What a 90-year-old gardener taught me about real wealth

Photograph: Chris Crerar

Today I’ve got a real treat for you.

I’m going to paint you a picture of what real wealth looks like.

I’ve spoken to a lot of amazing people over the 12 years I’ve written this column, but the two hours I spent with legendary ABC broadcaster and garden guru Peter Cundall proved to be one of the most thought-provoking discussions of my life.

And it began terribly.

“I don’t like economists … and I hate financial writers … ”, the 90-year-old told me gruffly.

“Oh…kay”

“… but I love the Barefoot Investor!”

“Okay!”

At this point, dear reader, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “what can an old gardener teach me about achieving real wealth?”

Trust me, keep reading.

Our tale of riches begins in the working-class town of Manchester, England, on the 1st of April 1927. Cundall was born in a room that his parents rented for a shilling a week.

They were dirt-poor, but at least Peter was born healthy. Tragically, two of his baby brothers died — one almost immediately after being born, the second when just two years old. “That was quite common in the 1920s … my brothers basically died of malnutrition”, he says.

This was at the height of the (not so) Great Depression.

Of the one hundred homes in his street, only five had a job: “We really were the poorest of the poor … though I didn’t know it at the time. After all, there was no television for us to compare ourselves to anyone else.”

His father was a violent alcoholic who repeatedly bashed his mother. And so it fell to young Peter to step up. Despite his love of learning, he quit school at age 12 and began working seven days a week, from sun-up to sundown, to support his mother.

And it didn’t get any easier as he got older — fighting not only in World War Two but also in Korea.

The avowed pacifist tells me the Korean War was non-stop slaughter: “We were surrounded by rotting corpses all around us. These were your mates. The smell of death never left us for a year.”

The Power of Perspective

Here’s the thing: right now my inbox is chock-full of people worrying about the ‘crises’ they face in their lives: “I can’t afford repayments on my Audi — should I sell it (sad emoji)? I have to pay tax on super over $1.6 million … it’s not fair! The housing market is …. brutal.”

Uh-huh.

Cundall — by contrast — has lived through genuinely tough times.

In fact, looking back on his life after nine decades, you wouldn’t blame him for being a bitter old bugger.

But he’s not.

Cundall’s genius is his sense of perspective.

“I had a magnificent childhood … I was extraordinarily happy”, he tells me, without a hint of irony.

His fondest memory is of his mother encouraging him to grow veggies in the next-door council block, to feed his family.  “I remember when I was three years old, sowing some peas, pushing them into the soil. I started growing organic food way before it was trendy. The streets were strewn with horse manure … that was the food for the veggies!”

And here’s how he describes the time in World War Two when he was locked in solitary confinement (for six months): “When I heard the cell door clink behind me I thought …  ‘Aaaah, finally a room to myself.”

The fact is, no one could go through the devastation he’s seen without being changed. For Cundall (and many of his generation) it instilled a steely sense of resolve, self-determination and inner self-reliance that he could handle whatever life threw at him.

Case in point, here’s what he says about debt:

“I’ve never had debts … never! If I didn’t have money, I didn’t buy it. And if I still wanted it, I’d make it.”

And about government handouts:

“I have never, ever taken anything from the government”, he says (despite being entitled to a military pension after years of service). “I have no interest on being on the public teat.”

Now Cundall may be 90 years old, but he’s still as sharp as an axe. Throughout the interview he punctuates his stories with hook-lines with the skill of an old-school advertising man: “And let me tell you another thing  … and this will shock you …”

I’d find myself leaning in to find out what will shock me …

“I like paying tax … because of what it provides! We need to pay more taxes in this country!”

The Power of Contribution

After surviving two wars, Cundall began his career in the media.

In fact, he was the pioneer gardening guru, starting the world’s first gardening radio talkback show, in the late 60s. And a couple of years later he began presenting on television, which became Gardening Australia, where he stayed until retiring in 2008. (“I am totally unqualified for anything”, he says. “When I got on telly, I just bullshitted my way through.”)

Key point: he didn’t do it because he wanted to be famous. He didn’t do it because he wanted to become rich. And he certainly didn’t do it to fluff his ego. He did it because he wanted to help people and show them how to grow healthy, nutritious food.

Or as he puts it: “I don’t have ambitions for myself … I’m ambitious about what I can contribute.”

And after 60 years, he’s still contributing. Most nights he works until 3 am in his study, writing for the Weekly Times and the Organic Gardener, and he does a weekend talkback show on the ABC.

He also volunteers his time helping soldiers who’ve returned from combat. “These are veterans who are suffering. And when you’re stressed out, you should go to the garden and push the shovel in. As you turn the earth, it releases something back to you. It’s like an all-natural anti-depressant.”

You can learn a lot from listening to the wisdom of people who’ve lived through genuinely tough times. When it comes to Peter Cundall, you can learn just by watching what he does. My hope is that when I’m 90 years old I’ll still be furiously bashing away on my keyboard and helping families manage their money better.

That, for me, would be true wealth.

Tread Your Own Path!