A Dirty Business

Jeffrey K. Actor

I’M SLOWLY LEARNING not to let frugality prevent me from doing the things I love.

One of my favorite pastimes is cooking outdoors during the heat of the summer. Nothing pairs better with steelhead trout than a homegrown, freshly picked Hungarian hot wax pepper, softened by the grill’s intense heat. The aroma of the pepper’s lightly scorched skin, complete with grill marks, is enough to make any mouth water. Simply pick the largest, throw it directly on the burner and wait patiently for the magic to occur. To appreciate the experience, you must plan ahead—which includes growing the peppers.

Spring weather arrived a few weeks early in my part of Texas. I pulled out my dog-eared Old Farmer’s Almanac to check planting times. I decided to go against optimal recommendations, overconfident that my planting skills would be sufficient to protect the seedlings against the slim possibility of a late winter freeze.

While starter pepper plants are common once spring is officially underway, they’re notoriously hard to find on the cusp of the growing season. My search began at my usual garden centers, but I was met with disappointment. They wouldn’t be in stock for at least two weeks. Dang.

Undeterred, I expanded my search, driving through Houston in a crisscross pattern, scouring the inventory at second-tier gardening establishments. These are places where past searches have paid off, but the plants weren’t nearly as successful at surviving in my compost-enriched soil. Unfortunately, it was also too early for these places to carry the seedlings. Resolute in my desire, I even tried the big box hardware stores. Alas, still no paydirt.

My search was now becoming a full-blown obsessive quest. I committed to driving, pedal to the metal, 10 miles west to a small, hidden-away urban nursery, tucked neatly on the edge of cattle country. My efforts were finally rewarded. I found two seedlings, slightly bedraggled yet sufficiently healthy to thrive with some loving care.

Then I balked. The price was $3.49 a plant. I was aghast at the cost, thinking I could buy a whole pack of seeds and grow 150 plants from scratch for that price. Adding insult to injury, similar tasting jalapeno peppers sell for $1.89 a pound at our local Kroger supermarket, even if not home-grown.

The emotional high of the chase was replaced by melancholy and despair. My frugal nature dictated that the seedlings were simply priced too high. The cost was probably a post-pandemic function of supply and demand, based on COVID garden fever exhibited by the likes of every Tom Thumb and Dirty Harry. Those steeped in the annual ritual of vegetable gardening would certainly question such exorbitant prices. The nursery’s apparent business mantra was based on the classic P.T. Barnum-type expression that “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

I stopped and got a grip on my thoughts. True, prices were elevated compared to my expectations. Yet, in the greater scheme of things, the extra couple of greenbacks shouldn’t sway my purchasing decision. I realized I’d just spent more than $5 on gas alone to power my quest.

The fact was, the extra cost was negligible, and it certainly wouldn’t alter my chances of a financially successful retirement. I reminded myself that my new dogma is to spend on worthy experiences that bring me joy. Gardening is one of my favorite activities, especially since my wife no longer allows me to consider frugality a hobby.

Some retired friends live with a spending rule where they agonize over large expenses but simply set general limits for smaller costs. Their recommendation to me: Build an extra $50 or $100 a week into the budget for little frills and thrills.

To compensate, be on the lookout for savings on big ticket items, my friends espouse. They indicate that regularly revisiting costs for insurance, phone plans, internet plans and utilities can save more than most of the small stuff combined. Worry about paying down the mortgage quickly, so you save on interest. Shop around to find the best value for your next automobile. Move excess cash from a low-interest brick-and-mortar bank to a high-yield online savings account, netting perhaps a few hundred extra dollars a year. Savings in this manner are more than sufficient to cover the occasional splurge.

This type of thinking is nothing new to HumbleDollar readers. But my friends acted as if they were sharing a deeper truth, equivalent to Mrs. Field’s chocolate chip cookie recipe or the secret mixture for original Coca-Cola.

I went ahead and bought the pepper seedlings.

It happened that my neighbor was outside when I turned into the driveway. She’s a master gardener who could grow a tree from a mummified stick. But at 82 years old, she isn’t as mobile as she once was. She glanced at my new plants and was happy that I scored the seedlings, lamenting that she was unable to find that same variety earlier in the week.

I immediately gave her both plants. Her face broke into a smile so large I thought it might be painful, and she delivered an unexpected hug which brightened the remainder of my day. Priceless.

True, I succeeded in my quest, while ending shy of my goal. No matter. I only hope my neighbor’s crop is stellar, so she can spare a few of those puppies for my grill later this summer.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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