At the elementary school where I teach, I've developed a small spring business growing and selling geraniums to my coworkers. I offer carefully tended plants at reasonable prices, and each year I sell around 200 Multibloom geraniums to grace planters, borders and pots in the community.
One year, to let everyone know how much I appreciated their business, I decided to offer free tomato plants to anyone who wanted them. In April, I tacked up a sign-up sheet in the faculty room. In large red print, it read: Free Tomato Plants -- Early, Midseason and Late Varieties. Any Questions, See George.
The second-grade teachers noticed the sign first. They're used to getting gifts from their eight-year-old students, especially at Christmas, and thought nothing of signing up for three of each variety.
Next, the eighth-grade teachers spied the offer. After years of working with crafty 13-year-olds, they were understandably suspicious. There had to be some sort of catch. They sought me out and quizzed me about the freebies. I assured them that it was just an appreciative gesture. Satisfied, they signed up for two of each type.
Word spread like wildfire, and just about every school employee, including the nurse, signed up for a few free plants. The janitor, who had signed up for nine plants, caught me in the hall and thanked me profusely. And from then on, my classroom was always immaculate.
In all, I grew 200 tomato plants in cell packs. Just before Memorial Day, I distributed them with a friendly "good luck" and "plant them deep." Everyone enthusiastically accepted the stocky, dark green plants that held the promise of bumper crops throughout the county. When he discovered I was giving away 200 plants for free, the seventh-grade math teacher did inform me that, at 50 cents a plant, I could easily be making $100. I just smiled.
Two weeks into June, school ended for another year. July and August were blisteringly hot with a lot of haze and humidity and temperatures topping 90° F for weeks on end. Occasionally, thunderstorms ripped through the afternoon calm and temporarily cooled things off. Before I knew it, though, there was a crispness in the air, and it was Labor Day. School was starting again.
The second-grade teachers met me at the gym door. "George, your tomato plants produced bountifully," they gushed. "Try some of the spaghetti sauce we made from the fruit." They each handed me a quart.
"I let the vines spread on black plastic and they did wonderfully," one eighth-grade teacher reported. "My wife's making tomato marmalade -- I'll save you a jar."
In the hall, I met the janitor, mop in hand. "Hornworms got one of the plants, but the other eight did great. I got baskets of ripe tomatoes." "Here," he said, reaching into a canvas backpack, "try a loaf of my wife's tomato bread." The seventh-grade math teacher pulled me aside and raved that he had harvested 200 fruits from one plant -- and put up 25 quarts of crushed tomatoes, saving him at least $30 at the grocery store.
In the weeks that followed, I carried home a feast of homemade goodies: tomato sauce, tomato jam, tomato soup, chili sauce, aspic, ratatouille, marinated tomatoes, salsa, stewed tomatoes and pizza sauce -- all made from the fruits of the free plants. I got to sample so many different dishes, but the good feeling I harbored was worth more than all the gifts combined. It made me realize that there is, indeed, a "free lunch," and it's delicious, too.