Gifts for New and Intermediate-Level Gardeners

Penta — a butterfly magnet annual

With the onset of December, it’s time for the second installment of Gifts for Gardeners that I promised. For those who missed it, you’ll find gift suggestions for experienced gardeners in my earlier post here.

As a well-seasoned gardener who has answered many, many gardening questions from newbie and intermediate-level gardeners, it is my opinion that these folks usually start digging without a plan or any real understanding of their gardening environment. Sometimes the problem is that folks relocate to the southeastern Piedmont from other parts of the United States — or the world. But they continue to try to use the same techniques — and even plants — that worked for them elsewhere. Sometimes the problem is plain lack of knowledge. Perhaps someone moves into their first home with a yard and suddenly must maintain a landscape. Or perhaps someone resolves to grow her own vegetables without any knowledge of the steps required for a successful food garden in the Piedmont.

What all these folks need most is information, especially region-specific information. I offer here a number of ways gift givers can provide the inexperienced gardeners on their list with the information they need to succeed.

  • Hire a garden coach — Yes, they exist, and they are the fastest, probably most expensive way to get your newbie gardener on the right track. Garden coaches come to your house and help you understand what is growing on your property. If you have ideas about plants you’d like to add, they can help you figure out what varieties are likely to succeed and where they should be planted. They will also help you plant your additions. They don’t do all the work; a garden coach is there to teach you the skills you need to do it yourself. They can show you how to divide and replant perennials. And for more skilled gardeners, they can offer you a hands-on session on pruning the shrubs and trees in your yard that need help. To find a garden coach in your area, try your favorite search engine, or ask the staff at your favorite local nursery. They probably know someone they can recommend.
  • Buy a gardening class — I live within 35 miles of three significant public gardens: the NC Botanical Garden, Duke Gardens, and the JC Raulston Arboretum. All three offer classes to the public on a wide range of subjects. Public gardens throughout the southeastern Piedmont offer such classes. Visit their Web sites, peruse their offerings, and sign up and pay for your newbie gardener to attend a class.
  • In North Carolina, the Agriculture Extension Service in every county offers much free information on gardening. The agents in my county offer free classes that are very popular and helpful, especially for beginners. In this case, your gift could be ensuring your new gardener can attend the class by offering to babysit, run errands, or otherwise free up her time so she can attend. I suspect similar groups in other states offer similar educational opportunities.

If all that sounds too difficult, I recommend a subscription to one of the many excellent gardening resources available. These publications vary in price and level of sophistication. For new gardeners, I recommend magazines that contain as much region-specific information as possible.

  • Carolina Gardener Magazine — As the name implies, this magazine specifically covers both of the Carolinas, and it breaks down seasonal to-do lists by geographic region, including the Piedmont. For beginning gardeners, or newly arrived gardeners from other regions, this magazine will get you pointed in the right direction.  This publisher offers magazines for other US states, too, so you should be able to find an appropriate one for your gardener’s region. This is a magazine best suited for beginners.
  • Horticulture Magazine — This magazine offers articles for beginners and more advanced gardeners, and a section on region-specific gardening (in our case, the southeast) is offered. This would be a good choice for gardeners with at least a little experience. I stopped subscribing to this magazine some years ago, because I felt I wasn’t getting enough new information to justify the cost of a subscription. But for less seasoned gardeners, this is not a bad publication.
  • Fine Gardening Magazine — This is a beautifully photographed magazine. It does offer at least one step-by-step how-to article in most issues, and it also offers region-specific information. I think it’s a tad more sophisticated than the first two magazines I listed. I only recently stopped subscribing to it, again, because I just wasn’t getting enough new information to justify subscription cost.
  • Organic Gardening Magazine — This was my go-to magazine for my first couple of decades as a gardener. The publication has changed a lot since those days. To be candid, I’m not a fan of this magazine in its current form; the articles lack depth, and there’s just not enough information in an issue to justify its cost. But to a very new gardener interested in organic gardening, this might be a good introduction.

Perhaps you have some intermediate-level gardeners on your gift list. These folks know how to divide a perennial and what most common diseases and pests look like. They are likely to be interested in more cutting-edge information — the inside scoop on new varieties, pest issues on the horizon, etc. Give one of these gifts to such a gardener, and they will kiss you on the spot:

  • Buy them a membership in the American Horticultural Society. Headquartered just outside of Washington, DC, this group is a national treasure. Among many other important activities, it sponsors the annual Children & Youth Garden Symposium, which is held in different parts of the country every year, and offers a vehicle for everyone interested in getting children into gardens to exchange ideas and techniques. A benefit of membership is their publication, The American Gardener Magazine. This one is always worth reading cover to cover.
  • The Avant Gardener — this is an inexpensively published (no pictures) 8-10 page newsletter produced by a gentleman in New York. He reads all the horticultural literature and summarizes the best bits in his monthly newsletters. He occasionally does theme-based issues that can be very interesting. For $24/year for 12 issues, this is a publication most gift givers can afford. As an editor and writer, I cringe at the typos in every issue, but the information is worth the typographical pain for me. He doesn’t have a Web site. Send your check to The Avant Gardener, P.O. Box 489, New York, NY 10028.
UPDATE: In the latest issue of the The Avant Gardener, I learned that he is offering some seasonal gift deals.  Gift subscriptions to US addresses received before the end of the year (Dec. 31, 2011) only cost $18.00. And a three-year subscription will cost $50.00 for the same time period. If you give three one-year gifts or one or more three-year gifts, you can extend your own subscription at the same great rates.
  • HortIdeas Gardening Newsletter — This is another no-pictures newsletter, published bi-monthly. The writing is more technical than what you’ll find in The Avant Gardener, and they now only offer an electronic format — they e-mail you a PDF file twice a month. These folks read all the scholarly research as well as the more commercially oriented research. If your gardener wants unvarnished cutting-edge information, she will love this publication.
  • Buy them a publications-only membership to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  I have never visited this famous public garden, and I may never get around to it. But I have been a member for many years because of their Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook series. These beautifully photographed and written books come out several times a year and cover every gardening topic you can imagine. I’ve got handbooks on ferns, herbs, native plants, xeriscaping — you name it, they’ve produced a book about it. These are resources I still consult regularly.

I have far exceeded my usual word count for a post, but I think I’ve offered ideas that should suit just about everyone. Let me close by offering one more notion. Seasoned gardeners like me are usually older folks. We love the work, but our bodies are often not as willing as they once were. We also love to talk about our passion. If you are a less experienced gardener with a seasoned gardener on your gift list, consider offering the gift of labor. In exchange for help moving mulch or dividing perennials, you’ll learn much, and I can just about guarantee you’ll walk away with armfuls of free, choice plants. Just be sure you’re willing to do the work involved to earn those plants.

Happy holidays to all, and to all gardeners — sweet dreams of spring gardens to come.

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