The Money Tree
What if money really did grow on trees? (7/2006)
At first I just thought someone kept dropping quarters. I kept finding them at the base of a funny-looking tree in our backyard. When I say it was funny-looking, I mean it was funny-looking, like no other tree I’d ever seen. And I know trees, let me tell you. It was in the center of our backyard, between the two lemon trees and in front of the cluster of liquid ambers along our back fence.
It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth quarter that I started seriously wondering. I’m an only child, so it’s not like it could have been a sister or a brother doing somersaults in baggy pants. Besides, I mostly play in our front yard and on our street. I even asked my mom and dad if they’d been going in the backyard recently. Nope. I wondered about the guy who cuts our lawn and the guy who sprays the house to keep bugs away, but I even checked right after they each came to the house.
It was weird. Quarters just appeared at the base of the tree every few days. People throwing them out of airplanes? Nah—you can’t open the windows on a plane, can you?
Then one day I decided the tree didn’t look very healthy. I laid down some fertilizer and watered it. I watered it every day after school for the next week.
That Sunday evening, I found a dollar caught in the branches of the tree. It looked like it had been blown by the wind and wedged into the tree. I figured it was my lucky day.
When I went to pull it out of the tree, though, I realized what I should have guessed before: the dollar bill was actually growing on the tree! It was ever-so-slightly connected to the tree by a small bud. I watched the bill flutter in a gust of wind, fall free from its branch, and drift down to the ground. I reached down and picked it up. It sure looked real!
For the next several months, I cared for the tree like it was my baby. More fertilizer, but not too much. Regular water, but not too much. I even trimmed it back a bit, hoping the pruning would make it stronger. Within a month, I’d collected $7 from the tree. Seven crisp, new one dollar bills. Of course, I’d spent $12.35 on the fertilizer and the pair of pruning shears I bought, but I didn’t think too much about that.
By the end of the summer, the tree had grown significantly. At four feet five inches tall, I was no longer able to reach its top branches. I still hadn’t told anyone about the tree—about what it could do. I did have a hard time explaining why I needed more allowance, and why I bought the ladder, but my parents let the matter drop after a while. Total haul for the summer: $26. Of course, the ladder cost me over $30, but I didn’t think too much about that.
I was worried about whether the tree would remain healthy over the fall and winter. It gets cold here pretty early; we even had snow once in October. I bought a few books on dendrology—the study of trees—and read them cover-to-cover. My parents wondered about my new-found interest in trees, but I told them it was research for a school project.
I learned from one of the books how to cover the tree with a plastic tarp with small holes in it in order to keep the tree from freezing overnight. So I special-ordered a big enough tarp, and bought a second ladder so my friend Ryan could help me cover the tree. I made sure I picked all of the bills on the tree before he came over. He was curious why I cared so much about the tree, but I made up some story about how ancient civilizations used to do it, and how my great-great-great grandparents were Greek. He just called me a dork, then helped me with the tarp.
The tree survived the winter and managed to produce another $41 (after producing $36 in the fall). Of course, the books, the tarp, and the second ladder cost me $67, but I didn’t think too much about that.
In the spring, I had a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. What if instead of one tree, I had two? Or more? I purchased a few new books and learned from one of them how to take a cutting of the tree and attempt to plant a new tree. If it worked, well, then I’d have two money trees, and then I could create more and more.
I followed the instructions carefully and tenderly planted the new sapling. For two weeks, I nurtured that baby tree, giving it the water and fertilizer it needed to thrive. I even bought a sun lamp and an extension cord, and used them for a few days when we had unseasonably gray weather. At the end of two weeks’ care, the new tree started shedding pennies. Two weeks after that, quarters. And two weeks after that, crisp new dollar bills, just like the original tree. I had done it! Between the two trees, I hauled in $58. Of course, the new books, the sun lamp, and extension cord cost me $81, but I didn’t think too much about that.
That summer, I finally told Ryan about the trees. He never did believe the fib I told him that time I asked him to put the tarp on the original tree. And besides, I needed his help expanding! All summer long we worked in my backyard. He told his parents that he wanted a break from Little League baseball, and I told my parents that I wanted to take it easy over the summer so I’d be rested up for basketball season in the fall. By the end of the summer, we planted and nurtured eight new trees, ten in all. By the end of the summer, the trees had produced $218.12.
Of course, I had to give Ryan 25% of the profits like I promised him I would, and all of our equipment cost me $225. But I didn’t think too much about that.
Winter brought the need for more tarps and more ladders and more help. This time, Ryan and I decided to bring in our other pal, Johnny. The trees generated $331 that winter. But Johnny now had to get his cut (25%, like Ryan) and all the new tarps, two new ladders, and other equipment set me back $400. I started to worry about that, just a little.
Spring and summer that year, Ryan, Johnny and I expanded again. I had no choice but to tell my parents, since we needed the entire backyard for all the new trees. Mom wasn’t too happy about losing her lemon trees, but said she was willing to buy lemons at the supermarket. My dad was okay with things as long as he could still get out and use the hot tub we had in the corner of the yard. I would have loved to use that space for another money tree, but, hey, it is his house after all.
Spring results: 25 trees. $827 collected; $413.50 in my pocket. Total cost for all the new equipment: $450. I was definitely worried about that now.
Summer results: 75 trees; $2,186 collected; $1,043 in my pocket; and $1500 in costs. Big time worry.
Then someone “leaked” our secret. That’s what they call it on TV shows and in movies, “leaked.” I’ll never know if it was Ryan or Johnny, or even my mom or dad. What I do know is that we suddenly had hundreds of people milling around our house at all hours. We even had a few cases where people jumped the fence into our backyard!
Dad loaned me the money to buy a home security system, complete with motion sensors, cameras, outdoor floodlights, and a shrieking siren. We pulled in over $5,000 that winter, but the security system and the private security firm set us back $7,100. Mega colossal worry.
I finally told my dad about the costs, about how I always seemed to spend more than I made from the trees. My dad, in his wisdom, taught me a lesson I’ll always remember. He called it “T A N S T A A F L” (pronounced “tan-staff-uhl”). There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. You have to work hard, be smart, pay attention to all sides of an issue (the costs as well as the benefits, say).
I wish I could tell you this story has a happy ending, but I can’t. I never could find a way to spend less caring for my orchard of money trees than they generated. So I decided to keep the original tree and pull out the rest. (I pulled off any remaining coins and bills, then mulched them up.) I keep the one tree as a reminder of those few magnificent years when I really thought money could grow on trees.
I planted two new lemon trees for my mom, five new liquid ambers, and a collection of other beauties: live oaks, a persimmon tree, a feijoa tree, and many more. Maybe I’ll write a story about my new trees, too, some day. But somehow I doubt it’d be as interesting as money growing on trees.