The Spiritual Gardener: Where Does Money Come From?

Where does money come from? It certainly doesn’t grow on trees, at least not in my garden.

Drowsing at the beach on a hot August day, far from my steaming late summer garden, my mind turns lazily over a lifetime of work.  The payback for my work in the garden is aesthetic and satisfying, and it makes me wonder about the connection to the work I do outside the garden and the golden link between work and money.

When I was very small, we kids all had piggy banks, and they were the old-fashioned ones that had no rubber plug you could remove to get the money out.  These were serious savings devices: when you put money in there, it was going to stay there until the bank was full and you had to smash it to get your money out.  It was unthinkable, to me, to break our beautiful piggy banks.  You could get some of it out, if you were desperate, by sliding a knife blade into the coin slot and trying to coax some coins out, but never very much or very fast.

Where does money come from? Who knows; it certainly doesn’t grow on trees, at least not in my garden. But bold colors in the later summer garden are like money in the bank, even if they break the rules, like this combination of hot pink, bold orange and crisp white. The heck with color rules; the test should be, if it looks good, it is right.

When we were six years old, each of us was taken in turn to the bank and given a savings account and a record book to keep track of our minuscule savings.  How I treasured that little book, like a greedy Silas Marner, and how I wished the numbers were bigger.  As kids, we would be taken up into the mountains to go fishing, either on day trips or overnight.  If we overnighted, we would stay in rustic, inexpensive cabins.  One of my favorites was Spruce Lodge on Grand Mesa in Colorado, whose gift shop sold souvenirs.  There I bought a small wooden chest carved out of cedar; for years as a boy I kept all my money in this chest, and the fragrant wood gave all my money a strong scent of cedar.  Even today, when I smell the scent of cedar, I am nine years old again, and if money has an odor for me it is surely that: fresh, clean and crisp cedar.

Like many boys of that era, I had a coin collection.  Before 1964, U.S. dimes and quarters were 90% silver, but after that date they were made of metal alloys, and I had an idea that the silver dimes and quarters of my youth would one day be valuable.  So I collected all the ones I could find, just finding them in circulation and retiring them at face value.  Soon I had a huge treasure trove of silver coins.  It was a good idea, as I now know, but once again my lack of discipline and patience undid me.  I had all my (not very considerable) capital tied up in this mania and my capital was anything but patient then. I cashed them all in too, and do not even remember what happened to the proceeds.  I probably bought tropical fish and photography chemicals, as these were my two next great boyhood enthusiasms. My mom was a bit less enthusiastic when she would come home and find the fish in the salad bowl again while I was cleaning their tank. I note to my dismay that even the most recent silver quarters sell for $7.50 per coin, a return of 3,000% on the original investment.  Once again, I had the right idea but not the patience of the long term investor.  Instead, I was a speculator and I got burned for my impatience. Served me right, stupid boy.

Unlike most kids today, kids back then were mad for jobs and would do anything for money.  We got small allowances and our parents “bought” our grades from us.  An A was good for fifty cents, I think a B was 25 cents and anything less than that worthless in the tough marketplace of our family dinner table.  You could not apply for “real” jobs until you were 16, but before that boys did yard work and girls babysat.  Never the other way around.  Our parents paid us fifty cents an hour for work around the house above and beyond our regular duties that earned us our allowances.  We had to fill in a time report for my father to review, just as he did to account for all of his time as a chartered accountant.  In fact, he brought home his office’s time report sheets and we used the same forms he did.  I took all this kind of work I could get, and pretty soon had taken over almost all the yard work at our house and was working for neighbors as well, for the same rate.  Our neighbor, a master gardener, was tapped to go to Pakistan to live for two years and help build some huge irrigation dams there, and he entrusted his entire garden’s care to me (under the supervisory eye of another neighbor).  This responsibility not only gave me my lifetime love of gardening, but also was a great source of money for as young as I then was.

 moneywort,-Hudson-Garden

A great way to invest in your garden affordably is with the pure gold of moneywort (pictured left), which grows vigorously as a tenacious creeper and ground cover, filling in tough spaces and choking out weeds. The suffix “-wort” is a gold old Anglo-Saxon word that just means “plant”. And please join my crusade (or crochet) to pronounce this word right: it rhymes with dirt, not port!

The summer after I turned 16, I got my first real job, with an actual paycheck, as a busboy at our town’s Holiday Inn.  Anybody who has done restaurant work knows what a tough, dirty job that is.  Basically I did what nobody else in the restaurant wanted to do, and the wait staff tipped me stingily.  After a few months of that, I got a better-paying job at the rather fancier Ramada Inn down the street.  The paychecks seemed huge to me, and plus I could eat anything I wanted on the menu (except the lobster, which was strictly forbidden to the kitchen and wait staff) and have all the rum raisin ice cream I could hold, which turned out to be quite a bit that summer and fall.  A definite improvement!  But to this day, if I ever see rum raisin ice cream at an ice cream store, it makes me feel quite ill.

We lived in a riverine, fruit-growing valley, with a micro-climate a lot like Kelowna’s in British Kelowna,  and when the very profitable cash crops were ripe, they needed to be picked and shipped quickly.  Usually this was done by migrant labor, but when that could not be had, the local school kids could get jobs and make good money by working in the fields and orchards.  You could even get out of school for such an important job, but this was hot, hard work.  There is nothing like picking peaches in the century heat of late August and early September, with the irritating peach fuzz filling the air and making your sweaty skin prickle and itch.  You could make more money in the packing shed, but you had to be fast and reliable to get one of those plummy jobs in the shade, and they were much sought after.  Cherries and apricots were better: no peach fuzz and not as messy, bigger trees and more shade.  But tomatoes were the worst: you had to stoop all day in the broiling sun, and the temptation to throw big, juicy, over-ripe and rotten tomatoes at your schoolmates and friends was of course irresistible.  We went home each evening drenched in red gore, disgusting.  But as soon as the migrant laborers showed up, we local kids were all fired and sent packing back to school.

After finishing high school early, I had nine whole months to make money for college, and I set about this with a real purpose.  I worked two jobs most of that winter and made bank!  On weekdays, I worked as an outdoor laborer at an experimental farm associated with Colorado State University.  It was sort of like yard work, and I loved working outside in the fresh air all winter and spring.  Friday night, I would go out with my friends and then work the overnight graveyard shift at the local country and western radio station, KQIL (I would intone in my best imitation of a booming radio voice:  “Radio 1340, the Voice of the Big Valley”), where I read news and weather on air all night and basically baby sat the computer that controlled the automated playlist.  Usually I dozed for a few hours before my shift ended, but I am sure I was not supposed to be asleep on the job, as I was the only one at the station overnight, and I am hoping my old boss, a grouchy Lou Grant-type of old school radio guy, is not reading this.

As soon as I was relieved by the morning DJ, I raced home, wolfed down some breakfast and went skiing with a buddy.  Our deal was, I would ski with him and his family every Saturday and he would ski with me and my family every Sunday.  So I would ski hard all day Saturday, have dinner, then go out with my friends, then work at the radio station again Saturday night, catch a few hours of sleep, then ski hard all day Sunday, come home and go to bed early, before reporting to my weekday job first thing Monday morning.  It was an insane schedule, something only a teenager would have the stamina for, but I loved it and getting two paychecks was a dream come true.

That summer, I moved up to a better paying job, but the reason it was better paying was that it was much harder.  Funny how that works.  The biggest business in the town I grew up in was the headquarters of a very large regional grocery store chain.  And in our town a major employer was the huge central warehouse that stocked all these grocery stores across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.  Deep in the heart of this huge warehouse was the frozen food locker, basically a vast walk-in freezer kept at zero degrees even when it was a hundred degrees outside.  I was one of the half dozen guys who loaded palettes with frozen food all day, moving them around on electric forklift carts and loading them onto refrigerated freezer trucks, “reefers”, which would then take them to the stores.  Every item was numbered and we had clipboards thick with order sheets for what each store needed.  Round and round the all the tall racks we went, filling the orders for everything from frozen pizzas to ice cream. Of course, we had to wear huge, padded space suits to work all day in the extreme cold, with felt boots and heavy gloves and hats.  It was brutal work, and I loved it.  What I loved most about it though was the money, a real grown-up’s salary for the first time.

I don’t want to sound like an old-timer that had to ride a burro 20 miles to school each day, but I didn’t have the use of a car at this time, at least not most days because my older brother was using it, so I would ride my 10-speed four miles to work in the cool of the morning, work like hell all morning, bicycle to a park and eat my lunch while reading (I was on a Hemingway binge at the time, as I recall), then go back for the afternoon and work like hell in the freezing cold, then bicycle home often in the century heat that was common in August and, of course and as is typical of boyhood hardship stories like this, it was definitely uphill on the homeward leg.  Brutal.

But to me this wasn’t a hardship at all, I loved it.  I loved the hard work and I loved the good money; this wasn’t a boy’s job, this was a man’s job.  Not that I wanted to do it for a lifetime, but it was great for a summer.  I was fit as hell and made a packet.  And that Christmas, when I came home from college for the holiday break, I signed on to work again, but the only job they had open then was the really hard one of unloading boxcars.  Before I had worked to get the food out of the warehouse; now I was working to get it in.  When they would break the seal on the boxcar and yank the big sliding doors open, the heavy boxes would be stacked all the way to the ceiling and all the way to the front and back of the car.  Do you know how many heavy boxes of canned vegetables it takes to fill a freight car?  Let me tell you, it is a lot.  By the morning, the car would be empty and so would I, I could hardly move.

More serious jobs followed my university career, in the usual way, and I spent many years in government posts and working with a series of very famous and entrepreneurial cable moguls and media billionaires.  While each subsequent job was harder intellectually, every one has been easier physically than the jobs of my youth.  Work was always stimulating for me but I realize now that I am a simple man at heart.   Perhaps I am even simple-minded as my children suggest, but find I am happiest  doing physical work in my muddy, sweaty gardening jeans and tee shirt, planting or weeding, deadheading or watering, on a hot August day with the garden flourishing.  Or, perhaps even better, dozing at the beach, intermittently reflecting on the boy inside me who collected old silver coins and had no notion of the gardener-businessman he was to become.

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David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at www.TheGardenInterior.com. You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.