Q: I hope to be visiting friends and family this holiday season and would like to gift some garden-related items. Any ideas or tips?
A: A good first step is to learn what growing conditions the recipient has, since it’s much easier to use plants suited to their conditions rather than trying to change the conditions to suit a particular plant. This goes for outdoor and indoor gardening.
If you want it to be a complete surprise and cannot ask, then the most practical approach may just be a garden center or nursery gift certificate, since it allows the recipient to choose among the best candidates for their situation and maintenance preferences. (Mundane though it may be, maybe what they want most is a bulk pile of compost for planting beds or a new veggie garden.)
If you’re gifting a plant, think of favorite traits the person might enjoy, such as a particular season of bloom, a flower or leaf color, a delectable scent (floral or foliage), long-lasting or unusual cut flowers, or an herb often used in cooking.
Garden tools are another good standby; good-quality hand pruners — plus a holster for safe carrying, bypass loppers or perhaps a digging bar for enthusiasts who plant a lot and often need to pry out rocks or construction debris. One lesser-known tool is the hori hori knife, a Japanese cross between a knife and a slender trowel that makes weed removal and plant division easier. Hand cultivators are a great tool for loosening tangled roots, moving mulch, and working-in soil amendments for individual planting holes. Gloves are always wearing-out, and the gauntlet-style gardening gloves with their long cuffs offer more forearm protection from thorns and prickly leaves.
For those with too much shade or no land of their own, a prepaid plot rental at a nearby community garden might be welcome if they want to grow veggies or cut flowers next year. Otherwise, houseplant care supplies might be useful instead, such as plant snips (to spare your regular scissors), extra pots and saucers, or a large tub or tarp for repotting tasks. Tubs or deep trays can also be a handy way to carry several plants to and from the sink, or a soaking vessel for air plants or mounted epiphytes (like staghorn fern slabs) needing the occasional dunk. For houseplant fans with a growing collection, a room humidifier can go a long way to alleviating both sinus and plant discomfort in our dry indoor winter air.
Books can both educate and inspire novice and experienced gardeners alike, as can public gardens. There are myriad great gardening books on just about any subject you can think of, from introductory to niche topics. For gardens or arboreta charging an entrance fee, purchasing a year’s membership may be welcome to those still learning what they like or seeking a creative spark for plant combinations.
Q: We like to use fresh-cut greens for the December holidays, and prefer to start decorating around Thanksgiving weekend. If we have our own evergreens in the yard, can we cut some for use or should we purchase boughs instead? (We don’t want to damage our plants.)
A: You can clip tips of conifers (needled evergreens) now. Just be conservative and scatter your cuts so you don’t alter the plant’s shape too much, since long trimmings that delve into older growth won’t necessarily fill back in. On a dense plant, though, sporadic harvesting won’t be noticeable and should be sustainable for many years if the plant isn’t too slow-growing. For best longevity, keep cuttings like cut flowers — cool, shaded, and with cut ends in water — until used in a wreath, swag, garland, etc.
Conifers you may have in your own yard that can be cut for a variety of textures and colors include juniper, leyland cypress, western arborvitae (also named western red cedar), cryptomeria, hinoki cypress, spruce, hemlock, white pine, and yew. Broadleaf evergreens include boxwood, cherry laurel, southern magnolia, and holly, though it’s best to make sure we’ve had a frost or two before harvesting the latter.
Shipped in from the Pacific Northwest, purchased greens include selections that don’t grow well here, several of which offer fantastic scents, like firs, incense-cedar, and other junipers. Since they add variety and unique aromas to arrangements, they’re well worth using, even if you opt to harvest mostly your own greenery.
University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.