Monday, May 14, 2007

Gardens and Stocks

We all have our passions, those things we love to do and which occupy much of our day, and in my case it happens to be our garden and the stock market, entities which on the surface seem disparate yet are similar in many instances. In any process there is a progression of events, a transformation which leads us to a place, one that is comprised of learning as we trudge through the ups and downs, the physical and mental challenges, those feelings of frustration, only to be followed with joy and satisfaction and that sense of achievement. The following describes my approach to gardening, but with a little imagination and creativity, I think you can see how it also can - and should - apply to growing a garden of healthy stocks in your portfolio.

While on my hands and knees weeding and feeling the calm I have while “working” in the garden, I sometimes think of how this place evolved and those first visits by family or friends. The most common reaction as we begin our stroll along the paths is an exclamatory, “Wow!” Our reply is usually the same: “There was nothing here. Everything you see, each shrub and tree, every plant, was placed in the ground one at a time”. That generally elicits a very casual response such as ‘hmm’ or ’really’.

When we go back into the house, one of our favorite photos is the "before" shot of the house and property we purchased, and as we present it for viewing there is the sound of silence. Finally, the response is an amazed “There was nothing here!” And that always elicits a chuckle by us all. As you look at the beauty of the plants and the maturity which now encompasses the property, my guess is that it is hard to imagine the land without these plantings.

Following the purchase of the property, we began to deal with the 6 acres of blackberry and poison oak infested land. Our perspective was to take our time and tackle one area. When that was completed we would move onto the next. We had no master plan. Our vision consisted of eliminating any potential fire hazard and diseased trees, and doing a planting at least around the perimeter of the house.

As we made progress and obstacles were removed, we could now envision planting some basic structure, deciduous trees and evergreens which would undulate around the perimeter of the property. Not realizing this house had been built on solid rock, the first hole we dug required a spud bar to break away the stone. Immediately we realized the ‘simply digging a whole and planting a tree technique’ would not yield many more trees being planted, so dirt was trucked in. We quickly learned to work with the land, not against it.

Five trees were placed on the south side, giving stability for that part of the garden. We followed by defining the paths as they naturally conformed to the lay of the land, and within those areas we then carefully selected the various species that would best fit and support what we call the “walking garden”. Our process had begun.

These are some things we learned over the years:

Casting wildflower and grass seed with the expectation of having a finished product brings a flush of color, until it rains.

Plants given to us by “friends” should have been more carefully analyzed.
Our inexperience and lack of knowledge as to its habit, was cause for much anxiety.

Soil Preparation is primary in planting a garden.
Someone once told me that “if you have one dollar to spend, .95 cents should be used for the soil and preparation of it and with the nickel you buy the plant”. You start with the basics by understanding the nature of the soil and making amendments as necessary. We quickly realized that developing strong and healthy plants didn’t just happen, but resulted from preparation, study and plain hard work.

One needs to be discriminating in the selection of tools and plants
. Proper tools may be more expensive, but in the long run they last longer and pay for themselves in efficiency. Premium and rare cultivars or specimens require higher prices, and there will always be new species on the market, but a constant assessment needs to be made as to where we are in the garden.

A balanced value proposition in plant selection is important.
You can begin with a seed, a cutting, or a seedling. With any of these, germination and establishing strong root structure take time and patience, and when cultivated properly will yield very strong plant life. Well established perennials and ornamental grasses need to be divided, just as many shrubs will offer new seedlings, a bonus to be planted elsewhere.

Careful consideration is required in selecting the endless variety of plants. Annuals, although short-lived, can offer an abundance of color performance. Fast growing plants fill areas until such time you find a better match. Deciduous shrubs yield seasonal interest. Extremely fast growing trees may look good in the short term, but are highly susceptible to breakage, especially during periods of bad weather. Evergreens and specimen trees may be slow growing but offer the comfort of longevity and longstanding beauty and stability in the garden.

Entrusting our garden to a few “experts” without close supervision, proved to be an emotional and extremely costly ordeal, and in one instance, not recoverable.
A young man who helped me clear brush for a short time would sit down each time I went inside the house. Specimen plants and ornamental grasses were pulled and discarded by a graduate landscape student. A forester’s assistance felled many of the 40-60 foot trees in what was developing into our “shade” garden. (We will not discuss the pain involved in that one.) And despite all those losses, these folks still required and received compensation for their services, however short.

The garden is dynamic and continually evolves. We constantly assess where we are, whether it is trimming that which has become too large or identifying sameness in foliage within an area, thus requiring a better blend of trees and shrubbery.

There are some that do not want to be here or may not be suitable for the garden,
and the reason may be unknown. You may fall in love with a plant, but it struggles, may become diseased, and despite lots of effort and nurturing, I learned some time ago, if something doesn’t want to be there you have to let it go. Life goes on and other wonderful replacement plants await.

Even stellar specimens sometimes disappoint.
When blossoms become smaller on award winning Japanese iris, it is clear they require attention and assessment.

Occasionally I am reminded of a visit from one of our sons who came on a day we were working on one of the areas, and reluctantly, he decided to help. There was an occasional sigh, a somewhat vocal message that the pleasure of clearing this part of the hillside was probably ours alone. Within a very short period of time he raised his body from a bent position, and with hands thrown limply at each side, scanned 180 degrees of the brush and debris covered land above him, sighed once again and exclaimed, “You’ll never get this done.” I still remember how astonished I was to hear those words for that thought had never crossed my mind.

We never thought about the boulders we would move, the number of holes we would dig nor how many wheelbarrows of mulch and dirt that would be pushed up the hill, but rather we focused on one idea, one area at a time. We envisioned neither the scale of the landscaping project we would eventually develop nor the years of labor required achieving it. It was a process, one which would continue to evolve, and it required research, time, patience and an understanding.

Today we are still planting, but as we grow in years we have learned to be more discriminate in our plant selection, reducing the number of plants and the maintenance required. One specimen tree replaces 3-5 perennials, and divisions of our favorite ornamental grasses and many groundcovers now occupy larger areas. Some of our favorite perennials have been given to family and friends who are beginning their gardens. A constant assessment of weeding, pruning and occasional adjusting is still necessary, but the dividend is a garden that is less demanding. Frustration is taken in stride with a “shrug” of the shoulders, for tomorrow is a new day.

The garden is like a painting or any other major piece of work, a stock portfolio. It is neither easy nor instantaneous, but rather requires years of study and preparation with an evolving plan that brings it together. An integral part of that canvas or portfolio contains focal points of interest, a balance and harmony in color and texture, and it is a reflection of ones own personal techniques and individual style.

We trust you have found this helpful, and hope to see you in the garden.