Free Plants

I gave them away—and got much in return.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF CROSBY

When I started growing plants for resale about 40 years ago, in a place called Jamul close to the Mexican border in San Diego County, I had to start small. I grew a lot of six-packs and four-inch-pots. I started larger plants, too, one-and five-gallon trees and shrubs, but since they took a year or more to grow to a salable size, I concentrated on the smaller sizes. When people brought their kids, I offered those 12 and under a free four-inch plant of their choice, which they had a lot of fun shopping for. It was part of my plan to build the business. It worked: most of the people who shopped with children would return and buy more plants from me so their kids could get another free one. The cost to me was minimal, maybe around 25 cents a four-inch pot.

An assortment of teenagers exited the cars, bearing gifts of cookies, cake, and a pie.

This idea worked so well that I took it to my next nursery in a place called Burrough Valley, east of Fresno, California. My wife, Nancy, and I lived and worked there for 17 years. When we got older, we sold the nursery and moved to Port Orford, Oregon, along the coast. My wife had contracted cancer, which was another reason to move. To be blunt about it, she loved Oregon and wanted to die there. We took early retirement at age 62 and supplemented our incomes with part-time jobs. The move proved a good one: Nancy’s cancer went into remission.

Even so, she passed away five years later when the cancer reoccurred. It was a long, slow process, with chemo and radiation and all that. By the time she had passed, our savings of around $30,000 was depleted, and I was in the hole around another $30,000K. With all those bills to pay, I started another nursery here in Port Orford, garnering my income mostly from local farmers markets. I was open two days a week to locals and used the same plan I always had—free plants to the kids to draw in traffic.

Many years later, on a warm spring Tuesday, several cars pulled up in the driveway. Soon an assortment of teenagers, maybe a dozen in all, exited the cars, bearing gifts of cookies, cake, and a pie. I said my hellos as the group, mostly girls, handed me the treats. As I put them on a potting bench, the girls giggled and the guys smiled awkwardly.

I was completely puzzled. “What’s all this about?” I asked. “We wanted to show you our gratitude for the free plants you gave us as kids,” one of the older girls said, smiling. “Most of us here will be going into horticulture when we graduate, hoping to own nurseries one day or do other plant-related work.”
When she had finished, I found myself becoming emotional—even more so when she turned to the little crowd behind her and raised her arms like a conductor and they said in unison: “Thank you, Mr. Carter, for all you have done to help us learn about plants over the years, for your generosity, and for your help in someday getting us started in our careers.”

I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was grin from ear to ear.

Need I say it was one of the best days of my life? It still is.


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