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.
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.
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.