The smartest investors are always looking to value as the key component in building their portfolio. It matters not whether the particular offering is a stock, a bond, a piece of real estate, a business, a commodity, or a masterwork of art. Investors like Charlie Munger and his long time partner, Warren Buffet, are known to be very particular about the value of a company and how it suits their criteria of what makes that company “wonderful”.
So why not approach the garden “portfolio” with the same value-centered scrutiny as we thumb or click through the various prospects featured in our newly arrived garden catalogues and articles? Our thesis is that if we apply ourselves more rationally to the selection, like Munger and Buffet do with their investments, we’ll reap more rewards throughout the growing season.
Borrowing heavily from Charlie Munger’s BBC Interview (6 minutes in), here’s how we can begin to load in our portfolio with quality selections. As you peruse the products, ask yourself the following:
- Am I capable of understanding this crop? If it’s an unfamiliar crop or variety, can I get to know its particular attributes and requirements? Is it a good fit for my area’s growing conditions? Do I really like to eat the plant’s produce? Am I swayed by the promotional hype (e.g. new, bigger, better, exotic)?
- What is this vegetable’s intrinsic value? Can it compete and flourish through the season(s)? This question ties to your area’s growing conditions and, very importantly, your garden patch’s specific microclimates. We have both a hillside garden and a lowland garden. Even though our “upper garden” is miles to the north and 500 feet higher in elevation, guess which garden gets the most frosts?
- What will this crop require of me, the gardener, in terms of management capabilities, knowledge, and time? Will its cultivation fit my style of gardening (part-time, full-time, raised bed, permaculture, organic, chem-free, etc)?
- How much time, energy, effort, and garden space am I willing to risk? As an “investor” would I expend a sizeable part of my bankroll on this food stock?
What We Learned in 2016
Experiment in small quantities.
Like many of you, we like to try out new varieties and new techniques. Sometimes, we forget to size our experiments appropriately. Here are a few illustrations of how the “experiment in small quantities” concept should have been applied.
Lemon Squash – The seed catalogue’s info blurb said “prolific”. That was more than just a clue. It was a fact. We barely kept up with the output and consumed mass quantities in soups, casseroles, grilled slices, and “spiralized” spaghetti. The small ones really do look like lemons, kinda cute, so we were able to bestow them on our friends and neighbors-more than surplus zucchini. We should have planted about 50% fewer (other family members would say 90%).
Golden Sunshine Runner Beans – As pictured in the on-line catalogue with brilliant yellow leaves, scarlet flowers to attract hummingbirds, and, or course, delicious beans. Our two plantings matched the leaf and flower criteria, but no beans whatsoever. The Purple Podded climbers planted right next to them flourished and produced sizeable quantities of tasty beans for weeks. In 2017, we’ll stick with the Purple Podded climbers and plant more of the (standard) Blue Lake Bush Beans, which also did well.
Cucamelons (AKA Mexican Sour Gherkins) Last year, we did an article on these cute little “mini-melons” that taste a bit like lemony cukes. They took a long time to come up and attain any size. But then, it was off to the races! By the peak of their season they had topped over a twelve foot tall trellis and were tangling over everything within a 8 foot radius. But those little water melon looking morsels were so tasty! Lesson learned- we’ll give them their own space-perhaps in a cattle panel “tunnel”.
We also experimented with planting potatoes in “towers” to save space. The on-line advocates of this method showed how easy it was to layer in soil and straw and compost, etc, and obtain a huge amount of easy harvest potatoes. Not so! The sweet potatoes did better than the regular types, but for the time, energy, and materials, we should have gone with planting most of our spuds in terra firma mounds and experimenting with just one tower.
Know when to pull the plug
There’s a saying in the financial investment world, “Your first loss is your best lost”. When we see our investment dropping and have an opportunity to cut short the losses, we often hesitate to do so. After all, it might go back up, right? It might. Think of the gambler losing at the roulette wheel putting it all on red “just one more time”. The same goes with a garden planting that is obviously not living up to its reputed press release. Just a little tweak, or given time, or maybe a dose of compost tea, or whatever cure…we tend to hang on. And yes there are exceptional recoveries, but all too often it might be best to pull the plant(s) and put in something that you expect will do better.
We actually did this with a few items like the carrots that were not faring well. They got replaced with eggplants that produced on through most of the Fall. Two batches of red onions failed to germinate. We gave up, wrote the company an informative message, and received a refund which was used to procure beans for late summer planting. You only have so much space, and so much time-especially if gardening in the colder zones.
It’s OK to Dream Big
As our glossy garden catalogues arrive in material or cyber fashion, there’s always a bunch of new things to try out. Descriptions like AMAZING, GIGANTIC, SWEETEST, LEGENDARY, WORLD’S FIRST adorn the airbrushed photo-shopped illustrations. And that’s just the tomatoes! Though we’ve offered our take on how best to stay rational and pick your order with care, it’s not to say you shouldn’t expend a measure of what investors call “Las Vegas” capital. Just a little mad money to play with. A roll of the dice, a pull of the handle, a little fun. And, who knows? That heirloom black and green striped tomato may turn out to be a champ! The deal is–if you lose, you don’t lose much. That’s nearly a direct quote from another well-known value investor, Monish Pabrai.
Vegetable Garden Design 101: Have a Plan
Circling back to the major criteria in picking a crop, one vital overarching aspect of a rational selection is having a plan. Whether it’s mapped out on the back of a piece of cardboard, scaled on a piece of graph paper, or colorfully displayed on a software program like our favorite “Garden Planner”, having a defined plan as a guide will keep you on track. You are the architect, the builder, and the end consumer. Ultimately, you are the investor who’s due diligence will make it all happen. The better you know yourself, your capabilities, the garden conditions, and each crop’s requirements, the better your garden will be.
We’re eager to hear from you, our readers, about how you manage to select your vegetables for the coming seasons. Please comment below or post a comment on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, here’s wishing everyone a fantastic New (garden) Year! May your gardens grow in beauty and bounty!
G. Coleman Alderson is an entrepreneur, land manager, investor, gardener, and author of the novel, Mountain Whispers: Days Without Sun. Coleman holds an MS from Penn State where his thesis centered on horticulture, park planning, design, and maintenance. He’s a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and a licensed building contractor for 27 years. “But nothing surpasses my 40 years of lessons from the field and garden. And in the garden, as in life, it’s always interesting because those lessons never end!” Coleman Alderson