Financially Independent, Retired Early(ish) at 57.

Retirement: when frugal hobbies become simple pleasures.

Strawberries hanging free.
Strawberries from a wicking box. Amazingly, Jeffrey the dog missed these.

I started growing our own food well over a decade ago. It began when one of my boys was having a serious battle with depression and it seemed it was like the only concrete thing I could do to help him, by growing veggies and eliminating as many preservatives and things from his diet. I went all-in – by the time we moved out we had over 15m of vegetable beds, over 30 fruit trees and a flock of chooks. I must have been reasonably fond of him.

The thing about growing food is that it definitely saves you money. Not right away; all of those bags of compost, mulch and seedlings don’t come cheap! But over time, I enjoyed the frugality of serving my boys free food – my favourite flavour! – with veggies and eggs that came from our own property. I knew it was the best possible quality food, also at the best possible price.

Growing food not only saves money, but it provides endless entertainment and problem solving. No matter how much knowledge and experience a gardener gains, you’re never in total control of the outcome of any crop. There are variables in weather, soil composition and pests that you have no control of. This keeps things interesting. For me, gardening is conducting a series of experiments to see what works. There’s always something new to try, which makes this a great interest to have to entertain myself in retirement.

At first, like with everyone who starts growing food, it was all a bit hit and miss. But over time, I grew to learn more and more. I started moving towards growing heirloom veggies and saving my own seeds. My food forest in the suburbs was just becoming fully established when I decided to fast-track my retirement by releasing the equity in the property by drawing up plans for 2 massive townhouses to be built on the property.

It hurt to think of all that hard work being ripped out and built over, but for the longer term, it was the right thing to do for my life. I put out the word that there were free fruit trees, chooks and a solar-operated hen house door and friends rescued everything. And so we moved 16kms away to The Best House in Melbourne.

Rhubarb. Lots of it.
57 stalks of rhubarb from the garden. This is all from one plant. This is a perennial plant, so it’ll feed me for the rest of my life, probably.

But you know? The good thing about learning about something is that no matter where you go, you take that knowledge with you. I had to wait around 18 months for the sale of the original property to go through, but once I had the money in hand I could redesign the garden to be how I wanted it to be for my retirement.

And the pastime that began with a feverish wish to do SOMETHING useful for my boy has morphed into one of the key interests that will give me untold hours of interest and pleasure in my retirement. Isn’t it funny how life works?

A post I wrote, entitled ‘How do you GROW wealth?‘ has photos of how I designed the back yard to suit my retirement. The back half is filled with wicking boxes and spaces for fruit trees, while the front half has since been covered over with a huge verandah for entertaining. It was a huge ‘investment’ up front to get all of the work done, but now it’s pretty much finished, just as I retired. I can now look forward to many years of quiet enjoyment, pottering around and having fun at home.

I have enough money to retire, but I still have echoing memories of when we were struggling. I like the idea of minimising my outgoings when I’m no longer drawing a wage, so my garden out the back will scratch two itches: the wonderful feeling of frugality when I harvest free food, and the gift I’ll be giving myself of hours of entertainment with the planning, preparation, maintenance and harvesting of everything I grow.

Baby fruit trees.
The ‘orchard’ 6 months ago, just after we planted it.

While we were in the second lockdown last year, I ordered some fruit trees and the boys and I created an orchard in the front yard. That was a bit of fun as we were coming into spring. I also ordered 4 columnar apple trees that I placed along the edge of the garden bed, ready to be planted beside the driveway sometime this year.

Then I got to thinking. There’s a lot of space going to waste around these trees. One day there’ll be flowering shrubs to bring beauty (and bees) to this space, but why not do an experiment in the meantime?

I filled 3 large pots with potting mix and planted what I thought was pumpkin seeds that I harvested from the garden last year. Imagine the pumpkin vines meandering around underneath the trees? They’ll grow lots of pumpkins – and pumpkins keep well for months and months. What could go wrong?

Baby fruit trees swamped by zucchini plants.
Here’s what the orchard looks like now.

Turns out they were zucchini seeds. Zucchini seeds that are a hybrid of two sorts that I had growing near each other in the yard last year – a mix of ‘Black Jack’ and ‘Tromboccino’. Let’s call them ‘Frogdancer Zucchini.’ There are 11 fruit trees hidden underneath all of this rampant growth. I’m happy… don’t get me wrong… but millions of pumpkins would keep for far longer than millions of zucchini.

I’ve had to swing into action.

8 plump zucchini.
Here are 8 large zucchinis.

Just from these 8 zucchini alone, I’ve chopped and frozen nearly 12kg/26lb worth of 200g bags. I add chopped and frozen zucchini to soups/pasta sauces/casseroles – anything to add a little more goodness and bulk. With 60 meals’ worth in the freezer already, my Ma Ingalls energy for providing for my family for the colder months of 2021 is now satisfied. The hundred or so that are still growing will be eaten fresh or given away.

Frugal free food not just for us but for everyone else!

Gardening for food varies from year to year. Last year I had tomatoes coming out of our ears. It was the perfect year for a glut of tomatoes. In a pandemic, when you don’t want to go to the shops, tomatoes are the perfect base for heaps of different meals. They taste even better when they’re free. I just froze them in 400g bags, just the same size as a tin.

Last year we had hardly any zucchinis. This year it’s the reverse. I guess it keeps things interesting.

As I enter the brave new world of retirement, I like the fact that I have interests that don’t have to break the bank. I’ve spent a lot of money setting up the garden, but from now on it’s all smooth sailing. I’ll be learning more about growing food from seed I’ll harvest myself, so over time the food I grow will be extremely cheap. I’ll be making my own compost and fertiliser so I won’t even have those costs.

The other things I like doing are also pretty cost-effective. Even a hobby like quilting, which can cost a lot when you’re buying brand new fabrics, batting and thread, gives HOURS of entertainment as you’re sewing away. It’s very cheap when you make quilts from scraps and even sew together smaller pieces of batting to use up what you have. Knitting? Also gives hours of entertainment.

This first year of retirement has overseas travel being taken off the table. Australia’s borders aren’t opening up until 2022, which frankly, I’m quite happy with. We’ve fought too hard to beat this virus to let it all go now, especially in Melbourne.

I’m thinking that my first year of retirement will be a quiet one, with short hops to places inside Victoria (in case the borders close again) and for the rest of the time just puddling around here at home. The hard years of HAVING to be frugal have had the happy byproduct of giving me endless ways to entertain myself without having to spend up big.

After I press ‘publish’ on this post I’ll be popping up to the local library to pick up a couple of books I’ve reserved, then I’ll come back home to continue working on a quilt I’m making for Patricia, the principal from my old job. It’s a very hot day today, so I’ll be inside in the aircon, listening to (free) podcasts as I assemble the quilt I’m making from fabric I already had lying around.

Having frugal things to do isn’t a deprivation. I’ll be as happy as a pig in muck. Later today Ryan26 is going to stay at a friend’s house. David27 is over at his girlfriend’s house, so I’ll be Home Alone. I’ll dine on leftovers from the birthday celebration we threw Tom29 yesterday, then I’ll either read one of the library books or watch something on Netflix. If I feel like talking to someone I’ll have the dogs, who hang upon my every word.

Honestly, unless I’m travelling overseas (where I deny myself NOTHING!), I quite happily live off the smell of an oily rag. This gives me confidence moving forward into retirement. I know that if the worst happens, I can cut my expenses to the bone and I’ll be able to weather the storms. I’ve cash-flowed the expensive things while I was still working – I’m getting my ensuite revamped at the moment – and now I can settle into enjoying the simple things that I’ve found give me so much pleasure.

I’ve put a lot of thought into how I’d like my retirement life to look like. In 2 days’ time, teachers go back to work. Up until now I’ve felt like I was still on summer holidays. So in 2 days’ time my retirement will begin.

I can feel my stress levels slowly unravelling at the very thought.


  1. Budget Life List

    It’s fascinating to see how other’s frugal journey influenced their lives. Your garden looks and sounds divine!

    In 2020, forced myself to learn how to draw. I was taking a naturalist course and I thought it was required. Turns out, it wasn’t BUT if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t of known how much I love to draw. Plus, it’s FREE99! Funny how those little things seem insignificant can grow to be life defining.

    • FrogdancerJones

      Have I written on this blog about the woman I know in the UK who got bored during lockdown and picked up paints and started painting her dogs?
      She’s amazing. I commissioned 3 paintings of my little pack. They were my retirement present to myself.

  2. Girt

    I love this FDJ. Actually your articles on wicking beds were what brought me to your blog …. my lucky day!!

  3. Wendy

    This is so frustrating 🙂 I grow a lot of things in my small garden but fail on growing zuchinni’s. Try it every year, different spots, different species, the fail proof ones, the heirloom ones. Nada.
    I am a housewife (since we had kids, 18 yrs ago) so I cannot retire anymore, but by being frugal ( the good thing is it doesn’t feel that way) and my HB investment skills (we hope) he can retire earlier.

    • FrogdancerJones

      I was never able to grow pumpkins – supposedly one of the easiest veggies to grow.
      Last year finally broke the drought!
      Keep going – you’ll get there! Plenty of water – not on the leaves.

  4. Latestarterfire

    Another benefit of veggie gardening is it forces me to go outside – must check on those developing veggies and remember to fill up the wicking bed water reservoirs! Didn’t know that rhubarb is a perennial – will be planting that next. Glad to know I’m on the right track and looking forward to a simple retirement – you are definitely setting a great example for me!

    • FrogdancerJones

      I’ve got my rhubarb in a wicking bed and it’s starting to take it over. If I’d known it would grow so big I wouldn’t have planted it so close to the edge!
      Maybe this is a plant that would be best in the ground. 57 sticks is a LOT of rhubarb to cut up.

      • Ryan

        My rhubarb is giant and I finally divided it and gave away chunks to friends and my sister. It’s in the ground and doesn’t need that much water – mine does quite well in the spring with zero supplemental water and I harvest just a few stalks at a time through April and May (maybe that would be November or December for you?). It gets a bit iffy in June but can usually still harvest a few and I leave at least 30% of the stalks and leaves on at any time to feed the plant.
        I love a good perennial food plant. I’m iffy with the annual ones but my rhubarb and berries (red and black) and plumbs and pears are producing so much.

        • FrogdancerJones

          I’d love to grow berries but I don’t have the space here. In my last place with the food forest we had blackberries and boysenberries. They were delicious!

  5. Kathy Aylward

    I love hearing stories about growing veggies. Last weekend I weeded one of my 3 veggie beds and put some mushroom compost in there and some straw on top so I will be planting some things in their today. When I was going through a tough marriage break up I finally got two 1.2mt square veggie beds in my old house and as tough as my days were that veggie garden thrived and gave me such happiness. My daughter who was then 2 would go outside and pick lettuce leaves for her kindy lunch and it certainly was my therapy. I need to be more consistent this year with my veggie patch. I don’t really have the space for fruit trees but I certainly can grow lots of smaller veggies. We have 2 chickens as well and love the fresh eggs.

    • FrogdancerJones

      I love chooks’ fluffy bums and the contented sounds they make as they go about their day.
      Growing food is certainly very rewarding. Good luck with the new crops you plant!

  6. Pipistrello

    Ho, look at that bounty! I used to have a recipe book entitled “What to do when your zucchini harvest comes in”, for those in your shoes. Of course, living in a flat and working at a coalface meant the book was just for fantasy back then, but it’s great to see the Frogdancer dreams a reality and I can vicariously enjoy the pleasure all over again!

    • FrogdancerJones

      It would’ve been better if the seeds were pumpkin, but hey. Food is food.

  7. Jenb

    l can hardly keep up with the bounty from one zucchini plant. I can’t imagine planting multiple! People around here leave bags of zucchini anonymously on people’s doorsteps, since everybody has so much they can’t give it away! This is our favorite way to eat it.

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