Sunday Opinion: Great Gifts For Gardeners

Though I own a shop devoted to everything garden, I would not advise a gift for the garden tended by that passionate gardener on your list. Though you may already be rolling your eyes skyward,  I have ample evidence and experience in this regard-on both sides of the aisle.  Just yesterday an older gentleman came in the shop looking for a stand for his 14 inch stainless steel gazing globe/sphere.  He felt my first suggestion was too small.  My second suggestion would not be sturdy enough to withstand the wind off the lake.  My third suggestion would rust, and might impact the surface of the steel.  My fourth suggestion, a round hollow limestone pillar, was not tall enough.  A tall stoneware column was not a good color with stainless steel.  By no means did I give up after  number five.  We looked at many possibilities, none of which were quite right.  He finally decided he should come back, his sphere in tow.  Can you imagine if his wife, or children attempted to make a Christmas gift of a stand they thought would be perfectly lovely? 

I carry Pollina garden gloves, and Ball and Burgeon garden tools.  Passionate gardeners are especially particular about their tools.  There are those gardeners that make no moves without gloves, and those gardeners who have no use for them.  If you have a big love for a passionately committed glove type gardener, what size would you buy?  Would you choose short gloves, or long sleeved gloves good for dealing with roses? The Pollina gloves I stock are mint green leather.  What if your beloved gardener dislikes leather?  What if there is only one kind of leather they like? What if your gardener prefers olive green?  Or chartreuse?  Or black?  What if their ancient leather gloves are their favorite tool?  What if they have no use for gloves at all?  You see the problem.

My favorite tools are most likely inexplicable to anyone but me.  I love my Mom’s Smith and Hawkins garden trowel, even though my small digging tool of choice is my hands.  I love the memories that come with that tool.  I do not use it-I look at it.  It has dirt on it from her garden-I would not dream of disturbing that.  My second favorite tool is a Niwashi right handed weeder from New Zealand.  I will admit it was a gift from a good friend-a gift that miraculously hit the mark.  My Felco pruners at work have my initials on them-and a “do not touch these” warning.  At home, I have a pair of Arno pruners from France, with leather handles.  I do not need a pair-I like having the pair.  My scissors at work say “not DGW” on the handles.  Anyone who borrows a tool, and does not return it, clean, is pushing it.  My stainless steel spade and fork bought years ago from Smith and Hawkens, are just the right size for me.  The polypropylene handles never splinter, and are easy to keep clean.  A recycled drywall bucket is perfect for weeds; turned up side down, I can stand or sit on it.  A pair of Niwaki loppers with magnolia wood handles have never been used.  They are a sculpture I never tire of looking at.  My collection of tools is eccentric-like every other gardener’s tools. A passionate gardener is opinionated about every aspect of their gardening.  Be sure you want to wade into that.  We stock singing shears for topiary and boxwood at the shop that I think are great.  I would think a gardener will need to decide about them for themselves.

I am a collector, like most people.  My collection of garden books is fairly extensive.  I read my books over and over again.  I have a fairly decent idea of what volumes are there-unlike most everyone else.  It would be very hard to select a garden book as a gift for me. There are few plants that I do not like, but the plants that I would collect are not so many.  I have a dear friend that buys me succulents every year.  I don’t really like them.  I pot them up, put them on my window sill at work, and never water them.  I spent a winter painting auricula primroses; Steve bought me a collection of them for Valentine’s Day.  It was so irritating that I could not get the culture down.  They looked terrible from the day he gave them to me, until the day they died.  This was not a good gift.  I love peonies, roses, and hellebores.  But I want to choose which I would plant in my own garden.  Another person’s idea of a great collection of peonies is another person’s idea.  Don’t pick plants.  Don’t pick a gardening coat, a hat, or muck boots.  Don’t pick a collection of dahlia tubers, or a collection of African violets.  Stay away from trying to gift a passionate gardener in the area of their expertise, or passion.  Gardeners take everything about the garden very personally.  This is not to say you should opt for a vacuum cleaner or mixer-do not do this either.         

So what would be a great gift for a passionate gardener?   Number one on my list-cut flowers.  A bouquet of flowers that a gardener does not have to plant, stake, feed, and fuss over is a beautiful gift. A simple and gorgeous glass, or vintage McCoy vase to hold those flowers is taking that gift of flowers to a loving conclusion.  Any gardener would be grateful for a hand cream that really works-I favor herbacin Kamille with glycerine-Amazon stocks it for 6.95 a tube.  This is a treasure for garden weary hands.  For those gardeners whose fingers split, a pair of thick cotton gloves, and a jar of petroleum jelly is a treatment of choice-warm that petroleum jelly in the microwave, slather it on each hand, put on the gloves, and go to bed.  Those gardening hands will be remarkably better, the next morning.  A 

The video of Audrey Hepburn’s “Gardens of the World” is delightful-16.95 from Amazon.  A subscription to a garden or design magazine is a good choice.  Most gardeners are card carrying fans of the natural world.  What gardener would not want to settle in, rest and read  Fine Gardening, Horticulture, Garden Design, the British Country Living, Southern Living, or  National Geographic?  A magazine that comes every month, with its invitation to sit someplace comfortable a read a little something, is welcome.  A gift completely unrelated to gardening would be great too-it never hurts to remind a gardener that there are other things in this world to do besides dig holes.

Best of all-a gift certificate.  For a tree, or a book.  To a nursery.  To Sneeboer or Niwaki tools.  We do lots of gift certificates this time of year.  How so?  A passionate gardener is a a person with a mission that means a lot to them.  Choose to gently encourage them, or go for broke, distracting them.  We gardeners-we are a bloody nuisance to buy for.

At A Glance: Wrapping Paper

vintage Hallmark holiday wrapping paper

 holiday wrapping paper

copy paper, paper wrapped wire, paper coaster, and branch rounds

manila envelope, red jute twine, recycled holiday bits

handmade pastel paper, paper roses

grocery bag, jute twine, wired florist’s picks, red beaded wire bit

copy paper, scraps of watercolor paper and chartreuse copy paper, dry cedar foliage

grocery bag, florist’s tape, berried bit

landscape plan

The Holiday Landscape: Design Details



Any design – whether it be landscape, garden or holiday design – pertinent to the front door involves much more than the door.  A front door comes with a house, that has a certain shape and size.  That door comes with a stoop or porch.  There is a walkway that gets you to that door.  There is a landscape that accompanies  that walk to the door.  Some doors have a portico, or a roof, or no shelter from the sky whatsoever. Some front doors are on the side of the house. Consideration of all these factors plays a big part in successful holiday design.  This is a house of considerable stature.  The drive court, walkway, and portico are all of a massive scale.  The house is a long way from the street.  Big and bright helps to make a holiday statement in proportion to all of the other existing elements.

The portico is massive, and supported by massive columns.  The door is somewhat dwarfed by the structure over head.  A garland, and integral wreath over the door visually lowers the ceiling.  The is a friendly gesture aimed at creating a more human scale.

The rectangular pots are large, and were designed to fit in between those columns.  A thicket of Cardinal red twig dogwood and berried Michigan holly stems makes a holiday statement that is visible from a long way away. There are but a four elements in these boxes, but there is a generous amount of each. These boxes also make that porch a more private space.   

This pair of front doors are painted a very dark grey.  The porch is wide, and very simple, as is the brick walk.  A pair of Belgian oak boxes are kept company by a pair of antique English chimney pots, and a single concrete French poodle.  The double ball moss topiaries with their twig top knots and vine swirls are 7 years old-they look great with that poodle.  This fall I added a new layer of moss to the old.  As the boxes are so large, I had no worry that the moss balls would be too big, given a new moss layer.  We stuffed mixed greens into the big boxes, and borth green and variegated English boxwood into the chimney pots.  A smaller scale green is a good choice for a smaller container. 

The dark doors asked for a detail that was light, or sparkly, or both.  I glued a pair of vintage gilded angel wings together via a wood plant label.  Short screws through both layers insured the wings would stay together.  A square of foam core board glued to the back was a base for a few layers of magnolia leaves.  A gold metallic bow in the middle speaks to the season.  This detail can be changed after New Years, as the pots will look welcoming all winter long. This detail endows the front door with the greetings of the season.

An asymmetrical placement of a front door asks for an asymmetrical treatment.  A low concrete planter with magnolia and red twig dogwood provides a compact landscape for a trio of nutcrackers.  The magnolia wreath on the front door-a third element providing holiday interest. 

These clients requested a winter theme for their containers.  The pussy willow centerpieces repeat the dark chocolate stain color of the concrete pots.  The curly willow provides a little loosely described volume without interfering to the access to the door.  The decor is very simple and understated, just like the door.  

This front door is part of a large porch which extends across the full width of the house.  The pots on either side of the door are always in shadow, given the roof of the porch.  A pair of pots integrated into the landscape provides an opportunity for winter interest at the half-way point from the sidewalk to the door.  These pots also provide a frame for a stately antique English sundial. This front yard brick terrace is a room of its own.  The stairs are a transition from that public space, to the more private porch space.  The central design issue here was all about making a drastic change of grade from the front yard to the front door seem graceful.

These containers are generously sized, and for good reason.

The house is tall, and a considerable distance from the street. The walkway to the front door originates at the driveway, and is laid parallel and close to the front of the house.  There is a vast amount of lawn between the street, and the front door.  These large pots with large winter arrangements provide a winter outfit for the entire house.

This front door has a small and intimate portico; the holiday garland makes much of this.  A holiday wreath on the glass storm door completes the look.

From the street, an entirely different feeling is at work.  A massive portico covers the front door, and its personal portico.  A pair of Christmas trees set in black ceramic pots make that door seem more important.  The firewood stacked outside and to the left of the front door adds visual interest, and balance, to the treatment of the doorway.  It is important to make much of the front door.  It is the friendliest gesture you might make to your guests.

This recessed front porch features a pair of wreaths hung from the iron fretwork of the pair of front doors.  The white glass ornaments in the wreaths echoes the white light covers on the tuteurs in the boxes.  A trio of coach lights makes this front door, and all that goes with it, seem all of a piece.

This big and rangy contemporary house features a very geometric and formally clipped landscape.  A pair of galvanized pots stuffed with Rob’s signature branches and weeds is a surprising effective foil for all this architecture.  The big idea here?  Study what you have.  Make no plans to cope.  Plan to shine.

The Eagles


Some years ago I ran across an extraordinary pair of hand wrought and cast iron armatures resembling birds. I must have come back and looked at them 4 times, before I approached the dealer. He told me he believed they had been eagles, gracing a building in Paris. He went so far as to tell me they had been on the Palais Royale, but had no proof of that provenance. They were obviously very old; the iron was deeply pitted from exposure to the weather and environment. The heads were long gone, as were most of the wought iron feathers.  One patch of feathers, one piece of feathers long detached, and the hand wrought iron legs and talons gave a small indication of what they might been in their prime.  

But the most striking of all that remained were their massive iron armatures.  An armature is the underpinning over which a sculpture is created.  The armature provides strength and support-a framework upon which to build the final piece.  These old armatures-visually arresting.  Emotionally arresting.  I kept coming back. Buck encouraged me to speak for them.      


I visited them many times over the course of 3 days.  Buying them could not be undertaken lightly.  It would require a considerable investment.  No doubt they were like nothing I had ever seen.  In the end, I gave in and bought them, as they were like nothing I had ever felt.  It is entirely possible that I would not have responded as strongly to the sculptures in their prime as strongly as I did to the aged and deteriorated version.  They had a very powerful presence, though I could see through them.  With almost every shred of ornament stripped or worn away, they were still incredibly beautiful.  There was ample evidence of the hand of the artist.  They were of imposing scale.  I never tired of looking at them.   

I did at one point have a client with a serious interest.  Buck made a pair of painted plywood pedestals, so we could display them in the air.  She decided against them.  I had not a worry in the world about this.  I had fallen for them hard.  I liked having them around, every day.  They might be the most beautiful garden ornament it has ever been my pleasure to own.  This is my personal opinion.  People respond to art in very different, and very individual ways.  I could never buy art for a client, nor would I ask someone to buy art for me.  I cannot really explain why this ghostly pair of birds wrapped their talons around my heart-but they did. 

Why this story now?  A designer from New York, who looked at them at the same show where I bought them years ago, called last week to inquire if I still owned them.  He had a client with a garden whom he thought would appreciate them.  I was surprised that he had taken note of where they had gone.  He responded much like I would have.  There are those garden ornaments that make an indelible impression.  He had not forgotten them.   

His client decided to purchase them from me.  Several days ago Steve and his crew loaded them into our box truck for a trip to Branch.  Buck will crate them for shipping to a garden in St. Louis.  I was surprised at how very reluctant I was to let them go.  More than once I thought about bringing them home, but my garden is not right for a pair of sculptures such as these.   Yet I could have lived with them all of my life, and been challenged, intrigued, engaged, and awed every time I looked at them.  This is what art does for people.   


I have had other perfect moments with art.  Some of those pieces I own, and look at every day.  I could say these remains of a pair of eagles are everything I ever wanted in a garden sculpture.  But in fact they are a creation of the hand of an unknown artist from better than 200 years ago that I will have a hard time living without.

I am a dealer in  garden antiques.  This means I am committed to offering my clients the best there is, given my best judgment and experience.  But I will admit there are those days when I wish I were just a private collector.  Lacking that, I would wish that I had a certain client, and a certain project that would have asked for this pair.  Lacking that, it has been my pleasure to own them for a while.  This is enough, albeit barely enough.   I feel quite sure they are going to an extraordinary garden.  Godspeed, beloved birds.