Bringing It All Back Home

Once introduced, Americans invariably inquire what business you’re in. While foreigners find the question a bit crass, it’s second nature to us.  The question reflects our work ethic on the one hand, and our democracy on the other: it’s not who you are but what you do that defines you.  We mean business.

When you’re in seeds and plants, as I’ve been most of my life, your profession elicits a striking range of reactions.  Ever a pragmatic breed, gardeners query me about heirloom seed varieties or boast about their bumper crop of Big Boy tomatoes. Teenagers and college kids will offer up a “That’s cool,” and amiably amble off.  That’s cool.

Wall Street high-fliers—investment bankers, brokers and hedge fund profiteers, elaborately upholstered all—tend to regard my business as impossibly outmoded and arcane.  Seeds? Plants? Do I, perhaps, belong to the Flat Earth Society as well?

When I’m at a social function—rare—I invariably find myself chatting with a Wall Street tribe member, replete in tailored suit, collar pin, rep tie and initialed shirt cuffs.  Jared, let’s call him, since that’s always his name, is a player. A pink-cheeked master of the universe fluent in junk bonds, zero-coupon bonds, REITs and interest rate swaps; he knows what business is all about.  His world is one where funds appear from somewhere, go somewhere else, and he pockets the difference.

Seeds clearly have no place in Jared’s business cosmology. Seeds aren’t things, and they aren’t even stylish, prestigious or luxury things.  They make a humble showing in the land of high-end bling. Odd, since in some traditional cultures, they’re used as money; in others, these “botanical eggs” are collected rather like jewels.

Yet, for some reason, a packet of seeds fails to telegraph status and wealth quite as well as a Porsche, a Greenwich estate, a Cartier necklace or a daughter at Brown. In the realm of comestibles, even the rarest of heirloom vegetable seeds lack the impact of a vintage Chateau Talbot, truffle butter or Beluga caviar.

Jared hauls over his pal Nick, attired in the same tribal regalia, though with different initials on his cuff. “Nick, this is George.  He’s in seeds.” They look me up and down, as if I were an exhibit in a natural history museum, their expressions a blend of amusement and disdain. I’m cool with that.

I look them over in turn. Wall Street wheeler-dealers are a curious mix of cockiness and terror. Their eyes dance around, as if always on the outlook for danger. They convey the wariness of fugitives, which they may be some day. I explain to them that seeds are God’s microchips:  miniature devices programmed with information and algorithms to generate life.  This fuddles them for a moment. Are they missing the next big thing? Or am I playing the players?  Again I look them over—more closely this time.

Wall Street players like Jared and Nick would be a worthy subject for anthropological study.  Their wardrobes provide a scaffolding to their worlds of flux and risk. Each element in their costume is a kind of announcement. The collar, a different color from the body of the shirt, declares its collarness. The collar pin indicates, should there be doubt, that the collar is not likely to collapse into confusion.  The suspenders—striped or patterned—provide visible assurance that the gentlemen’s trousers are unlikely to abruptly fall about their knees.

The pocket square adorning the breast pocket—never to be used as a handkerchief—confirms the pocket is there, lest that detail pass you by. The oversized watch, with its dizzying dials and buttons, indicates the wearer is prepared to descend to the deepest depths of the ocean or sail about the galaxy, his watch accurate to the nanosecond. This highly evolved visual grammar lends an outward coherence, ironically, to a profession built on speculation and caprice, where, on any given day, the market can eat you alive.

Wall Street’s big risk takers tend to be men, their fearlessness buoyed by testosterone. Their restlessness, tensile nerves and daring are traits they share with male hunter-gatherers of pre-Agricultural times. In ancient times, the Wall Street adventurer’s  derring-do might have enabled Jared to kill a lion with which to feed the tribe, or, conversely, turned him into a delicious dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Lion and their brood. The fear of the ages runs in his veins, assuaged right now by a quick succession of gin martinis.

I spot a friend across the room, or pretend I do. “Fellows,” I say momentously, as I ready to take my leave. I look each in the eye, and say his name, “Jared. Nick.” (Their monogrammed shirt cuffs prove useful here). “The future belongs to seeds.” Their pink faces flush crimson; they whoop with laughter.

Jared and Nick were, and perhaps remain, first-string players in the New Economy, a playground fueled by easy credit, speculation and other peoples’ money. Seeds rightly appeared to them as the barter of another era. And it’s true, the seed business has changed little in the last 500 years. The major shift in the last century has been the transition of the home garden from a necessity—how you feed the family—to a hobby for some, a passion for others.

A few steps into the 21st century, the role of the home garden has once again changed. Standing in my garden, I can almost hear the stampede of new and rededicated American gardeners. Outfitted in jeans, baseball caps and wellingtons, clutching their trowels, Americans pioneer their new frontier—their backyard garden.

Converging on the home garden is an extraordinary array of trends in tastes, health awareness, lifestyle and demographics—a phenomenon I call a “perfect storm of tipping points”.  The Old Economy is new again.

The major catalyst, is, of course, the economy’s downward spiral. Americans are getting wise to the extraordinary savings they can reap, along with their tomatoes, peppers, green beans and squash.  A home garden delivers reliable and extraordinary returns on your investment, a hundred dollars in seeds producing a harvest that would cost you $2,500 at your supermarket. A 25-to-1 return? Snap my striped suspenders!

In the last 10 years, Americans have grown exquisitely attuned to issues of nutrition and food safety.  Their increasing insistence on food quality—optimally nutritious, fresh, flavorful and safe—is well-founded. The vegetables and fruit bought at the supermarket are picked prematurely, spend weeks in trucks and warehouses exposed to carbon monoxide and other contaminants, and frequently gassed to boost their colors. To purchase supermarket produce is to compromise on flavor, nutrition, texture and safety—while getting a swift kick in the budget.

The local food movement has built upon this kind of new awareness, and farmer’s markets are sprouting across the country. But why go to the farmer’s market when a few steps away is a garden bursting with fresh tomatoes, string beans and watermelons? It doesn’t get more local —or fresher—than this.

And in this world of iPhones, PCs, Twitter, 200 cable channels and over the top home entertainment centers, the garden suddenly appears as something new and delightful: a multidimensional, interactive realm of flavor, nourishment, fragrance, pleasure, beauty, recreation, sanctuary and self-realization.

At first, we are smitten with our glittering new techno-toys, only to relearn that these clever machines cannot provide what we really want—a sense of connection and authenticity. Welcome to the garden: it doesn’t get more real or connected than this.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 21st, 2009 at 3:11 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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49 Responses to “Bringing It All Back Home”

  1. Joanne said:

    George puts it in plain language. It’s a hoot to read his stories!!

  2. Jim said:

    Well put. Apocryphal or not I heard a story of a Wall St. type telling someone who offended him the following….”My pen is worth more than your watch; my watch is worth more than your car; my car is worth more than your house and my house is worth more than you’ll ever earn.” This is the king of unearned arrogance that is best summed up in the phrase “He knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

    Even if $100.00 of seeds only gave me $102.00 worth of food it would be worth it for the time spent growing it and the hours of pure joy I get just looking at my gardens, food producing or not, every morning and evening.

    Thank you for your perspective.

    Jim Weekes

  3. Karen Nettesheim said:

    Well Done !

  4. Sherry said:

    Enjoyed this article very much. I am one of those “passionate gardeners” who lives and loves to garden, but never more than today with the state of the world what it is….
    nothing beats the stress of everyday life more than gardening. It’s the small things that do matter most in life. You can keep your Ferrari’s and your fancy houses and I’ll keep my little plot of earth and remain blissfully happy……

  5. Elaine said:

    Yes, you really do say it like it is and I love it!

  6. Terry Hasaka said:

    What a brilliant and insightful manner of interpreting the value of a seed. I love your descriptive words regarding the business men and their response to you as well as their garb. Maybe you should get into full time journalism? But then-we would miss all of this. You are a man after my own heart-meaning very similar insights. God Bless!

  7. Venessa said:

    I feel sorry for those who live in an apartment, most likely Jared and Nick, who can only have small container gardens! I love my backyard garden for all the reasons you list.

  8. Linda said:

    Bravo! Well said truth, at least for those of us who know the pleasure of a garden and how wonderful the taste of that first tomato can be.

  9. A humorous and insightful post. “Welcome to the garden: it doesn’t get more real or connected than this.” Word!

  10. alice herbert said:

    Do you ever travel to China to bring back buddliea cuttings? They have some spectacular ones.

  11. Sandy said:

    All so very true!

  12. whippet said:

    Laugh-out-loud funny, with some worthy observations.

    I was sobered, however, by a sense that some of us who live closer to the earth need to prove we are *better than* those who consider themselves Masters of the Universe. Why do we need to prove anything? We know the worth of what we do. If they don’t, that’s their loss.

    In the very act of defense, don’t we display our anxiety that maybe *the* are better?

  13. Mary said:

    Amen! Another kindred spirit! I found myself nodding with agreement and laughing out loud. Your way with words is wonderful.

  14. Wick said:

    Nicely done. Has coastal sophistication been redefined?

  15. MARY said:


  16. Kathy said:

    The Jareds and Nicks of this world are not worthy of my time.

  17. Lori said:

    Poor Nick and Jared. They didn’t pay attention to the lessons their teachers and parents tried to teach them.

    The future does belong to seeds. Poor Nick and Jared just don’t realize it.

    Nick and Jared may have thier heros on Wallstreet and I certainly hope that they reap what they have sown.

  18. DianeDigsPlants said:

    Bravo, George! Snap your suspenders and be PROUD. Thank you! To Jim: I’m with you! Our plants are worth far more than the cost of the plants, seeds, bulbs or roots. Jobs are lost while the economy decays. Meanwhile, our family, friends and neighbors gather to share home and locally-grown food, on our patio with the sweet fragrance of lilies around us. Wealth is indeed the eye of the beholder.

  19. m c woods said:


  20. Dick said:

    I am afraid Wall-streeters and gardeners have one striking similarity; They both play dirty!

    Take that Jared and Nick–want a radish?

  21. b kessler said:

    Thank you for a brilliantly written expression that truly mimics my heart. I am 64 years and have had a passion for gardening since the age of four – when my dear Mother bought me a box of pansies. I am now very fortunate to still have a small vegi garden. Yesterday, I picked the shallots, first pepper, and baby summer acorn squash. Marinated in olive oil, than grilled on my gas Weber grill. So delicious. My pond and garden area are so much fun right now. The dragon flies, hummingbird, butterflies, big fish and babies, assorted sizes of frogs provide so much appreciation for God’s natural world. I’m continuing to work on a trail through my woods (daily visited by deer) I’m learning several plants they do not eat, but allowing the jewel weed to grow. They seem happy to munch on that and leave everything else alone. We gardeners are so lucky to enjoy that which is all around us. Your story told it so well. Thank you, Bettie Kessler

  22. Dr. David Morris said:

    WOW! What a wordsmith. Your turn of phrase is contemporary, beautiful but more importantly, it shows thoughtful insight. Thanks for sharing, Warmly, Dr. Morris, Am Indian Museum of Plants and Healing, Jasper, Texas

  23. Cindy said:

    I never thought I’d hear “bling” in one of your articles! I just returned from a rental home owner’s conference. Same thing, lots of plastic items being offered. Lots of posturing and friendliness for the sake of possibly getting somebody’s business/cash. I work all the time, if not at my business, or on houses, then in my garden, so that I have food next winter. Those are places which work for me. They aren’t about talking, they are about doing. Quietly doing, and quietly receiving fruits/veggies for my labor. If I don’t save seeds for next year, no garden. Some things are subtle.

  24. Jeanne said:

    This is great. It was funny at times and yet so very, very true.
    I grew up with gardens. There is nothing better than a fresh tomato right off the vine, or a carrot or green onion pulled right out of the ground, and oh, those wonderful green beans cooked with fresh potatoes from the garden.

  25. Phyllis Boyd said:

    Enjoyed your essay. By the way, I love seeds, I collect seeds, I have a passion for seeds

  26. Marsha said:

    I have not enjoyed reading anything lately on line that I have enjoyed more than your writing. Keep going and I will come back for more.

  27. Sue Greco said:

    This was a joy to read! Back to basic values!

  28. mary anna said:

    Very Nice Sentiments, Thank You. Our own (side) yard garden is always producing surprising results.

    Mary Anna

  29. George Milbert said:

    Bravo! The garden is a tangible investment that requires the same level of planning and diligence that would be required if you played the markets. The ability to positively know where you food came from is worth ______ (fill in blank). My next crafty investment will be in poultry, eggs come from where?

  30. Voni said:

    I enjoyed your article very much and had to stop when you described a seed to send your description to friends who would appreciate it. I loved it. Thank you.

  31. mpd said:

    I think what you do for a living is so totally cool and I must admit am a bit jealous that I don’t, so it’s hard for me to believe that wouldn’t give anyone pause.

    You could have also said “.. I’m Into Seeds”.

  32. Kyddyl said:

    Nicely done essay. We who are old can identify with this, and even more so when we ourselves have made our livings with seeds and plants. My children are especially relieved now when they hasten to tell people they introduce me to that I’m “retired”. Those same people nod understandingly and proceed to ignore me or, if kindly inclined, might start a very s-i-m-p-l-e conversation. That’s about the time I inject Bastard Figwort into the formerly polite conversation. It too is small and obscure and perhaps a bit prickly.

    However what I really wanted to say is that we have been seeing a quiet surge in produce gardening. Still, this spring I was highly amused to see six packs of sweet peas and green bean plants selling at about $3. a pop. People still either don’t trust the seed or they want instant gratification. They are missing the wonder. They lack the trust. Back in the 1970’s with the gasoline crunch the country went “green” in a big hurry. Interest and unemployment rates skyrocketed and for many it was plant or get hungry. The government handed out cheese to help make the catfood some elders were eating taste better. Younger people bought Ford Pinto’s if they were lucky enough to have a job. Fruit trees sold out quickly one spring and I noticed that people didn’t realize that many fruit trees take 3-5 years to produce much of anything. This time we’ve got more warning and many want their produce to come from where they know who’s been peeing on it, so they have taken to growing their own, and doing it right. Last time we “went green” it seemed the nation might have learned something lasting, but they all just drove away in their new SUV’s…

  33. Mary Ann said:

    We have become dependent on high levels of specialization in our society. From the frontline
    economic “Jareds” to the food supply “Georges”.
    Feeding humans is a constant effort that requires
    all levels of endeavor. Jareds need to meet Georges at a table of good food and wine, get to
    know the “person” and return to do what each does

  34. suzanne rankin said:

    thank you once again for a thought provoking post.
    do the players ever wonder where wall street would be without seeds.

  35. TAYLOR COLLINS said:


  36. Bob Bisti said:

    In the novel,”Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil”, there is a line about the different regions of Georgia. I think the line goes, “If you are visiting Atlanta, they ask you what church you attend, if you are visiting Athens, they ask you what your parents do for a living, and, if you are visiting Savannah, they ask you what you would like to drink”. That is just one state, and such a mix of subcultures, of course overly simplified and true or not to some degree. Here in New Jersey, we are all gangsters or work in the chemical or refining industry. But, can it be true that our license plates call us the “Garden State”. Everyone here is in such a rush and state of urgency, yet, many of us Jerseyans do find time to prepare that small plot of our valuable landscape for a few tomatoes and possibly a zucchini plant. It always amazes me to see that small garden growing on in friends backyards, knowing the hurried lives that they seem to lead, and I am often left with the realization that their garden has been more fruitful than mine. I think that is the real mystery of gardening, and keeps us always dreaming to have that perfect gardening season. Not by having a nicer garden than our friends, but how relatively easy it seems to come to those who seem to make less of an effort than ourselves, who like to pour over the garden catalogs in the dead of winter. As for me, no matter what thrives one year and not the next, I find no other place to lose myself better, than in the garden. Bob Bisti

  37. Barry Orr said:

    Thank you. I look forward to you postings. I have spent time in the “grab what you” can as it passes by world of business, and find your definition spot on. ” elaborately upholstered all—
    seeds are God’s microchips: miniature devices programmed with information and algorithms to generate life” are the most apt descriptions I have seen.
    The mystery of our Creators world has been my respite from the world of man. The joy of sprouting a seed of unknown origin and allowing it to reveal it’s nature is better than any “deal” I have ever made.
    I hope, as I, you are sitting in your garden while writing you posts.
    Blue Skies

  38. deborah johannesen said:

    aahhhhh…’bringing it all back home’…bliss, peace and plenty…a garden’s reality.

  39. deborah johannesen said:

    aahhhhh…’bringing it all back home’…bliss, peace and plenty…a garden’s reality.

  40. Debbie G. said:

    Thanks for a refreshing viewpoint. I want to be remembered as a gardener.

  41. Dave said:

    I AM an anthropologist. The uniform of social status concept is ancient, coinciding with urbanism & Urban Blight. Our Urbanism is worsened by lazy, unnatural addiction to non-renewable sunlight energy use from petrochemicals. See below.

    Archaeology Dictionary: Leslie Alvin White

    Home > Library > Science > Archaeology Dictionary

    (1900–75) [Bi]

    American anthropologist well known for promoting evolutionary thinking in archaeology and anthropology. He viewed culture as a system and saw the development of societies as being related to the need to capture ever greater amounts of energy in order to sustain themselves. In this, White ignored the influence of environment and one culture on another, emphasizing instead the long-term nature of cultural development and the fact that if human groups did not stay ahead they were subsumed by other groups. As a result his perception of cultural change was materialistic and rather deterministic, but it was an approach that contributed much to the development of processual archaeology. White published two important general accounts of his work: in 1949 as The science of culture: a study of man and civilization (New York: Strand), and in 1959 as The evolution of culture (New York: McGraw-Hill).

    [Obit. American Anthropologist, 78 (1976), 612–29]

  42. REA said:

    You’re right on the (you’ll pardon the pun), money Mr. Ball. The suit guys don’t have a clue as to where th real value lies. For them,it would be next to impossible to figure out how a few plants, a warm sunny day and some hours of spare time spent puttering in the garden, could amount to someone’s nirvana. But we know! *grin*
    To each his own I always say.

  43. milda said:

    extremely good article

  44. Loris said:

    Love to read intelligent comments 0n line. Keep up the good work!

  45. TC said:

    Another well-written essay George. “And in this world of iPhones, PCs, Twitter, 200 cable channels and over the top home entertainment centers,” your words are like seeds for my soul.

  46. elizabeth anderson said:

    I loved every word,and have met people just as you discribed and God forgive them for they know not what they are missing.I love gardening because it nourishes my soul and my hunger.

  47. Connie said:

    Good one, George! May I quote you in print?

  48. Barbara Tiffany said:

    Nice, George. I left that very world behind when we moved to Philadelphia and then Bucks County…
    How about Monsanto and its engineered evil?

  49. Sholom Cohen said:

    Although I’ve been involved with software developments for most of my college and adult life, I’ve never contributed to an on-going blog before. So let me apologize in advance in case I violate any established netiquette for this forum.

    I was really fascinated by the characterization of seeds as G-d’s microchips. The seed as an information and mechanical source for plant development is, George Ball described, a true wonder of nature. I would even go so far as to endorse Mr. Ball’s notion of “G-d’s microchip” as opposed to the WSJ’s headline of “nature’s” microchip.

    This special power of the seed is captured in Jewish teachings, as well. The concept of the seed and its growth into a plant is often used in Jewish mystical teachings as a reflection of spiritual growth. The kaballah and Chasidic teachings speak of a “power of growth” within the seed in terms of driving the growth from the seed to a fully grown plant, or tree, or grain. A parallel vegetative power from the environment makes that growth possible in terms of providing nourishment from the air, earth, water and energy.

    These two powers – from the seed and ground – exist in a symbiotic relationship and are linked in an essential way to produce the plant. It seems the “microchip” is the source of information and mechanics to effect the growth so that a bean seed when planted becomes a bean, an acorn becomes an oak tree, and a grain seed becomes wheat or barley. The earth’s vegetative power actualizes its potential by making possible the growth of the seed that was planted.

    The vegetative power enables the tiny, dormant seed to produce bounteous growth, beautiful flowers, and delicious fruit for us to enjoy. This growth brought about by the pairing of vegetative power in the seed and environment powers serves as a metaphor for spiritual growth within the soul powers. The human body contains the information and mechanics to promote physical growth. The intellect and emotions and those we interact with act as powers behind that growth to influence our spiritual development. Like the amazing power hidden in the seed, our soul powers are allowed to develop in a way that provides beauty and love to those around us.

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