How Organic Gardening is like Good Business

I was out puttering in my garden this morning, planting a few new perennials – (I’m running out of space for planting new things!). My mind was on work, as it is a lot these days. I stood up for a second, and looked out over my now-5-year-old garden, and thought of how far we have come together. When I started it was rocks and sandy clay—a dusty, hard-packed, unproductive mess. Now I’ve got incredible bushes, trees, flowers, herbs, vegetables; and everything is filling in and working together to create a hospitable, productive, and beautiful garden. And working in the garden is a lot easier, too.

As I was napping on my couch a bit later (it’s Sunday, mind you—even CEOs need a day of rest!), I started thinking about how good business is similar to organic gardening. I’m in my second year of the job as CEO of Rodale, and it’s kind of like the second year of starting a new landscape—I can see the potential, and I can also see how far we have come…but as any gardener knows, there is lots more to be done. And as anyone who has seen me garden knows, I’m always a big dreamer! People have called me crazy…until they come back a few years later and see what I’ve done.

I’m hoping if I use these same principles at work, I may have just as much success:

1: First, have a good plan for the “bones.” In garden terms, the bones refer to the parts of the landscape that you want to last a long time—pathways, trees, patios. But that’s also a plan for how to make the most of what you have and minimize the challenges you face, whether it’s too much water or not enough. In business, this means deciding what business you are, and are not, going to be in for a long time. It’s the commitment part. It’s the key to making it all work together.


2: Think long-term—especially when it comes to the big stuff like trees. A tree can take 5 to 10 years to grow big enough to have an impact or bear fruit. Just like new parts of the business: You have to be patient, and make sure they are planted in the right space so they don’t get too stressed to survive. And then have patience. Shouting at a plant has never made it grow faster!


3: All layers are important. In landscaping, it’s about trees, shrubs, perennials, and ground covers (living or mulch, or preferably both), and even the quality of the soil beneath the surface. In a company, employees at every level and every part of the business, from the big stuff to the little stuff, are essential to creating a thriving and healthy environment. Even the stuff you can’t see on a daily basis.


4: Don’t be afraid to move things around. Sometimes, something gets planted in the wrong place and it’s not happy. I just moved two really large styrax trees (Japanese snowbells) because one was thrilled, but the other was miserable. When we dug them out, we found that one was really waterlogged. I’m hoping she’s much happier in her new location. Same with businesses and products; often where they are or who they report to can make the difference between success or failure.

5: Embrace diversity, even weeds. What animals, birds, and weeds are attracted to your garden tell you a lot about what’s going on there—both good and bad. Paying attention to those messages, rather than trying to eradicate everything, will get you further faster than pretending that it’s all just random. In business, often there are ideas, people, or things that seem annoying or unnecessary. Try looking at what the message is really about. Be open to it!


6: You have to give things back and invest in the soil. That soil in the beginning of my garden wasn’t removed, it was built on, and augmented with compost, mulch, and lots of care. If you just pretend the soil is dirt, and that you can reap from it year after year without putting anything into it other than some toxic chemicals, you are in for a bad experience down the road. Either stuff doesn’t grow anymore or you and your family get sick from the toxins. That soil is alive. So is the business. It’s alive with people, infrastructures, and systems that need to be invested in and cared for, without applying anything toxic!


7: Use the harvest wisely, not wastefully, and put things up for the winter. In a lot of businesses, you have hits or successes every so often (and thank the lords and ladies when you do). The biggest crime is not putting some of that bounty away for the darker times. It’s like having a giant veggie garden in the summer and not putting stuff in the freezer or pantry. We live in a world where people don’t have to do that anymore in this country (mostly), but you are missing a great thing by not doing it—and a happy feeling of security when you do.


8: A good garden and landscape requires lots of good partners. I couldn’t do what I do without Red Bailey and his awesome gang at Fernrock! (With their love of backhoes.) But also my husband, the lawn guy, my kids…everyone pitches in and together we make it productive and beautiful. Same with business—rarely, if ever, can you go it alone. Teamwork is essential, and everyone brings something different to the team.


9: Things get better over time. Usually. If you pay attention and work hard every year. Because if you don’t work hard every year, nature takes back control and it becomes something else—something else good and beautiful, but not as productive for human thriving.


10: You can’t stop planting for the future. Every year in the garden, things die back, mature—some die and don’t return. Some plants like to travel! They come for a while, and then move on to other places. So every year you’ve got to take a good hard look at what made it and what didn’t, and what needs to be shored up, cut back, planted new. It never ends, really—until you either die or retire and hand the shovel over to someone else…hopefully someone who cares about it as much as you do. But each gardener and CEO has to bring his or her own vision to make it thrive.

Don’t worry, I’m not handing over the shovel willingly anytime soon. In the meantime, there is gardening to be done. Both at home and at work!


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9 Responses to How Organic Gardening is like Good Business

  1. Maya May 9, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    I’d add: regular tending. A little weeding frequently helps prevent them from taking over. Likewise, tending to little things regularly can help prevent big messes that require a lot of time and resources to fix up.

  2. Gus May 9, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Excellent analogy and great advice.

  3. Amanda May 9, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    Sounds like the beginnings of a great book to me! As long as no one starts comparing gardening style to business acumen. I’m afraid of what my garden might say about me! Encourages even weeds to reach their greatest potential? A little wild, a little lazy, but very, very productive?

    p.s. Go backhoes! I need one of those.

  4. sd May 10, 2011 at 8:29 am #


  5. Donna in Delaware May 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm #


  6. Jurrina May 14, 2011 at 2:02 am #

    Maria tips are excellent. In my kitchen, I put some flowers pots on the top of my Kitchen Cabinets Hamilton. I have a lot of space at my backyard. I put useless stuff in it. Now I got the tips, I will try to make the backyard a beautiful garden.

  7. Katherine Ellington May 31, 2011 at 6:45 am #

    My grandmother never had such a list, but growing up I witnessed every point you make, here. Her yard still yields wonderful blooms of surprises every year. Glad for your advice.

  8. Myra June 17, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    I have a friend whose five acres looks like paradise. There is something growing everywhere. I love to go there.

    I do have a concern that I would like to see discussed. I am becoming physically unable to take care of hundreds of plants growing on the ground. I’m dreaming about a greenhouse with shelves. Will that cause a build-up of harmful greenhouse gas?
    Will an open door on each end relieve that problem? I would also like a greenhouse to prevent gmo contamination from possible neighborhood gardens/fields. I do not want to create one problem while preventing another.

  9. Rob Lundholm October 26, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    Good morning Maria,

    My wife and I are regular readers and find your columns to be extremely interesting and helpful.

    I own and operate a small landscaping company in Cape May, New Jersey. My primary scope of business is extreme landscape makeovers nut have recently taken an interest in organics and bionutrition. In an attempt to create awareness and help Americans make better choices, I have decided to interview the top organic gardening experts in the country. Would you be interested in a brief 15 minute interview? I will pick your brain by asking several questions, then offer you the opportunity to plug your website, your column or anything else. If interested, please either call me at 609-722-1814 or send me an email at Thank you and keep up the great work.

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