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I’m not much of a cook, not much of a seamstress, jewelry-maker, painter or musician. I’m a gardener and so when it comes to homemade gifts this time of year, I turn to the garden. Luckily, it’s not even essential that I’m much of a gardener for gifts from the garden to be easy, inexpensive and elegant. Photo: A simple wreath made from Indian Hawthorn (Rhaphiolepsis indica), of which I have a lot in my garden, inherited from previous non-gardeners. For most of the year, I unkindly think of Indian Hawthorn as highway landscaping. That said, it is an excellent broadleaf evergreen for winter structure in the garden and winter crafts such as this wreath. Not as fragrant as English box, Indian Hawthorn is not as fussy either.
Gifts you can make from your garden are endless – limited only by your imagination and your willingness to forage in your own or someone else’s garden (surreptitiously or not) for materials. Many of the materials can be collected while you are doing your winter pruning and cleaning up of the garden anyway. Because I’m a mother of small children, I tend to make gifts from the garden that small children can help with or even make on their own. Because, really, the small children don’t give you much choice but to include them – they are very persuasive. And we have fun. (Especially if Mama surrenders any hopes of being picture perfect or tidy.) Photo: A handful of children came for a craft play date and after a rowdy forage in the garden with clippers, they came in and produced these creations. We ended up with several wreaths, a bundle and a kissing ball – another great decoration made from greens, ribbon and a floral foam or grapevine sphere. Everyone was pleased.
The first and perhaps easiest garden gifts we “make” are pots or sachets of dried herbs for use in the kitchen, as bath soaks or as fragrance and moth repellent in closets and drawers. We use the dried fragrant leaves of California bay, sage, rosemary and thyme (no parsley), as well as dried lavender and rose petals, fragrant citrus leaves and dried chopped citrus peels. This year I found little muslin bags at a local craft shop for under $1 a piece. For glass jars, I try to save and re-use spice jars I’ve emptied throughout the year, but nice ones are also available at local craft shops for under $1 a piece. For spices or herbs that you put into jars, you do not want to package the herbs and tighten the lids until you are sure your herbs are completely dry or they could start to mold in the airless environment. We lay our cut, clean herb stems or flower petals on a cookie sheet and place the sheets into our gas oven overnight, or longer if necessary. Just the heat put off by the pilot light is sufficient to gently dry them. Photo: Left: A bowl of dried fragrant herbs and flower petals, including lavender, mandarin peel and rose petals – the mixture will be packaged up in the little muslin bags for gifts. Right: Little glass jars of dried herbs to give to our foodie-inclined friends and family, included here are culinary thyme, rosemary and California bay leaves.
Other easy gifts and decorations we make are simple bundles of greenery cut fresh from the garden and tied together at the cut ends with floral wire and a nice ribbon. We also make simple wreaths using the same cut greens from the garden and simple metal frames or grapevine wreath forms and florists wire, available at craft stores. Wreaths and bundles can hang inside and or out on gates, doors, windows, mirrors, light sconces – anywhere you want really. You can use smaller bundles or wreaths laid flat on a table as centerpieces. Photo: A greenery bundle of coast redwood boughs, California bay boughs, lavender and California sage spikes – all topped with small ripe kumquats.
Mixing the textures and color of the greens you use can make your holiday decorations even more interesting. We often use some broadleaf evergreens such as holly-leaved mahonia (aka Berberis), English box, or even Indian Hawthorne; coniferous greens might include dark green sequoia and blue-green cedar branches. Photo: A simple wreath of conifer greens. Also known as the California Christmas tree, native incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) is not a great candidate as a cut Christmas tree, mostly because ornaments fall right off the branches, however, the cut greens makes very nice wreaths and bundles.
Finally, you can accent wreaths and bundles with other seasonal elements such as pinecones, acorns, toyon berries, dried lavender spikes, rose hips or kumquats. All these are easy to wire or glue into place. My children like to make small bundles of their own for their bedroom doors and for these we wire a favorite Christmas tree ornament to the bundle. Photo: A simple wreath of native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries and leaves.
Finally, perhaps the most elaborate garden gifts we make are pomanders or clove-studded fruits, which date back to at least the 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I reportedly wore them as fragrant decorations. While I have heard of people using apples as well, we always use oranges or lemons. Like many other people, my family members always receive one perfect orange at the bottom of our Christmas stockings from Santa. Citrus of all kinds have a long history of representing health and prosperity – especially coveted by those in colder climates in the dark winter months. In many cultures, citrus is given as holiday or New Year’s gifts. Spices too were once very rare and are still quite expensive, so the combination of the citrus and the cloves in a pomander are a luxurious offering – symbolically and aesthetically. Photo: Three pomanders: the orange on the far right is newly made this year, the lemon behind it is new this year, and the orange in the front left is close to three years old and still smells great. It got a fresh ribbon for its photo op. Although I did put my ribbons on before these pomanders had fully cured, you are better off putting them after the curing period otherwise the ribbons end up being too big for the dried fruit.
The whole house smells wonderful while we are working on these. Pomanders are used as sachets in closets and drawers, and as hanging or table ornaments during the holidays. My sisters and I made one pomander each for each of our grandmothers every Christmas, presumably to hang in their closets. I can’t imagine how many pomanders the poor women had eventually, likely more pomanders than hanging clothes. Photo: An eight-year old working on her own pomander.
To make a pomander, you will need some unblemished citrus – you don’t want any with bruises or browning spots because the fruit may rot rather than dry evenly. You will also need approximately one regular sized spice jar of whole cloves for three oranges. If you plan to make more than three pomanders, look to buy your cloves in bulk because the little jars are pricey. I use a small knitting needle or firm toothpick to poke guide holes into the citrus for my cloves. This helps in making a clear design and reduces the eventual wear and tear on your fingers from pushing the cloves through the peel. While you do not have to cover every inch of the orange or lemon with cloves, the goal is for the cloves to aid the orange in drying-out rather than rotting, so you want quite a lot of coverage. Because I have mostly lived and made pomanders in relatively dry climates, I let mine air-dry, but in damper climates it is often recommended that you roll your completed pomander in orris root (a fixative derived from iris tubers), or a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and a few drops of sandalwood oil to encourage drying and discourage bacterial rotting. The drying period is referred to as “curing,” we let ours dry in a warm, airy place either hanging or resting in a basket or other breathable container with plenty of air circulation. Photo:A completed pomander hanging to dry.
No matter where you live in the North State, a class or workshop on how to make holiday decorations from seasonal greens is being held near you. Here are just a few: On December 5th In Hamilton City, Master Gardener Pam Geisel is leading a UCNAR Holiday Wreaths and Greens from your Garden Workshop from 9 a.m. to noon. In Redding, also on the 5th from 9 – noon, the McConnell Arboretum and Gardens at Turtle Bay is hosting a holiday wreath-making workshop. On December 6th in Chico, from 2 – 4 pm the Plant Barn is hosting their annual wreath-making workshop. In Red Bluff from December 10 – 12, The Red Bluff Garden Club is hosting their annual Holiday Greens Scholarship Christmas Boutique, and in Chico on December 12th The Chico Horticulture Society is hosting a holiday greens workshop from 2 – 4 pm. Photo: Clipped toyon and fresh mandarins around candles as part of a holiday table centerpiece.
More details as to the locations and costs of these workshops as well as many more gardening related events are at the Monthly Calendar of Regional Gardening Events.
Need ideas for gifts for the gardener in your life? Easy: New Felco hand pruners, new garden gloves (I like the goat skin ones); a compost thermometer, a d-handled border fork, stouter and smaller than a pitch fork, it is endlessly useful. Also, newest edition of Sunset Western Garden Book, a good garden read for winter – perhaps Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart, or A Countrywoman’s Notes, by the late Rosemary Verey. You just can’t go wrong with any new big-glossy-gorgeous-garden-design-and-photography book, take a look at The American Meadow Garden by John Greenlee, or a gift certificate to their favorite independent nursery or botanic garden gift shop. (Is my husband reading this?) Try Lyon Books in Chico or an independent bookseller near you for your garden book order. Photo: An ornamented window-wreath.
And have you gotten the gardener in your life an In a North State Garden desk or wall calendar or set of note cards – you can’t have too many, they are perfect from Santa or under the tree or as hospitality gifts this time of year – you better hurry up and get them – they’re almost gone. What are you waiting for? Proceeds go to supporting the In a North State Garden program, which is dedicated to supporting educational and horticultural institutions around our region and giving voice to home gardening of all varieties in Northern California. If you would like to buy yours, meet me in person and chat gardening in the North State I will be at Antique Cottage and Garden in Shasta Lake on Tuesday December 15th from noon to 2 pm and we’ll be making a holiday greens craft. I will also be in Chico at the Little Red Hen Gift Shop on December 17th from 6 to 7:30 pm for an evening reception to benefit the many Little Red Hen therapeutic programs. For location addresses see the In a North State Garden Regional Resources links.
To end, I would just like to note that of all the gifts that my garden gives to me, the fact that my garden roots me ever more deeply into this planet and weaves me ever more happily into the larger gardening community are hands down my favorite gifts of all.
Happy winter solstice, happy holidays, happy New Year and may the gifts and the peace of the season be yours throughout the year.
If you or your gardening organization have an event you’d like posted to the gardening calendar: simply send an email with all relevant information to Jennifer @jewellgarden.com.
Did you know I send out a weekly email with information about upcoming topics and gardening related events? If you would like to be added to the mailing list, send an email to Jennifer@jewellgarden.com.
In a North State Garden is an outreach program of the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State, based in Chico, CA. In a North State Garden is a weekly radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in California’s North State region. It is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio KCHO/KFPR radio, Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.