We have to apple and a plum tree and have yet to see any harvest from them.

My son and I do some container gardening, like lettuce in the window box for example.

sarah
sarah
9 years ago

I rent in Chicago, but managed to find a place with a patch of dirt our landlord lets me use for food. I grow all my own veggies and am able to make pickles, diced tomatoes, pesto, tomatillo salsa, etc for the winter. Fruit is something I can only dream of since I don’t plan to be here long enough to reap the rewards of it, but I did plant an apple tree and a blueberry bush, so someone will be able to enjoy some fruit down the line even if it’s not me. On thing that’s definitely paid off… Read more »

Pat S.
Pat S.
9 years ago

Awesome post! Unfortunately, my wife and I are unable to have a garden, since we are renting, but I remember my Dad always growing fresh food, and the biggest bonus of all wasn’t the cost savings, it was the quality of the produce! I’ve never had tomatoes, squash and other produce that tasted as good!
Pat
http://compoundingreturns.blogspot.com

Tazz
Tazz
9 years ago

Omg that cat is adorable! It looks so regal and so in-charge 🙂 Kris, I love what you’re doing to your yard. I live in SE Asia so we have no snow, just sun and rain all year long, which means plants get to live all year round. And I love how gardening can be a bonding exercise between family members and friends, which is what my dad would do (against us kids’ will stimes). He’d plants something then get us kids to help water, fertilize and look after them and I learned so much just from all that. And… Read more »

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

There are more benefits to planting a garden that far out weight the money savings. You are for 3-4 months of the year eating fresh produce that has not been laced with all sorts of additives. This alone is good for your body. Also gardening is hard work also good for the body. Dirt is good for the soul. The satisfaction of putting a little seed in the ground and watching that come to full harvest is such a miracle. Gratitude springs forth when you see the earth’s abundance. Love your post!

Kevin M
Kevin M
9 years ago

We had 17 trees in our backyard when we moved in July 2009 and not one was fruit bearing. After cutting down several so that our yard would actually get some sun we are probably going to put in an apple tree and some blueberry bushes this summer. I also want to get 5-10 containers (5 gallon buckets/soda bottles) going. We still don’t get a lot of sun in the yard and I want them to be mobile.

Pat
Pat
9 years ago

Add to your savings by learning how to preserve these veggies. Many of them, like peas, corn and winter squash freeze quite well. But for green and yellow beans, nothing beats canning. A one time investment in a canner (a pressure cooker will not safely do the job) and some jars will allow you to save the bounty for cold snowy days and it will cut down on your grocery bill.

louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife
louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife
9 years ago

Funnily enough, I’m reading this slumped in a heap – after exhausting myself planting fruit bushes all morning! Last year was our first growing season in our new house so we spent a lot of time getting the (long neglected) beds in order and growing annual veg. This year though, we’ve had to the time to start thinking long term – today, I planted four blackcurrant bushes, two raspberry, two redcurrant, a lingonberry bush & a cranberry bush. A couple of weeks ago, we had a back-breaking weekend planting trees – six apple, two pear. We’ve already got a plum… Read more »

Rich
Rich
9 years ago

One of my favorite posts ever! Love the cheeky references to portfolio rebalancing and dividends.

Right on!

kelsey
kelsey
9 years ago

Awesome post! I’m living in an apartment, so I can’t do anything long term like fruit trees. I am thinking of doing container gardening on my balcony this year – I want to grow some salad greens, herbs, and maybe some squash.

Milly
Milly
9 years ago

My first experience with gardening was amazing and also sobering, even as an apartment dweller who doesn’t have to pay for the water bill. Do you and J.D. figure in the costs of water? I was blown away at how much was used when I choose squash and zucchini, basil and chard as my patio garden choices. Then, there’s the cost of soil, since these are all potted items. It boggled my mind, not just at how much was invested, and the small and hard earned return, but the realization that unless I was a home owner, or had some… Read more »

mom of five
mom of five
9 years ago

We have had excellent luck with tomatoes and snow peas over the last couple of years. I would love to put in a couple of fruit trees, but I’m wondering about pests and pesticides. Do you find you need to spray the trees to keep the bugs away?

RWCook
RWCook
9 years ago

I have done something similar with citrus trees – removing decorative hedges along our back and side fences and replacing with oranges, lemons and limes. In addition to strawberries between the roses I do all of my herbs: thyme, oregano, sage, parsley, chive, margoram. Picked this up from Disneyland of all places. Much of their decorative planting beds are produce.

Trish
Trish
9 years ago

I love the gardening posts! We moved into this house and found hard clay instead of nice dirt (it’s GA, this is no surprise), so I have been working on composting the area that I hope will be fully fertile and ready for a generous vegetable garden next year. Until then, I’ve been container gardening for our veggies, and plant 3-5 fruit trees a year. This year the soil will finally be ready for blueberries. I’ve been downright giddy for two months over planting them next month. I knew moving into this house that we would be spending a lot… Read more »

Leah
Leah
9 years ago

great post! We tried to plant raspberries last year, but I think the area we picked was too shady. We’re in a new place this year, and I think our tulip bed will make a great raspberry location come summer.

I’d love to do more perennials, but we don’t yet own a house, and I’m hesitant to put a lot of investment into a place we will likely leave in a year or two. We currently do a lot of container gardening of annuals and are looking forward to someday doing more.

brokeprofessionals
brokeprofessionals
9 years ago

This was a perfect read because we are (hopefully) going to close on our first house soon and I would love to start a garden…and now I have more ideas about how to go about doing it. I never really thought about the work to production aspect of gardening. My dad is a gardener and always prefers “annuals,” I guess that is why.

Heather
Heather
9 years ago

I would love to be able to grow organic fruit, but the fruits that I like and the fruits that grow in Phoenix are not the same fruits.

I do have plans to plant a veggie garden and an herb garden, though. Haven’t done it yet….

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
9 years ago

Thank you for such a great post! I love the garden project and the analogy in this post to being a patient investor was spot on. Thanks!

Well Heeled Blog
Well Heeled Blog
9 years ago

I would love to have a small garden when I buy a house (fresh fruit sounds amazing). I’d also like to have a small chicken coop with a couple of clucky hens to provide me with a daily supply of pastured eggs. 🙂

But if you work full-time, how do you find the time to garden? It is mostly a weekend pursuit?

NickyLynn
NickyLynn
9 years ago

You two are living my dream life. I cannot wait to quit dreaming and live it myself. Thank you to CNN for leading me to an amazing blog. Usually the links are disappointing. And Muchas Gracias to you for sharing your adventure.

Sustainable PF
Sustainable PF
9 years ago

You are blessed to have so much land to grow a great garden in. We are planning our garden for spring soon so this article will help us a lot – thank you. It’s too bad here in Canada we have such a short growing season so we need to plan really well!

fetu
fetu
9 years ago

Love the idea of strawberries as ground cover for roses. …..but how does it work out? Do the roses and strawberries still produce as well? For some reason, rose gardens always seem to be kept bare on the ground.

Peggy
Peggy
9 years ago

Thanks so much for this post – it is uncannily perfect timing for us. We are currently living overseas in a very cold climate, but will soon travel for a few weeks to a four-season area and I plan to stock up on some seeds and bulbs for our small garden plot. (yes, we can bring seeds and bulbs back with us!). When it finally warms up here, we’ll plant some veggies and flowers in a our small plot which is one of about 14 under a plastic covered ‘green hut’. We’ve done this the past two years and learn… Read more »

krantcents
krantcents
9 years ago

My wife has a garden, but it is mostly a flower garden. We grow some herbs, but there is really no room for vegetables. Instead, we shop at a farmer’s market and get our vegetables year round somewhat inexpensively. I wish we could grow our own!

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

Hey, JD. As a long time reader I was excited to see you made the cover page of tonight’s CNN web page. Very nice!

average joe
average joe
9 years ago

for city dwellers, check out his fire escape garden:

http://www.urbanorganicgardener.com/

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago
Phebe
Phebe
9 years ago

When I was little, we had a peach tree in the front and back yards. Once they start ripening, you need to pick them as soon as possible or else they’ll just fall to the ground and become quite messy. I loved peaches but we just couldn’t pick them fast enough and some were so high up there was no way to get them down. One time my grandmother visited and she picked them while they were still green and pickled them! I know it sounds like a strange combination and I’ve never ever heard of anyone else doing this… Read more »

Amy F
Amy F
9 years ago

Our shady yard is great for avoiding sunscreen while kids play but not great for gardening. I’m learning what will grow in our back garden with maybe 6 hours sunlight and have put as many perennials in as I can — black raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, and asparagus. Last year we put a rain garden in our front yard and included fruit-bearing bushes. We also planted a cherry tree in the front but have only gotten a single cherry each of its first two years (and that was plucked by friends’ kids both times before it was ripe). I’d love to… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

We have a walnut tree that produces every year. We have planted tomatoes, strawberries, basil and parsley with good results. Our blueberry bush never blossomed after 5 years, so we removed it. I have planted cantaloupe, cucumber and carrots without any good results. Our Colorado soil is not balanced and I’m sure the weather has something to do with it. I planted wildflowers and it took 3 years for them to come up. I do keep trying, however!

Tina B.
Tina B.
9 years ago

I really enjoyed this article. It was well written, educational and entertaining. I loved that analogy comparing gardening to investing. I grew up in a,”lets just hire a bobcat and tear it all up and do what we want” and a, “paying a couple of hundred bucks for a mature tree is well worth it” type of family. They get tired of me preaching craigslist and freecycle instead of landfills but with the slowing economy have had to learn some.

Ash
Ash
9 years ago

I always enjoy the gardening articles. Nice analogies and I can’t wait to see what the gardening project looks like this year!

Ru
Ru
9 years ago

You don’t have to be a homeowner to benefit from growing your own food. I picked up a salad kit from Poundland (the UK’s version of a dollar store), which was made up of compost, a tray, and Italian salad seeds.
Seeing as a bag of salad sets me back £1.50 and I never get round to eating it all, I’m looking forward to harvesting cut and come again leaves from my windowsill.

I miss my parent’s garden so much though 🙁

Deb
Deb
9 years ago

This post was nirvana for me, Kris, thank you! 2 yrs ago we moved to a semi rural 4 acres where deer and other garden munching critters rule the land. I had to hang up the gardening tools while I invest for the future by saving for deer fence and gardening supplies. Meanwhile, I’ve invested in several second hand books & have been studying, plotting and planning. Cold frames, heirloom seed harvesting, companion planting, how to care for laying hens…the works! Finally, this summer, the deer fence will go up and we’ll begin our slow soil amendment. I learned a… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
9 years ago

I am a big believer in perennial plants – flowers and edibles. I will not plant a flower that is an annual – I don’t have the time or patience to care for it. As for my vegetable garden – I do a mixture. We have planted many berry bushes (although none have survived or produced, I am still trying though!) and last year planted a cherry tree. We won’t have many cherries for a couple of more years, but I am hopeful that in the long term this will really benefit us.

Shayna
Shayna
9 years ago

This may have been mentioned before, but for renters, I recommend the book McGee and Stuckey’s Bountiful Container.

http://www.amazon.com/McGee-Stuckeys-Bountiful-Container-Vegetables/dp/0761116230

They have all sorts of info on growing herbs, vegetables, fruits and flowers in containers. It’s my bible as I try to put together a garden for the first time. They even have a section on fruit trees in containers, which I think may be of the most interest to people here. Haven’t tried it myself, but I want to.

Andy
Andy
9 years ago

@ Erica (#2) – I’m also in Mass and I would recommend strawberries for container gardening. Fresh strawberries are generally smaller than their store bought cousins but also generally tastier. So yummy.

Matt
Matt
9 years ago

My wife and I recently bought our first house, and the yards are mostly blank slates – a few narrow border gardens with ground covers, and some sort of bush-tree thing in the back. To me, this is excellent! I’m a big fan of edibles – I don’t have an issue with something ornamental, as long as it also feeds someone (and that includes birds, beneficial insects, etc).

Jason
Jason
9 years ago

My wife and I are planning to start a garden this spring. It’s our first attempt at growing things, especially food, and I can’t wait to see how it pans out. I’ve been waiting for the GRS Garden Project for months! Last summer I started by planning out the plot and spent the year dumping compost on the area. In November I borrowed a tiller and got it worked under. Once we get to the US in a few weeks we’ll start some of the early plants indoors and till the plot again. My biggest question is how the crap… Read more »

Annette Campbell
Annette Campbell
9 years ago

Hi Kris, Only thought of ‘long-term investment and food’ in terms of bulk-buying and freezing. Your post is a mind-opener. I have been introduced to quite a few good and fresh ideas just recently. My friend also introduced me to a social network called “SplitStuff” which helps people find neighbors who are interested in bulk buying and splitting expenses to get quality organic food from local farms at wholesale prices. It changes things, and I don’t need to freeze too much food because I can get them fresh regularly. The site can also help people interested in starting or joining… Read more »

kendell
kendell
9 years ago

I agree planning is really worth it and makes gardening a whole lot easier. I’m planning to start planting in spring and I’m looking forward to it.

Last year I grew some lettuce, herbs and salad crops. I’m planning to grow some tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, can’t wait.

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