The Garden Economy

A recent New York state lottery radio commercial bragged that it is “spending billions to educate millions”.  I did a double take, thinking I misheard.  Both liberals and conservatives should find this inadvertent revelation depressing.  It seems that no one is concerned with productivity anymore, that it has become a “bad word”.  However, gardeners know that you spend a little to get a lot.

In the same vein, the current mortgage crisis shows that the lessons a gardener learns daily have not been absorbed by ordinary citizens and the financial system as a whole.  You have to respect the yield that a piece of land can produce, and you have to know that to overestimate that yield—to gamble—is to risk the farm.  In essence, betting on the distant market (made to seem close through telecommunication technology) underpins the debacle that permeates the home lending industry.

Consider the contrasting garden economy: the productive garden, rather than the reactive market as a metaphor. Begin with the sun, a free and continuous source of cosmic power.  Add the water and earth.  The result is endlessly reproducing plant life. By both recognizing and respecting the ability of plants to use this free power, we can maximize their growth, despite obstacles such as disease and climate variation that nature throws our way.  As it goes with plants, so it goes with human beings. 

Thus, mortgage and home lending operate in similar ways.  By beginning with the “seed” of a mortgage to buy a property, an owner can nurture the property by making prudent additions and renovating along the way.  “Acts of God”, such as flourishing economies or the vagaries of fashion, can impact the property much as rain or winds impact plants, both positively and negatively.

The crux of the current mortgage crisis is that too many homeowners try to force maximum growth out of nothing.  The plant, as it were, does not have room to grow, and the gardener has already promised the entire harvest.  With multiple mortgages in a declining housing market, there is no way that a property owner can gain a yield to feed him, his family and the bank, from the first seed.  Eventually, the house goes to foreclosure, and the homeowner is left without a home for his children.  Any short-term gain that could have come from the deal is now long forgotten.

As the increasingly popular green movement suggests, society should imitate the virtues of nature—in this case productivity—rather than deviate from them.  A society that “spends billions to educate millions” will eventually collapse: educated and broke.  However, a seed is ruthlessly cost effective:  the commonly accepted ratio is about 1:12—every dollar spent on vegetable seed and compost or granular fertilizer yields twelve dollars of incomparably tasty produce.  Let this be a lesson to our economists as well as our educators.  We should be like seeds, nature’s microchip.  Create rather than conserve, save rather than spend, multiply rather than divide.  You will never see a “bail out” for home gardeners.

In the news we often hear that the environmental crisis is influencing, if not determining, public policy.  Yet, in the richest nation on earth, we are blessed with unprecedented natural resources, all based on plant growth.  In addition we have air, water and land so promising that we could, and surely must, create a garden economy for generations to come.  Nevertheless, we panic that environmental and economic catastrophes are closing in on us.  I believe that the reality is the opposite: we shall continue to enjoy an earthly paradise unknown to our ancestors.

It is a matter of investing not only in ourselves, but also in our natural resources, and balancing these divergent investments together—caring for ourselves as we care for our gardens.  Only in this way will our tilth yield the fruit of its labor.  As the American Puritan John Winthrop suggested, we should put ourselves forth, not only as the “shining city on the hill”, but also the shining garden in the sun, one that plants seeds from which future generations will profit.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 at 8:31 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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31 Responses to “The Garden Economy”

  1. Its really an important article. Everybody should realize the importance of our natural resources. As you said “Create rather than conserve, save rather than spend, multiply rather than divide.”

    Thanks for your valuable article.

  2. Chris said:

    Bravo! Good lesson on patience, greed, and the natural order of life.

  3. Cat Rowe said:

    Excellent article. I will pass it along to my
    boss Bill Gross, the bond guru. Thank you most

  4. Bonnie said:

    Thank you for this simple analogy to nature.

  5. JoAnn Holcomb said:

    A recent New York state lottery radio commercial bragged that it is “spending billions to educate millions”. This quote and the comments that followed in your article are not correct for our State of Washington. First of all, the money that comes from our state lottery goes into the general account. I am not a teacher, however, I do know they do not and have never spent anything close to 1/12 of the money available to educate anyone in any state. Please reframe from using these kinds of quotes and developing a whole article on something that is first of all incorrect and misleading. Education has enough difficulty obtaining funds for our children and as a gardener I DO NOT want to read any articles that make the ridiculous comparisons that you made to that one isolated, uneducated statement.

  6. Corinne Baker said:

    THANKS! Raised on the farm, this is soooo true! A very timely and helpful article that I very much appreciate.
    C Baker

  7. PHIL BINACO said:

    Thank you for such a beautiful statement. It was much more than clever, it is very soulful and truthful.

  8. remi said:

    bravo…you get it, many do not. Production is all about seeds, sweat, sun, nurture, patience and luck. And yes, no magical gods (hank paulson, Bernard, et al) can undo the messy greed of unchecked speculation.

  9. Tarah R. said:

    Beautifully written. And thank you for not putting politics in it, but a more important factors: people and life.

  10. Scott King said:

    In response to JoAnn’s comment:

    I think the concept of productivity in education is an extremely important point in increasing our educational standards. The United States, as mentioned in last night’s presidental debates by moderator Bob Schiffert, spends more per capita on educating our students than any other country, but consistantly performs at lower levels than other countries in measures of student achievement. It’s not an issue of funding for eduction (it’s clear that we fund our schools more per capita than any other country) – it’s the results that should count. We need to make sure those dollars are productively and effectively spent – essentially the way gardeners do as pointed out in the blog.

  11. Concetta Sinoradzki said:

    In the “techno” world today of the me, myself and I, it appears we’ve forgotten about the “common good.”

  12. Leesa Rush said:

    Maybe YOU should have ran for president!

  13. Ginger said:

    Thank you for the much needed nudge of reason… and for making me take a look outside at the garden.

  14. Nancy said:

    Very well said. I agree we need to educate our children, but also educate them in “good old fashioned common sense”. Live within your income and be thankful and appeciative that we have a quality of life that is not within reach of many people in the world.

  15. Brian Vaughan said:

    If the original concept were true, that lotto proceeds would go to education, none of us would have to pay school taxes. As everyones knows, it goes into the general fund and is then lost on salaries to unnamed chairmen to unnecessary commitees or to overfunded projects that produce inferior results and come in over budget. Gardening in contrast,is about getting the most out of the least. Every spring we find a new way to make the vegetable garden more productive, and the flowers more beautiful. AND we don’t care who or where we gets our tips from. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of partisan gardening…! This is the crux of our present economical problem. For more years than I can remember, no party will work with the other because of the fear that someone just might have a good idea or see a possible future problem, and they may have to admit it came from the opposition. The great UCLA coach, John Wooden, said “There is no limit to what can be accomplished, if no one cares who gets the credit!” The concept and possible results are disturbingly simple. Forgive my ramblings and have a wonderful day!!!

  16. Kathryn Stillwell Burton said:

    Mr. Ball, you have impressed me, since the wonderful piece you wrote on native/non-native plants,for the Wall Street Journal, a view I agree with 100 percent.

    The biogeographers have long since decided that Asia and America (especially the area of Kamchatka)were of one piece at some time in the past, so what is wrong with buying Cornus Kousa, or the many beautiful trees and plants from that area……….certainly they are not invasive, (unfortunately) It is much ado about nothing as we all know which of the plants are invasive and that category is not limited to imports. I believe it is a power move, but I also believe it is not working and I am glad. Many,many happy years of tending to your garden and helping us, with ours. Thank you for sharing your knowledge through these emails. Kathryn Stillwell Burton, CT

  17. Jane said:


  18. Joan said:

    Absolutely! But Americans have become lazy; many do own a lawn mower. Many are obese.

    Gardening, growing, sharing and feeling the beauty of Nature are wonderful things – almost spiritual.

    Thanks for sending this.

  19. jzr said:

    Unfortunately we need this crisis to bring the masses to their senses. We have grown too lazy, too narcissistic and think the world and the planet owes us. It’s time to get back to the basics of life in the garden!

  20. Marti Olsen-Haworth said:


    With that being said, when gardeners experience a loss, we immediately seek out the explanation and quickly change our pattern. Even if it is just one plant at a time.

  21. christopher said:

    there is a great movie called being there that says just that. treat life like a garden know when to prune and fertilize and water

  22. Kathleen said:

    Very nice analogy and well written. I’d love to link to it.

  23. G. Birkhofer said:

    Well said. I would add, however, that while the seed, sun, earth and water will no doubt provide “endlessly producing plant life”, without the investment of endless labor, the plant life can strangle among the weeds. It is our labor that brings about the most productivity and, consequently, provides the richest harvest. If at any time it is determined that the amount of labor invested isn’t worth the yield, the “gardener” will have to do some serious re-evaluating. Or, using another metaphor, if the gardener sees that all the proceeds of his labor are eaten by the bear, deer, voles, birds,moles and rabbits, he will again re-evaluate. If he decides to give up gardening entirely, the whole community suffers.

  24. LINDA said:


  25. jack said:

    How delightfully grounded and well thought out! I do so enjoy reading your pearls of wisdom.
    Thank you.

  26. Kate Kruesi said:

    Well written, eloquent and relevant essay. However I have to quibble with your understanding of the state lottery marketing jingle math. It is a simple ratio of 1000 to one. I don’t think there is any first world country that can educate a child for less than $1000/student each school year!

    Now I need to find your WSJ article online.

  27. Sheila Duncan said:

    George Ball for President!

  28. Roy McGinnis said:

    What a great, common sense essay. I sometimes think no one else out there is thinking and acting clearly and simply. I agree that we are in trouble because of self-imposed stupidity. Thanks for the words.

  29. Robin Hardman said:

    Wonderful analogy…very wise words!

  30. Cindy said:

    Spending billions to educate millions is a very smart move on the part of our governments. Look at the cost of NOT educating millions. Statistics on high school drop outs prove that the investment in these students’ education pays for itself as their income during their lifetime is drastically increased. The uneducated become a burden on society and REDUCE overall productivity.

    Think of education as a nice organic fertilizer. You may pay a little more for it at the garden center, but it makes your plants flourish without any damaging effects on the environment.

  31. Right On! The more contact that humans have with the earth and how it works the more they will understand the economy of nature. As humans move into major metropolitan areas and cities their contact with nature diminishes. This disconnect has to be bridged for civilization to survive and prosper.

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