Friday, October 10, 2008

Investing in the Yard

Lots of people are probably reconsidering their investment strategies this week, as the DowJonesIndex has dropped so dramatically. At the close of trading yesterday, the Dow was at 8579.19; exactly one year ago, it had been at 14164.53. This is a drop of more than 39%. Yikes! Needless to say, we have been concerned about our retirement “savings,” which, like so many people’s are 401k-like and include a big dose of the stock market. Those accounts are pretty well stuck due to our employers’ limited offerings, so there isn’t much we can do about them, but we have been thinking about planting more food as an addition to our other plans.

Years and years ago, we planted blueberry bushes, raspberry canes, and three wild plum trees in our yard. This has turned out to be a great investment because these plants have been giving us fruit for years. We aren’t going to retire on our berries and plums, of course, but, like Ben Franklin said, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” As a result of having those (and other) fruiting plants in our yard, for a few months every summer we don’t have to buy fruit at the store in order to have fruit to eat every day. In addition, we have some fruit in the freezer and in jars for the winter. In a house full of boys, this supply of fruit saves a heck of a lot of pennies.

This gardening investment has required my having a “buy and hold” attitude. Like all gardeners, I’ve had to be patient. Most cane fruits, the raspberries and blackberries, require a full year to start providing berries, bush fruits may take two or three years to produce, and trees can take longer. The speedier results from the cane fruits helped me, early on, to stand firm in the commitment to perennial fruit rather than rely only on the regular, annual garden for our yard-food.

In addition, just as in the real stock market (where a portfolio heavy in the financial sector would have been a disaster over the last few weeks) a diversified fruit portfolio is important to good and consistent yields. In 2007, when we had a freakishly late hard freeze, we didn’t get any plums but still had some later-fruiting blueberries(overall yields were down about 50%) and plenty of raspberries. Having more than one kind of fruit can help insure that, even in a bad year, the yard provides some fruit.

Since planting those first fruits, we’ve added more.

About seven years ago:
A Brown Turkey Fig, which gives us some, but not abundant, figs, because it is in too much shade
A Concord Grape vine –a muscadine would have been smarter for the South, but my great grandfather grew Concord grapes in Claremore, Oklahoma, so this was too hard to pass up; this year it gave us a few weeks of grapes pretty steadily, though not superabundantly

Six years ago:
Three Colonnade Apple trees (from Stark Bros.) which, I think, just this year may have broken even in terms of fruit produced versus initial cost

Three years ago:
A Hardy Kiwi, which finally produced a couple of kiwis this year

Two years ago:
Two bush sour cherries that I started from seed –these are growing in pots
Two Jostaberries
One dwarf Juneberry that already died

Last year:
An Asian Persimmon that died in the late freeze
A Key Lime that is in a pot and has to over-winter in the house; it is currently bearing nine little limes

This year:
Four thornless blackberry canes
Another Asian Persimmon, because I am determined to have these
Rhubarb, which is fruity in flavor but not fruit, I know, and a gamble for a zone 7b/8 garden, but I’m a dreamer…

For a few years, long ago, I had Alpine Strawberries growing in the yard. The flavor was great, even though the yield in terms of total weight of fruit per plant was extremely low. Every time someone asks why I don’t grow strawberries, I remember that slugs and snails seem to like strawberries even more than I do. I may try regular strawberries in another year or two, but for now I am still thumbing through the catalogues and talking to my gardening friends to decide whether to add another fruit this year. Fall can be a good season for planting!

Not all of my fruit investments have paid off as well as the blueberries, and some—the dead Juneberry, the first Asian Persimmon, and a cranberry that has spread but not produced fruit, and I can’t remember when I bought it— have been a total bust, but overall, the return on my fruit investment has been good. Some people may be averse to the additional work each year of trimming out old wood and amending the soil, but wading through those annual reports for stocks and mutual funds and then worrying about a crashing economy is, in my view, much more annoying.

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