(illustrated version)

Good Investments

By Clement Kent

March 20, 20001

We live in perplexing times. Today was the first day of spring - according to the astronomers. The birds thought it came a few days ago, with the arrival of milder weather and a few sunny days. The garden however was confused. Parts were still hidden by snowdrifts, while at the base of walls and fences, snowdrops bloomed, crocus buds popped up, and waterlily leaves emerged from the bottom of the pond. The stock markets, meanwhile, thought it was fall and did. Many high-tech investors felt darkest winter enter their souls.

That the snowdrop buds dutifully opened on the very first day of spring I thought very punctual. And looking at the many buds coming up in each place where 5 or 6 years ago I planted a single tiny bulb, I thought of what excellent investors we gardeners are.

During times of economic malaise investment gurus like to remind us to be patient, to plan for the long term. We are exhorted to ignore daily, weekly,or quarterly gyrations in stock prices and trust that time will make all right. If only, we are told, we will wait for the inevitable turning of the business cycle, our mutual funds and pension plans will return to growth.

Indeed, this is good advice. When averaged over the long term, stock markets usually manage 10-15 percent yearly growth. The long term usually mean anywhere from 3 to 7 or more years.

Well, I have news for the gurus. We gardeners make investments that yield 100 percent per year, year in and year out. This is 7 to 10 times better than the best 10-year return for mutual funds, and we don't have to pay management fees!

I speak of course of spring bulbs. A single species crocus corm in good soil will double the number of blooms every year for many years. Gentle digging reveals dozens of daughter corms after just 3-4 years. Some crocuses have come close to tripling each year.

Last year I dug up a small bed (3 feet by two) planted some years before with perhaps a dozen corms. I retrieved hundreds of blooming-size corms, plus perhaps 500 cormlets which will grow to blooming size in 1 to 2 years. Most of these were planted into other beds; perhaps 4 dozen were replanted in the small bed after compost had been worked in.

Of course, spring bulbs are not free. You spend a few dollars to buy one or two dozen, and a few hours of your time each year weeding and enjoying the plants (if multiplication of bulbs is capital gains, the blossoms must be annual dividends). Spring bulbs usually don't need watering, and the compost (and composter) were free. Better than free, actually: each bucket of kitchen scraps I put in the composter saved the city some money at landfill sites.

While crocuses are perhaps the most enthusiastic multipliers among the spring flowers, some of the species tulips are not far behind. Tulipa tarda and Tulipa urumiensis are two extraordinarily beautiful small golden tulips which bloom after the crocuses but well before the main-season tulips. In the first few years in the ground 100 percent growth rates are not hard to get, although as the bulbs become crowded growth will slow. Dig them after 4-5 years and you'll be rewarded with many offspring to colonize some other spot in the garden. If you add some bone meal to the soil when you dig, and topdress the bed yearly with compost or leaf mould, the same bed can be replanted - unlike irises and some other plants, these bulbs seem to live forever in the same spot.

Larger tulips are trickier - some will multiply like crazy, others will dwindle and die off. I never dig my tulips for summer storage: if they sulk when left in the ground, I don't want them. If they have good drainage and warm soil during summer dormancy, most of the simple "Darwin" tulips will come near to doubling, after a year spent establishing themselves. Fancier types such as parrots and multifloras are pickier.

Little bulbs like Scilla and Puschkinia and Chionodoxa multiply madly, but usually by sowing their seeds around the parent plant. You must learn to recognize the tiny threads of grass-like growth of these seedlings; not hard to do as they are clustered close to their mamas. For the first few years after planting these bulbs you may be disappointed in the growth in number of blooms, which will be a modest 50 percent per year. As soon as the first crop of seedlings begins to bloom, though, you'll be amazed at how many more little blue blooms you have. You've probably seen lawns tinted blue with Scilla in early May - if the mower is raised high and used sparingly until the foliage ripens in June, the bulbs naturalize well. Perhaps the best place to do this is under a tall maple or oak whose shade keeps the grass from overachieving in May.

Sometimes you buy a stock or fund and it goes nowhere. Your broker will urge you to sell it (after all, he or she will earn commision on the next thing you buy) but sometimes patience is in order. One Toronto software firm I bought at $4 spent years oscillating between $3 and $5. I knew the company was sound and would eventually be recognized, held on, and finally sold at $13. Now it's down to $2, punished for the sin of being a software stock.

Snowdrops are better than my software stock in that they don't drop catastrophically, but they call for the same kind of patience I had to exercise with the stock. When first planted, snowdrops often take a year or two to settle in. Then they grow at a sedate 25 to 35 percent per year - excellent for a mutual fund, slow for a bulb. Still, the reward a decade later of seeing a big clump of flowers blooming in the snow where only a single bulb was planted is tremendous.

Snowdrops are more like our woodland natives - they don't want or need to be in a location that gets summer sun. The shade of a bush or tree is much better for them, so long as it's one which drops its leaves in fall. And, these are the ideal plants for "over the back fence" plant swapping. The very best way to move snowdrops is when they are in bloom or shortly thereafter - in March or April. Replant immediately and water them in, and they'll be fine. So, go looking in your mother or grandmother's garden, or that of a long-settled neighbor, and see if you can find a big clump of snowdrops to divide. Be sparing in what you take - remember the owner waited a long time for their patience to be rewarded!

So, you want a balanced portfolio that will grow 50 percent per year with little effort on your part, and no downside risk? Plant crocus, species tulips, scillas, and snowdrops.

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t