Reflections on Gardening

What price glory asks this one-time Wall Street trader–cum–urban gardener.

“There’s nothing better than eating vegetables you grow yourself.” Actually, many things are far better, and this tired saw refers more to homegrown taste than to economy and satisfaction in gardening. Of course, with the next Great Depression looming, the idea of producing your own comestibles might regain currency. Nonetheless, I decided to test the assertion, experience having proven the DIY mania vastly overrated.

What got me started was basil. A couple of summers past, it seemed every time I wanted to eat or cook a dish that required the herb, I had to get in the car and buy a bunch at the market. I figured it would be easy to grow, so I rolled down to the nursery and selected a half-dozen big, healthy-looking plants. I also picked up a small bag of fertilizer and merrily dug them into the border at the back of the house along the kitchen terrace. My $50 of basil did wonderfully, and I used it at least 10 or 15 times that summer. Admittedly, it tasted pretty much like the basil in clear plastic sheaths I bought at the Food Emporium.

As frost approached I gamely collected all the remaining basil leaves, got myself some oil and pine nuts, and whipped up a batch of pesto, which still sits in the freezer, just waiting for inspiration to strike. Of course, it’s enough pesto for 15,000 servings of pasta.

My basil experiment having been modestly successful, I decided to branch out the next summer and actually grow tomatoes. I sectioned off a sunny area behind the garage, got out the gas-powered tiller I’d just bought, and blasted away for about an hour. My wife had tipped one of the hands at her stable to drop off a 30-gallon trash can full of composted horse manure. Understand, these were not the droppings of mere plow horses. What I had was the by-product of a dozen carefully bred six-figure hunter-jumpers, whose diet and exercise regimens rivaled those of Olympic athletes. Their food, medical, and shoe budgets could have been rung up at Per Se, Mayo Clinic, and Jimmy Choo. I took this precious fermentation and worked it into the soil, using a beautifully balanced garden fork from Smith & Hawken. With the soil prepped, I brought in the team from the sprinkler company and had them add a zone to the system so that my plants would never be thirsty. They recommended underground drip irrigation, as pioneered by Israeli agriculturalists, and the charge came to a modest $1,200.

With everything ready, I planned out my selection of edibles. Not owning a greenhouse or having the kind of patience required to plant seeds, I again motored down to the nursery and selected a handsome array of heirloom tomato plants with evocative names—Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Fordhook, and, my personal favorite, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter—each costing about $25 to $35. They looked vigorous, with spiky white accents on their thick green stalks. I picked up more basil and other herbs in flats and decided some peas would be great, along with a few heads of lettuce. The prospect of picking sweet blackberries led me to an unruly bush that seemed a bargain for its size. The plantsman recommended some organic fish-and-algae fertilizer and reminded me I would need stakes for the tomato plants and some sort of trellis for the pea vines. I also bought rolls of plastic fabric mulch, which I planned to carefully lay over my growing space to keep down weeds. Happy with a bill in the mid-hundreds, off I went for a pleasant afternoon on my hands and knees, digging in the new plants. Two hours later, sweaty, dirty, and with the beginning twinges of muscle spasms in my lower back, I was about halfway done. I went back to the store for some goatskin gloves, a kneeling pad, and a couple of new trowels. Soon enough, my little plot was dotted with plants, the black plastic covered with a thick layer of bark mulch, the subterranean irrigation system percolating away. Satisfied with my day’s work, I retired for a bath and two Vicodin, a farmer’s best friends.

In the morning I was aghast to see a large puddle surrounding my pea shoots. A quick call turned up the sprinkler man who, after I removed my mulch, plastic, and about ten plants, discovered I had nicked the tubing with the trowel. A 50-cent coupling and some glue fixed that, and a mere 45 minutes of work had my plants back in the ground. Of course, the repair visit carried a $120 minimum, plus a $5 fuel surcharge and sales tax. Everything seemed fine, and I set the timer to water every morning and promptly got on with my life.

Within a week I noted that my lettuces were shrinking rather than growing. “Bunnies,” was my wife’s verdict. I now confronted the bane of gardeners everywhere. Pests require fences. Fences are ugly. After some consideration we decided for a simple, rustic version. Once again I motored to the store for a supply of stakes and a roll of what they call “hardware cloth,” aka wire mesh. A peek at a gardening text had warned me it would be necessary to bury several inches of the mesh to keep rodents from burrowing into my treasure trove. I also noticed an “earth auger” bit for a power drill, an outsize thing for digging small post holes or planting bulbs. Some extra ammo for the staple gun, and I was good to go. The stiff and bristly wire mesh was not exactly easy to work with, but a couple of hours and only an ounce or two of blood later, I had a virtual Stalag 17. I had also picked up fiberglass trellises for my pea vines, which were getting ambitious, and a handful of nifty-looking towers for the tomato plants, which had started to sprout flowers and seemed to be growing a foot every day. The earth auger made installing them a snap. From a distance it now seemed my herbaceous gulag even had guard towers. A few days later I was out for a drive and had to stop to gape at Martha Stewart’s greenhouse complex just up the road, a veritable city of matched structures that appeared fully attended by an army of workers—absolutely perfect and unimaginably expensive.

Late in the summer I plucked a large specimen from the Brandywine vine. It had great weight and heft and looked beautiful as I sliced it. I found only a couple of small white worms, which were readily dispatched with the knife tip. The tomato could have used a few more days in the sun, but I got the general idea. Three weeks later I had so many red, yellow, and purple fruits that we were eating them at every meal and started giving them to anyone who stopped by. I made a couple of gallons of tomato sauce and froze it. Then the peas came in, but the two big vines barely produced enough for two dinners. My lettuces were fine, if a bit dirty, and I simply picked leaves as needed. The blackberries never became sweet, and I left them to rot on the vine. The basil and thyme were useful, but how much tarragon can one use in a summer?

Finally I decided to tally it up and judge my product. All told, I had spent well over $3,000 to carve out my victory garden. Plus the tiller and tools, which I counted as capital items, not expensed. I had figured out how to repair the irrigation tubing myself and saved $375 in bills for the inevitable breaks. I allowed a $100 credit for herb packets from the grocer and $10 a week for lettuce. The berries and peas I wrote off. My labor came free. A little long division proved I had paid approximately $75 per pound for the tomatoes that came from my garden (of which we had consumed maybe 15 percent). I could only imagine what Martha’s perfect specimens must have run—at least she can actually deduct hers! But the ultimate verdict came from my taste test. I took my best tomato, a big, gnarled, multihued beast, and tasted it next to a fruit purchased from the local organic farmers’ market and an Eli & Ali’s heirloom variety obtained at the Food Emporium. All were left to warm in the sun. My homegrown held its own—I would say it was definitely better than the store-bought one, and just about as good as the local farmer’s effort. What this proved to me was that, at least in the world of gardening, it is indeed better to rent than to own.

Mike Offit spent over two decades on Wall street, during which he was Head Commercial Mortgage Trader at Goldman Sachs.