Money Lessons from My Garden

My GardenWhile I’m a far cry from an expert gardener, it’s been a hobby of mine since I was little. And it’s always been a family affair. I can’t ever recall a summer where my dad and I weren’t trying our hands at a tomato plant or twelve. Not to mention the ill-fated encounter with a pumpkin vine and his riding lawn mower. When I was even younger, my grandma taught me how to grow moss roses from seed and then harvest them for seeds for next year’s gardens. Then there’s my mom. She has a remarkable eye and knack for landscaping that I wouldn’t put it past her to retire a second time and start working for a gardening center. Now that Mr. P and I have been living in our home for three years, he’s been roped into the gardening mix as well. We’ve had our share of successes and failures, but he’s equally enthusiastic about gardening.

While I still can’t really explain the difference between a brandywine or a beefsteak tomato, I can say that there are quite a few parallels between starting seeds and planting pennies. Here’s what my garden has taught me:

Spend money to save money. This year, Mr. P bought me a rain barrel and a composter for my birthday. While the upfront cost was a bit hefty, our water bill is out of control year round. We don’t water our grass (much to his chagrin), but we do water our garden during long stretches of dry days. So, I was more than eager for a chance to slash away at that cost. The same is true for the wire fencing we have used around the garden for the past three summers. We could have taken our chances with the raised beds alone, but buying new plants or trying to re-grow seeds in the middle of summer seemed frustrating and not very cost effective. Since we’ll have the barrel, the composter, and the fencing for years to come, I do think we’ll save some money in the long run.

And this isn’t unique to gardening. In fact, spending more to save applies to nearly all facets of life. Whether it is making your home more energy efficient or spending a bit more on a product that will last a lot longer, there are times when paying a higher cost up front allows you to reap rewards long into the future.  

Spend money NOT to save money. I laugh when people tell me they garden to save money on groceries. While it’s true that the grocery line item in your budget might be less during the summer months, setting up or maintaining a garden isn’t exactly cheap. In addition to the initial cost of materials to build raised beds, to cage or stake plants, and to tend to your garden, there are other ongoing costs, like time. Last summer, I brought my dad a tomato from my garden and he remarked, “This is the best $10 tomato I ever tasted!” Truth be told, even organic produce is affordable when crops are in season. So I probably could purchase some, if not all, of my homegrown veggies from the farmers market or grocery store. But I like gardening. Maybe I read one too many Laura Ingalls Wilder books growing up, but I enjoy the fresh air, the sunshine, and the fact that I can create something so delicious out of a teeny tiny speck that once was a seed.

And this is true for many things. When it comes to spending money, it isn’t always to reduce costs or to save for the future. Sometimes, you spend money on things or experiences that bring you fulfillment or add utility to your life. And that’s OK.

Work with the future in mind. Just like in finances, scarcity is scary. If you’re going to take the time to garden — whether you plan on harvesting the crops or simply enjoying their beauty — no one wants to feel like their garden failed and a season was wasted. I understand. However, it is vital to resist the urge to overcompensate. When you put that tomato seedling or hosta in the ground, it is tiny. But plants grow. And they compete for space and sunlight and nutrients. There’s nothing more self sabotaging than not envisioning what your garden will look like in a month, a season, or a year.

The same is true for money. It might not look like enough in an account. But if you don’t spread your dollars around into emergency funds, investment accounts, AND other options, you’re only hurting yourself in the long run. Just like plants, money grows over time.

Know what you’ve started. What color bloom will show up on the bulb you planted last fall? Are you growing green beans or wax beans? Where did you put your seedlings and what is the prospective yield or height? As tempting as it may be to open several seed packets and let Mother Nature do her thing, you’ll reap many more benefits if you’re clear on what you’ve planted.

Ditto for your money. Tempting as it may to be leave money in an account because it’s the same bank the rest of your family uses or continue using the same credit card because it’s a hassle to get a new one, you could be leaving money on the table if you’re not mindful of your account benefits or why you opened them in the first place.

Take a step back. Earlier in the summer, one of my tomato plants started to wilt when the mercury hit 95. I knew Mr. P watered the plants earlier that morning, but I immediately put the hose on the root base and let the cool water cascade through the mulch for a good five minutes, effectively drowning my poor plant. I’d like to tell you that I didn’t have a repeat experience with three of my cucumber plants, but I’d be lying. Yes, you should tend your garden. Yes, you should pay attention to your plants. But you should also trust that they can do their thing, even during difficult conditions. Sometimes the best advice is to do nothing besides observe.

And if that isn’t also the best lesson I’ve ever learned about investments, I don’t know what is. Some days, the markets will look fantastic. Other days or weeks or months, there will be lots of red. But just like it rarely makes sense to rip out a plant or douse it with extra water, sometimes you just have to keep your hands to yourself and let the market do its thing.

So Tell Me…What kind of gardening are you doing this summer? What sorts of lessons has nature taught you?


Money Lessons from My Garden

36 thoughts on “Money Lessons from My Garden

  1. I love the fact he got you a rain barrel and composter for your birthday! (Take note – the spell check doesn’t like composter! Maybe that is because not enough people use them!!) They are so practical but they make so much sense! Your analogies are all terrific too! We sat outside last night and just enjoyed the quiet and still evening. The colors of the sky were incredible and we just sat back and chatted about all we have. We can’t take each other for granted or take nature for granted either. Now we are off to kayak in a beautiful lake! Leaving no trace behind…

    1. Hooray for kayaking on a Wednesday! How fantastic is that, Vicki? I think if you savor your yard and spend time caring for it, you definitely get a lot out of it. Gardening with my parents helped me understand that from a young age. I have friends in their late 20s and early 30s who are just figuring it out!

  2. We have tried growing things in our yard. Jon gave me 6 apple trees (and a pear tree) for Mother’s Day. Unfortunately, unless we keep plants in pots on our patio, the deer eat them to the ground, even trees. So mostly, I grow herbs on the patio.

    We may try fruit trees again next year with some fencing to keep the critters out. But I think we’ve learned that we have to do a better job of planning to protect our assets or they will get whittled away.

    1. Which herbs do you grow? I always have basil and cilantro growing inside. I tried oregano from seed but didn’t have much luck. I’m trying again. I also just got started with sweet mint. I would love to do fruit trees, but I’m not sure I would know how to care for them. I am constantly battling deer, too!

        1. I’m thinking I could use mint for a ground cover by my creek! I’ve heard it’ll grow all over and making great cuttings. We shall see. I should try chives. The old owners used them as an animal deterrent in the front yard, and it’s taken me three years to get rid of them. I know they’re hearty!

  3. “Sometimes, you spend money on things or experiences that bring you fulfillment or add utility to your life. And that’s OK.”
    Absolutely! So much better to have a $10 tomato than a $10 movie or french fries. Plus, gardening clears your head and makes your heart sing 🙂

  4. What sorts of lessons has nature taught you? That’s an interesting question that I just started thinking about. I’ve always been a lawn guy. I love the look of a beautiful lawn, and I’m proud to admit that I have the best lawn on the block. Plus, I really enjoy spending time tending to my grass. Call me crazy, but it’s true. Anywho, thinking about all the time, energy, and money I pour into my lawn I’ve realized that my lawn doesn’t produce anything for me. I can’t eat the grass (well, I could but that’s weird not to mention unhealthy if I used synthetic fertilizers). I can’t sell it to others. Yes, a nice lawn gives me a sense of joy and satisfaction, but I can get that from something else like my morning cup of coffee or by going down the street and staring at the beautiful grass in our park. Perhaps I my lot could be used for something else instead of grass, and I’ve considered starting a small garden. Or perhaps I could have a lawn but let it be completely natural (which I am experimenting with this summer). Or maybe a mix of both of those scenarios somehow. I’m totally rambling here because my thoughts aren’t well-developed at all…just stuff I started thinking about. So to answer your question, I think nature is teaching me a ton of lessons right now. The biggest being that I’m constantly evolving.

    1. My husband is exactly the same lawn guy you are! He takes such pride in the shade of green and pops the dandelions out by hand. He was really getting anxious with the lack of rain, but we finally got a few hours of steady rain today. I would love to convert my whole yard to garden (and I might slowly and insidiously be in the process of that?!), but he and our association would probably not like that too much. You’re not rambling at all! Or…I am too. I’m happy we connected on Twitter to chat about all things outside!

  5. I love the parallels between gardening and finances. Definitely something that crosses my mind as I am tending my garden. I started getting more serious about gardening last year and the cost of the raised beds, plus the fence really added up. I was still able to raise about 600 lbs of tasty produce. This year, I’ve expanded and costs are much lower, so we’ll see. I raise all of my plants from seed and I do think it saves us grocery money, but when you factor in the time…well, that’s another story entirely. But I LOVE to garden reap the rewards of the produce for a few months a year, so worth it in my book!

    1. 600 pounds is incredible! I don’t know where we will land with what is actually produced this year. Though, I have one zuke plant that has already given us two yellow zucchini. The other three plants are taking their time. What are your favorite things to plant? I’m always looking for new ideas!

  6. Gardening is a wonderful way to spend your time (and some money). I like the parallels you’ve drawn to finances, especially to work with the future in mind. If you don’t have a plan, whatever you’re doing, you’re very unlikely to reach your goals or accomplish much.

  7. I think it depends on big the garden is. Some people devote a fair number of plants/space to it, so they actually get enough that they then try to foist it off on unsuspecting friends. (No, Sally, no one wants your zucchini!)

    But seriously, I’m glad you enjoy it. It really is kind of cathartic/gratifying. I had a garden up in Seattle but down here I’d have to keep yanking the plants into the shade, so it’d be container gardens all the way. Besides, there are two small dogs that run around, also making a ground garden untenable.

    FYI, if you decide to expand and get more plants in the ground, Mom once did this trick when she was gardening: Cut slits into a soda bottle (the 20 oz/liter ones) and bury it next to a few plants/seeds as you put them in the ground. Then pour the water into the bottle itself. It helps ensure that the water goes straight to the roots rather than blanketing a whole bed with water and worrying about the sun drying a bunch of it out.

    1. Wow! I love that gardening trick. Thanks, Abigail! I was actually think of you and Arizona today. I was out trying to put netting over some lilies that the critters are having a field day with. It was 95 degrees. I can’t even imagine gardening in your heat!

  8. I WISH we had a garden, but the mountains have smacked me hard and reminded me that this is not a good place to grow basically anything other than pine trees. Too much frost, not enough humidity, too many deer, etc. Learned all of that the hard way our first couple years here. And I’m totally guilty of spending way too much on the seeds, plants and products. I did once have a pretty amazingly productive container garden when we lived in the city, so I try to remember that whenever I’m feeling garden-deprived. 🙂

    1. Oooh! What did you grow in containers? This year, my container gardening has been a total accident. Way more seeds took than I imagined, and I couldn’t bring myself to throw the seedlings in the composter. Now I have back up tomatoes, extra herbs, and other things that are sure to outgrow their containers.

  9. I’m a renter and true gardening is not available to me, but I grow some fresh herbs on my front porch. I have mint (love mojitos and granitas) and basil (pesto & caprese) outside. I keep green onions on my window sill and just replace the water. My cooking is a lot better because of it, but I still need to pay attention and ensure my plants don’t receive too much sunlight.

    1. That’s awesome, ZJ. I’m going straight to Google to investigate the granitas idea since we just got a sweet mint plant. Caprese is my favorite salad. I am cheering on my tomato plants. Lots of little green guys, but no salad so far!

  10. Our garden is about double we done in past years. Even still, I am learning that sometimes things outgrow their environment. My squash plant has exploded and has overtaken all the space around it. It reminds me that you can move on from people or things if you have outgrown them.

    1. I love this lesson, Thias. I transplanted one of my zuke plants that was totally getting dwarfed. I hope it takes! I’d love to hear more about what you’re growing.

  11. As I’ve lamented, I am not a good vegetable gardener. Luckily, we have a CSA in our area, so affordable, organic veg isn’t far away. The CSA is cheaper than the grocery store, so we save a bit by being flexible with our choices.

    1. That’s fantastic, Claudia. I’m trying to be my own CSA, but we’ll see how this year goes. I’m starting to get nervous with all the 90+ degree days. And you’re right about being flexible. Eating outside of my comfort zone has introduced me to lots of new produce and makes eating seasonally much easier.

  12. Love this post! When I was a kid my whole family grew most of our vegetables too. I got so sick and tired of eating frozen green beans during the winter that I’m just now, as a 29-year-old, starting to eat them again. 🙂

    I live in an apartment now, so I can’t do gardening like when I was a kid. But I do have a plot in a community garden! It’s about 15’x15′ or so. When I first saw it, I was like, “what the heck can I grow in this mud patch?” thinking back to my childhood days of an acre-sized garden. But I’m actually surprised that I can grow a lot in it. I’m growing some potatoes and onions for the first time ever, as well as the obligatory crap ton of tomatoes.

    Someday I’d like to move back to the country, and I’m not anticipating the cost of building a new garden, esp. fencing and soil. We lived in the woods when I was a kid and my dad had rigged up some kind of motion sensor that would watch over the garden at night and turn on a sprinkler if it detected anything. It worked great; we never had a problem with deer despite being surrounded by them all the time! Maybe I need to figure out how that thing worked and build one myself…

    1. I love the deer watering system. That’s ingenious! Our garden got clobbered by deer twice last year. Now we have twine looped through the very back of our yard by the creek. It seems to be doing the trick; although, if they got some momentum going, they could easily snap it or clear it. Fingers crossed!

  13. My small balcony gets very hot in summer and plants usually do not survive. So, i have a couple of containers inside. Just leafy plants. Tried celery from stack, but didn’t work. Now spring onion in a pot, looks fine.

    1. I tried onion once, but it got so strong on my window sill! I find that I can regrow romaine lettuce and celery if it is organic and I don’t cut it too low. It took a fair amount of trial and error, though!

  14. Herb gardens teach a few good financial lessons as well. I put in sage, lemon balm, chives, thyme and oregano, and now year after year they come back strong. It’s a lot like the 50k of debt we paid off in our early twenties. Or the Roth IRA we starting pouring money into in our mid twenties. Now we are in our 30’s and those choices are still reaping benefits! Right now we are week 5 into a vacation and I just heard a guy at the pool we are hanging out at ask Mr. Mt. what he does for a living. It’s always a bit odd to say, “We are taking a year off of work because we paid off our debt young and saved lots of cash.” =)

      1. Ha! We really need to develop some sort of FI elevator pitch! It comes out super weird and awkward every single time. “Um, we used to do…., but um, now we are taking a year off. Um, we own rentals. Um, we are debt free.” Followed by awkward silence. Outside of the blogging community, being FI in your 30’s is SUPER weird. People just can’t move past the “not working”. I might just start telling people we are self employed. =)

  15. Yay for gardening posts! This year we’re doing the community garden (again!) and trying to improve our home landscaping as well. We’ve had a lot of hits to our gardens, both at home and at the community location. What with early season hail that demolished all our pepper plants and our seriously unfriendly soil around our house that keeps killing plants no matter how much “good soil” we surround them with. After re-buying and re-planting our peppers (shout out to where you aptly warned in your post about how gardening does not necessarily save one money) our community garden SHOULD produce a healthy crop of veggies this year. However it’s starting to look like 5 of the 15 bulbs we’ve planted at home just might not make it.

    While gardening can be both sad and frustrating, our garden has been teaching us patience and forcing us to keep trying new things to get us to our end goals. For instance, this year we put buckets around our tomato plants because last year it seemed to protect others’ from bugs and strong winds. Those buckets saved our tomatoes from the hail this year. As for our home plants, we may have lost 1/3 of our bulbs, but we’ve also learned what the problem is so we can fix it for the next round of plants we get. This is much like our approach to money. We don’t really know what we’re doing. We collectively observe what seems to be working for others, learn from both their successes and mistakes (as well as our own) and keep trucking along. There’s no guarantee we’re going to meet our goals when we plan to, but we ARE determined to try and will continue placing one new bucket at a time until we do 😉

    1. I love this bucket system. Last year, we bought a bird net that we draped over our garden after a deer ravaged it…twice. Now, we have a better system to keep the deer out, but the little critters are eating my Asiatic lilies. So I recently cut the net into strips and wrapped each plant. It’s a never-ending battle, no? But it’s so rewarding!

  16. I just stumbled across this post as I recently wrote one similar. Great points and definitely a lot of similarities between gardening and growing dollars. I think you can save a lot of money by growing high value produce like fruit.. 😉 However, the aesthetic and spiritual benefits of growing food are priceless.

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