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Plant Your Seed Capital For a Great Investment return
by John Hershey
by John Hershey

John Hershey is a dad, gardener, writer, and lawyer (in that order). He lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and two young sons.

John's humorous essays on gardening appear in many newspapers and magazines, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, GreenPrints, and Warm Earth (Australia).

February 20, 2011

Psst. . .

Over here. Looking for a safe haven in the economic storm? I've got an investment tip for you, and it's a sure thing. It's recession-proof and produces returns even Bernie Madoff's clients only dreamed of.

Here's the strategy: Invest $3.29 in a package of organic basil seeds. With about 100 seeds in the packet, that's a little over 3 cents per seed.

You also have to spend a little on water and invest some time planting, tending and harvesting. Book that asset as sweat equity.

Basil is a safe investment, but unlike a CD that ties up your money for years, it matures in only about 75 days. A riskier stock buy might give you what, 10 or 15 percent a year? But in less than a fiscal quarter, that seed will grow exponentially. A 3-ounce box of organic basil costs $2.99 at my local market. By a conservative estimate, my seed will become a huge bush with enough basil sprigs to fill about 50 such boxes during the season. So that one $0.03 seed will yield almost $150 worth of organic food, a rate of return of 499,900 percent. And you're still looking for a good mutual fund?

I harvest basil all summer, frantically making as much pesto, tomato soup and mozzarella appetizers as I can. But whole baskets of this gourmet herb inevitably wilt before I can use it. Imagine an investment that yields so much money you have trouble finding ways to spend it all. Gardening literally earns you more than you know what to do with.

Venture capitalists don't call it seed money for nothing. But for them it's a metaphor, which can easily go wrong because the economy isn't as reliably productive as the garden. I take it literally. Invest your seed money in seeds, and success is virtually guaranteed. Don't wait for a bull market. A fast-growing plant, not an animal, should be the symbol of investment success. I'm on a 10-year streak in an unbelievable basil market.

But, you may say, the garden's bounty is transitory. When the winter downturn comes, you can't park your gains in a safe place until the next boom. Oh, but you can! With a little planning, the summer garden will support you year-round in the luxury vegetable lifestyle to which you'll become accustomed.

The best place to safeguard your basil principal is the freezer. Mix it with some olive oil, garlic, walnuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to make batches of pesto, which you can freeze in ice cube trays. Then pop them into freezer bags, and all winter long you'll have a supply of delicious pesto cubes to whip up a quick pasta dinner or a unique martini.

(Just kidding about the martini. That would be really gross.)

And that's just one example. Diversify your portfolio with other high-value crops like tomatoes, along with some carrots and pumpkins to mature over the longer term, and multiply that return by a whole garden or even a few containers on the patio. The payoff is huge. (Don't forget to send me 3 percent of your yield as a commission.) Last year, in a small community garden plot, my investment in a few packets of seeds produced almost 300 pounds of healthy local food with a market value in the thousands of dollars.

That reduction in my grocery bill makes a big difference in tough times. Best of all, this strategy is counter-cyclical, both seasonally and economically. I've been eating big salads of arugula and other cold-tolerant greens all winter. And the garden is a hedge against high prices. Barack Obama even used the price of organic produce as a symbol of economic hardship during the campaign last year: "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they're charging a lot of money for this stuff." But there's an upside: as fresh vegetables become harder to afford at the store, the relative economic value of home-grown food increases.

With a freezer or pantry full of tomatoes, greens, beans and squash, we gardeners can ride out the slump until the next growing season comes. And we're living it up on gourmet pesto, not surviving on mac and cheese.

Food security is only one of the ways gardeners are better positioned to withstand an economic collapse. Gardeners don't mind starting over. We do it every year. When you're used to seeing everything you work for turn into compost, it's easier to take when the same thing happens to your 401(k).

Finally, the simple pleasures of the garden remind us that the things we accumulate during an economic bubble are really not that important. Like many people's these days, my so-called career is at a low point. I can't get laid off, but only because I quit my job to be a work-at-home dad. I'm not successful by our society's standard yardsticks: high salary, big house, fancy car. But with a decade's gains in the stock market suddenly erased, the wealth-avoidance strategies I've been following all these years are starting to look sensible. And thanks largely to my garden and the fresh food I grow, the exercise I get there and elsewhere, the extra time my low-prestige lifestyle gives me with my kids, and the lack of stress in my life, I'm healthier and happier than ever. No recession can take that away.

So I'm not waiting for the federal government. My garden stimulus package, full of basil, tomato and all my other seed capital, will arrive any day in the mail.

And I'm shovel-ready!

To read more garden-variety humor and commentary, visit John's website:

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row