A lot of people are trying to make their gifts this year. But face it – pulling together something that is heartfelt, full of personality, and low on cost is not always easy. And it takes something that might be even less available: time! Picture yourself working long hours into the night with a result that is a site to behold (meaning, picture people snorting fizzy drinks out their noses in response). Ahhh, the joys of realizing you are craft-impaired.
Every year, I try to make a lot of our Christmas gifts, with varied results. Last year, many of them were from the kitchen, and most incorporated copious amounts of sugar (what was I thinking?): homemade marshmallows, peppermint candies, gelatinous fruit candies, candied ginger, to name a few … some of these things bordered on weird, most were not from the garden, and I found some of them months later in my daughter’s cupboard while I was looking for the peanut butter. Hmmm.
And speaking of disasters, for the grandkids last year, we went through elaborate extremes to build a dollhouse and a wooden monster truck, both of which were works of art. Grandpa and I toiled away like busy antique elves in our toyshops getting them ready for the special day. It was a rude awakening. The kids brutally pointed out to us (as only children can do) two significant problems: 1) the dollhouse was much bigger than the truck (meaning, all gifts are not created equal), and 2) the truck, well, it didn’t *do* anything. No blinking lights, revving engines, honking horns, hip-hop music. Nothing.
This year, the whole anxiety of wanting to give something homemade but not wanting to fail has put me in avoidance mode, and in my usual way of procrastinating things and thereby sabotaging any hope of success (save that couch session for a different post), it is now just 10 days until Christmas and I am looking around to see what I can scavenge together at the last minute – also as usual. When I get like this, I usually retreat to my happy place: my garden.
I surveyed my options, and quite frankly, except for an occasional surprise gem (a rosebud! mon petit chou [my little cabbage!]), the garden looks pretty sad right now. A basket of wilted collards just ain’t gonna hack it. A bouquet of brown broccoli is just that.
See, the thing about garden gifts is that most of them require some forethought, something that is in rather short supply around here. For example, it would have been nice to pick and dry the herbs in their prime and have them all ready to go into homemade herb mixtures for soups, stews, and goulashes (with a “bouquet garni” label to make them look gourmet); bundles of dried lavender could be sewn into sachets; dried roses and other herbs and flowers could be tossed together in potpourris; herbal vinegars would be ready for winter salads; and fruits in cough-syrup-like liqueurs would be available for medicinal uses. Ahm.
But what about NOW? Slim pickins, sure, but there’s still stuff out there, depending on what you have and where you live. Before you go grabbing a handful of tall field grass and other noxious weeds, tying them with a piece of raffia, and calling it “a bouquet of wild bird seed,” here are 20 (yes! count them!) very quick, almost foolproof ideas:
- Wreaths, Swags, and Bouquets: Evergreen herbs such as rosemary, sage, & thyme can still be picked and tied into mini-wreaths or swags. They also look pretty used in place of a bow on top of a present. If you are lucky enough to have a bay leaf tree, you can probably get enough branches with a light pruning to make a nice wreath or two. I am very proud of the one that I originally started from seed. It is protected by our barn and is now quite tall. Gray santolina and lavender clippings also make a nice background to a wreath or by themselves as a room or drawer freshener. And don’t forget dried fruits: apples sliced lengthwise or crosswise to get different designs, dried, and arranged on wreaths with dried orange slices, cinnamon sticks, and star anise are very pretty!
- Sage Smudge Sticks: I have a rather old and leggy sage plant that works well for this. Tie a bundle of sage stems and leaves together – that’s it. A good way is to start at the stem end, wrapping string up to the tips and then back down again. You could also add cedar, lavender, mugwort, and other herbs. Sage sticks have traditionally been used in Native American ceremonies for purifying people and places. Negative energy is carried away with the smoke.
- Bamboo. Got bamboo? There are probably 1000 things you can do with bamboo. My bamboo is rather thin – just right for a lightweight fishing rod, woven into a basket, used as a frame for a picture, possibly woven into a small floormat or window blind. I probably won’t get around to any of these things – but they are ideas.
- Pinecone Firestarters: Technically, the pine tree is not part of the garden, but we are surrounded by firs, pines, and cedars, so cones are not hard to find. Make the firestarter by dipping the cone in melted paraffin. Add a crayon or two and you might get colored flames. I have also heard that sprinkling the cone with salt, Epsom salts, boric acid, or alum will also give color in the fire. Coat with another coat of wax to make it stick.
- Leaf-Imprinted Candles: You don’t have to make the whole candle here if you aren’t prepared to do so. Just get a candle, flatten leaves or other vegetation around it, and paint the leaves on with a coat of melted paraffin. Done. Fancy.
- Bookmark of Pressed Leaves: Don’t have time to press leaves? Lay them between the pages of a paperback book. Put rubberbands around the book to hold it shut. Put the book in the microwave. Put something heavy on top (NOT a bowl of water – the idea here is to get rid of moisture). Reduce the power by half and turn it on for a minute. Check and repeat. Be careful not to overcook or they will turn brown. The pages will absorb the extra moisture and keep it flat. It’s amazing how this method keeps the color of the plant. Put your pressed leaves (or whatever) between self-sticking laminating sheets, cut to size, and you’re done. Alternatively, you could iron them between waxed paper, but the waxed paper sometimes tends to come apart.
- Calendula Oil: You may or may not still have calendula blooming in your garden. Mine was looking pretty wilted the other day, but I think it might snap out of it. Pick the blossoms and cover with a little olive oil that has been warmed (not too hot). Let them steep over several days and strain. Add to salves or use as is. Very soothing on dry skin, irritations, diaper rash, etc. I wouldn’t advise eating it, though.
- Apples: Organic, homegrown heirloom apples make a great gift in and of themselves. If you have a juicer, fresh juice can be a special treat.
- Applesauce Cinnamon Ornaments: These are beautiful on the tree and make great air fresheners when the holiday season is over. Just mix together 1 cup each of cinnamon and applesauce (start with less applesauce, since your homemade sauce might be more or less watery – add more to get the right consistency). Add 1 Tablespoon of white glue (like Elmer’s). Roll out the dough between sheets of waxed paper. Cut with cookie cutters. Put a hole in the top with a straw. Let dry. String with a ribbon. Nice!
- Pickled Garlic: Got any garlic left? If you do, it is probably nearing the end of its life cycle, especially the hardneck varieties. One way to preserve what is left is to pickle it. I am not a big fan of pickles, but I will make an exception for garlic. The problem I have with most pickled garlic recipes is that they add salt, sugar, a whole lot of herbs and spices, and sometimes other things like jalapeños or red peppers. I am more of a purist. I like simplicity. The sugar is unnecessary. The salt brine is too much for me – I don’t eat a lot of salt. And I don’t want things taking away from the flavor of the garlic, including cooking. But the beauty of this is that you can make your own concoction, and many people like additives. For me, what works best is putting peeled garlic in a jar and covering them with cider vinegar or a vinegar/wine-vinegar mix. Put it in the fridge and let it set. That’s it! Ready in 2 weeks – but you could dip into them sooner. A couple of quick tips: if you briefly (very briefly) dunk the cloves in boiling water, they will be easier to peel. If you warm the vinegar first, it will seep into the garlic a little faster. If you cover the jar with plastic wrap, the vinegar is less likely to corrode a canning lid. I am told they will keep for years. Mine never have a chance.
- Homemade Mustards: Not everyone grows their own mustard, and so much of it grows wild around here, it doesn’t surprise me. However, I procured some special black mustard seeds that have done very well for me. I don’t have room in this post to share all my mustard recipes, but if you grind them with a mortar and pestle, add some liquid (a little water, vinegar, white wine, beer, champagne…be imaginative), and maybe a little crushed garlic, grated horseradish, a few herbs, a little honey…. Be prepared to be amazed. Additives are good here. They add complexity. Grey Poupon and Chinese Hot will take a back burner.
- Flavored Vinegars, Vodkas, and Brandies: Although these should cure for a couple of weeks or more, they are still good in shorter time. Warm, don’t boil, the liquid. Rosemary, sage, thyme, fennel, or combinations of the above all work well. Fresh berries are obviously long gone, but freezer berries might be worth a try.
- Canned Goods: Of course, if you managed to find time to do some canning over the summer, you might have a variety of colorful jars you could share: jams, jellies, relishes, fruits, etc., and now all you have to do is tie a ribbon around them. Our family is getting plums, tomatoes, relish, green-tomato mincemeat (mmm!!), and corncob jelly (it will be another eewww moment, but don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it! Very corny!). There is still time to make more applesauce if I can get around to it. Apple butters would also be nice. They can be left to cook down in a Crockpot while you do other things.
- Pumpkin or Squash Pie: Did you grow lots of squashes? Mmmm! Who wouldn’t love a homemade pie!
- Plant Starts: Winter is a great time for transplanting. Here in the Pacific Northwest, temps got down to the teens for a few days and everything was pretty rock-hard out there, but we’re back to our usual rain again (at least for the time being), and it’s possible to go out and divide up a few plants. In my yard, rhubarb, lovage, horseradish, sage, thyme, marjoram, savory, oregano, hyssop, mints, lemon balm, feverfew, verbena, bergamot, and madder are all possibilities. The blades have died back on the chives, but one could still dig up a clump. I have not divided lavender before; I would rather start a cutting. Likewise for santolinas and wormwood. Heck, if time is of the essence, you could take cuttings of your more woody plants, stick them in a jar of water, and let your recipient wait for them to root!
- The Funky Chicken: This is similar to the idea above, except no digging is required. Maybe you have a piece of yard art or a potted plant that you could simply pass on to someone else. For example, a couple of years ago I planted some hens & chicks in an old boot. They have survived all kinds of conditions. Time for a new home. I can always plant more. I have more boots to recycle.
- Indoor Herb Garden: Sure, this would have been nice to get going a couple of months ago, but you could still dig up a few small plants, put them in pots that will fit on a windowsill, and let the receiver take it from there.
- Seeds: Again, you could have collected those seeds before the pods shattered and scattered all over the ground, but hey, you might be surprised what is still out there for the picking. I have massive quantities of cardoon, myself. Poppy pods, calendula, and feverfew are also available. A gift certificate to your favorite seed outlet might not be from your own garden, but might be just as much appreciated (if not more, because then they get to choose). Personally, I highly recommend Renee’s Garden Seeds and the Thyme Garden. Both websites are extremely informative.
Coupon for Future Produce: This is kind of a commitment, but if you’re like me and always grow a little too much of everything, a coupon for an FSA (Family Supported Agriculture) is not too far-fetched. Every week they can come over and help you harvest the produce! Pull a few weeds, too!
And last but not least for a homemade gift idea from your garden:
20. A Painted Rock: Paint “I love you” on it. That says it all.
(Note that there are no pictures of finished products in this post? I have to get busy now!)
Happy Holidays, Everyone!