The December Gardener

Gifts to satisfy the garden lovers on your list

It’s the time of year to brainstorm about good gifts for gardeners on your list. But before I get into the juicy details, I need to pause for a very important seasonal alert. This winter may be especially cold -- we know this because of the mice.

The mice are making their way into homes all over southwest Boston (a conclusion reached after polling my neighbors and members of the water aerobics class at Curtis Hall). They are finding their way through openings in walls around pipes and ducts, squeezing through ¼ inch openings, flattening themselves to scurry under the door.

What does that mean? According to some old wives’ tales, an influx of mice in the fall ranks right up there with an excess of fallen acorns and the thickness of the banded wooly bear caterpillar’s coat as a prediction of an especially harsh winter.

Which could mean that even though you have raked up all the leaves and turned off the water and cleaned and sharpened your tools ‘til the next season, that there is still one more garden task to attend to before you can settle down to think about holiday gifts. If this coming winter turns out to be especially harsh, and you have any of those handsome containers of shrubs or small trees, you may have to provide those plants some extra protection from the cold.

When they are in the ground, those plants are able to go through a very cold winter, but in pots they are more vulnerable to the cold if their only protection is a container wall. This may be especially true for young shrubs, whose roots tend to be at the outside of the root ball.

There are many ways to protect the roots of these plants, ranging from moving the containers up against a wall, grouping them together, or wrapping them in bubble wrap, old blankets, or burlap.  Sometimes people spend a lot of money on expensive shrubs and then they get damaged in the winter. You might want to give them some extra protection this year.  

There, now we can get down to the fun of considering holiday presents related to gardening.  The main categories are books (my favorite gift) and then things for outdoor and indoor gardening.  

I got to spend a wonderful afternoon at Brookline Booksmith preparing for this column, leafing through all kinds of books full of inspiration, eye candy, and good ideas. (Thank goodness for brick and mortar bookstores where you can go and actually hold the books in your hand and get a feeling for them before you decide which one to buy!)

If someone you know is really serious about gardening in Boston next year, a spiral-bound copy of The Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener's Handbook: Make the Most of Your Growing Season by Jennifer Kufawski and Ron Kujaw would be a thoughtful gift. It’s meant to be written in, customized to your garden – the dates for different tasks determined by the frost dates in your garden, and then enriched by your notes on the plants you planted year by year, their successes and problems. The time frame in general is for a New England garden, but the addition of your notes will help you learn the particulars of your garden’s microclimate. The book is full of detailed, illustrated instructions on everything from choosing plants for containers or small spaces to air-drying herbs. It is written by real gardeners, and they write from their real experiences – what has worked for them, and what hasn’t. 

A similar approach is taken by the UMass Extension garden calendar, which posts timely information on the appropriate dates and still leaves room for your notes. JP community gardener Maria Elena Gonzalez, who has been using the UMass garden calendar for years, says “the information is sound and geared towards New England weather and growing conditions.  For every day there are one line gardening suggestions – from cleaning your tools and watering your houseplants in the winter to when to start planting what in the Spring.”  And the low gloss paper used is easy for you to write your own notes on.  

American Grown: the Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America is blatant, beautiful propaganda for the cause of gardening as a means of healthy eating and community building. It is meant for those of us who cannot see enough pictures of our gorgeous First Lady (along with photos of the White House garden season to season) or read enough stories of her family, past and present, and community gardens she has come to know. It belongs on the coffee table rather than in the garden shed; it is meant to inspire first time gardeners, not to instruct them in how to actually go about gardening. 

Wade Graham’s book, American Eden: From Monticello to Central Park to Our Backyards: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are, has lots of beautiful photos, but you will want to keep it on your bedside table rather than the coffee table until you have savored every chapter. Scholarly but not dull, clever but not unkind, it explores how our dreams and ambitions play out in gardens, parks, and our own back yards. You can get a hint of Graham’s sense of humor in his book interview with Steven Colbert

The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Produce in Small Spaces, by Alex Mitchell, and Vertical Gardening: Grow Up, Not Out, for More Vegetables and Flowers in Much Less Space, by Derek Fell, are two recent Rodale books (the Rodale Press is the grandfather of organic gardening books).  These books address specific challenges of urban gardeners. They are not general books about gardening, but they offer interesting ideas. For example the vertical gardening book is a good place to go for specific suggestions of which plants to send up the trellis.

When I asked JP horticulturalist Karen Chaffee of Boston Natural Areas Network for a gift book recommendation, she answered without hesitation, “The Cornell University Weeds of the Northeast!” When I said this is a present and it should be kind of fun, she assured me that there isn’t anything more fun on a Saturday night than sitting down with friends to identify weeds according to the careful descriptions in the book.

What’s more, Karen added that for those who are seriously interested in landscaping, no frilly gift packages can ever be a substitute for the basic text, Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses. (It costs as much as a number of well developed shrubs.)  Just for good measure, she added a recommendation of Sara Stein’s Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our own Backyards, the classic text on landscaping with native plants.  

My own idea of a good kind of garden book for the wintertime is Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (Book), a collection of very personal essays on gardens and gardening. She writes of the nasturtiums bordering her walk, for example, “They must have loved where they were, for they thrived. At night, the smell from them – sweet, like something fermenting that when consumed would make you crazy – was delicious. I considered my walkway a great triumph…”( That is, until she visits another garden.)

Jeff Cox’s attractive The Cook’s Herb Garden looks useful. I grow herbs every year, because they do very good things to the taste of food (as my French sister-in-law has known all along), because many of them continue to grow through the fall after most garden vegetables are a memory, and because I think you actually save money by growing them -- those little bunches of herbs at the market are so expensive! 

I know I’m stretching the category of garden books by including The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, by our Brookline neighbor, Amy Traverso. But this beautifully photographed story of apples and their uses goes way beyond cookbook, especially in its history of the development and historical significance of apples here in New England. And the individual photographic portraits of different kinds of apples and the recipes they do best are wonderful. I gave this book to my apple-pie baking husband for his birthday earlier this year, but it has spent more time on my desk than in the kitchen. I love it!

Finally, if you would like to give a garden gift but you are short on cash, you could order a copy of the FEDCO 2013 catalog (it’s free!) and giftwrap it for a gardener you love. It probably has as much information as any two garden books, and funny illustrations as well. You can order a catalog by ordering something online, http://www.fedcoseeds.com/requests.htm,  writing FEDCO at PO Box 520,  Waterville, ME 04903, or calling (207) 426-0090.

Children’s Books

There are children’s books about gardening as well. The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Crockett Johnson, has been described by Maurice Sendak as “that perfect picture book.”  Teaching the gardener’s virtue of patience, it remains a classic.

Jack’s Garden, by Henry Cole, has a story about the garden that Jack planted that builds on a familiar rhyme. (I remember reading somewhere that the illustrations that young children really like best are the clear, unambiguous ones; Cole’s precise drawings of what goes on the garden will please young readers.)

Planting a Rainbow, by Lois Ehlert, has wonderful colors and lots of different kinds of flowers, even if it is a little short on a story line.

Maisy’s Garden: A Maisy Sticker Book, by Lucy Cousins gives parents a chance to talk about gardening, and to see a bit of Lucy Cousins’ wild art work. 

Miss Rumphius (a picture book by the beloved Barbara Cooney) makes the workd more beautiful by planting lupines in a variety of colors, which over the years self-seed and bloom all over Miss Rumphius’ neighborhood. 

Sunflower House, by Eve Bunting, reaches across gender barriers (boys creating a fort from giant sunflowers!). The warm illustrations are by Kathryn Hewitt. 

Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, is a feel-good stocking stuffer for community garden fans. It’s a very thin paperback popular with young adults and adults alike.

Not very expensive outdoor gardening gifts

An especially useful handtool is Fedco’s EZ Digger (the Korean Ho-Mi), which is equally adept at removing deep roots and light surface weeding.

Garden gloves – so many choices, from the flowered cotton ones to top of the line bionic gloves designed by an orthopedic hand specialist. Happy medium: look for a snug fit and a tacky surface for dexterity.

A garden trug – a kind of carry-all for gathering up weeds or carrying home the harvest -- makes life easier.

There are other tools that are essential to gardening tasks, but they may be ones that the gardener wants to handle before choosing. 

Indoor gardening gifts

There is nothing like the triumphant opening of a giant amaryllis blossom. In the middle of a black and white season, it blooms with life and color. My mother-in-law used to spring these beauties open each year; she favored the deep red ones, but the pale pink ones are amazing as well.

Last winter a niece grew delicious fresh herbs from a grow-your-own kit for fresh herbs. There are also kits for micro-greens  and a very cool one for growing mushrooms.

Whether you are gifting yourself or others with holiday poinsettias, it’s good to know how to keep them looking beautiful through the holidays.

For those caught in the green Christmas tree dilemma -- which is better for the environment, choosing a sustainably grown fresh Christmas tree each year or buying an artificial tree with the plan of using it for many years? --  there may be another solution. A man I know bought a small potted Norfolk pine tree 14 years ago, and cared for it well. For the last ten years it has served as his family’s Christmas tree as it has grown to full size (well, as full as can fit in his house).

Which brings us to the last, most frivolous item on the garden gift list: Glass Christmas tree ornaments in the shape of vegetables.  The carrot, the eggplant, the red pepper and the cabbage – which looks like a brussel sprout -- are charming.  Okay, you are right, nobody really needs them. They are just so cute! Any vegetable gardener you know would love to have them.






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