Some thoughts that count

Originally published December 16, 2015 in East Bay Newspapers.

It has been my habit in the weeks before Christmas to offer garden-y gift suggestions pulled directly from my own wish list. I’m doing it again but with a twist. I haven’t made a list this year; I am well supplied with garden tools, my bookshelves are hemorrhaging, and my garden, as you know, is already plantiful. Besides, several years ago my family collectively declared that we had enough things and stuff, and decided to exchange charitable donations instead. We make thoughtful choices (no one would blithely send money to a bacon eaters alliance in honor of a vegan) and over the years it has become a sweet tradition that makes us all feel richer. So, if your favorite gardener’s tool shed is full, consider supporting an organization near and dear to his or her heart instead.

Most of us have a particular mission. For those whose gardens are habitats for wildlife, gifts of membership to Rhode Island Wild Plant Society ( and New England Wildflower Society ( would hit the mark. A donation to the Xerces Society ( funds research and outreach to protect the bees, butterflies, beetles, worms, and countless other creepy crawlies that make our soil healthy and our gardens buzz, and feed the birds.

Speaking of birds, a gift to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology ( supports research, education, and conservation with the purpose “to understand birds and other wildlife, to involve the public in scientific discovery, and to use our knowledge to protect our planet.” They maintain the best bird identification website, host a bunch of “Citizen Science” projects, and will send fascinating newsletters to the bird lover on your list. If your gardener would prefer membership in a local organization, check out the Audubon Society of Rhode Island (, Mass Audubon (, and the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown, RI ( Memberships include free access to beautiful and bird-full wildlife refuges, discounted and free educational events, and the gratification of preserving local habitats.

The Garden Conservancy ( does something similar only for gardens. Their mission is “to save and share outstanding American Gardens for the education and inspiration of the public,” and their membership includes “invitations to special events, free admission to select preservation project gardens, and discounted tickets to Open Days,” when the most beautiful private gardens’ gates are opened to the public. Of course public garden memberships offer endless inspiration and educational opportunities too. Join the American Horticulture Society (, which publishes an excellent magazine, or a member garden such as Blithewold, and gain free admission to hundreds of public gardens all over the country. Such a deal.

Giving veggie gardeners membership to a non-profit like Seed Savers Exchange (, which safeguards diversity in our food supply, may be deliciously self-serving as surplus heirloom tomatoes are likely to be shared. And despite claiming that plants are our favorite people, most of us gardeners have a soft spot for humans too. Community garden organizations such as Southside Community Land Trust in Providence ( provide those with limited access to healthy food options with the education and space necessary to grow their own vegetables. SCLT membership comes with buckets of compost along with discounts and “first dibs” at their hugely popular plant sale in May.

Contributions to non-profits are generally tax-deductible, which is great incentive but not why my family exchanges them Christmas morning. We do it because these are gifts that make a difference and keep on giving. And because no matter what we put under the tree, it’s the thought that counts.

Down to earth – Give your gardener inspiration for Christmas

This Christmas your family and friends might be wondering what to get the gardener who already has everything. Because, if you’re like me, you have already amassed a shed full of tools.

You’re probably all set for bird feeders — any more and they’ll eat you out of house and home. You’ve got a birdbath too, plugged in for the winter and no need for another, and your garden might be pleasingly saturated in objet d’art as it is. I’m pretty sure you’d prefer to pick out your own seeds, and in any case, are looking forward to spending the next month or two after the holidays poring over catalogs.

But what you can never have enough of is inspiration.

There’s certainly no such thing as too many gardening books. Sure, shelf space might get tight, but I can avow that they stack quite tidily on the floor when necessary. One of the latest titles released from Timber Press rates a place of honor on your coffee table anyhow. “The Layered Garden” by David Culp is probably the prettiest book published in at least the last year or two, about one of the prettiest private gardens in this country. Exquisite photographs by Rob Cardillo, taken over the course of two years in Culp’s Pennsylvania garden, show rich living tapestries in beds and borders — even tucked in stonewall corners — that celebrate all seasons in riots of color and texture.

But it’s not just a picture book. Subtitled “Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage,” it’s also full of practical advice on exactly how to achieve those divine Brandywine layers. Even if, like me, you don’t own acres of former farmland and woods. (Though, like me, you might rediscover a deep-seated desire for garden views unmarred by telephone wires, parked cars or your own house’s vile vinyl siding.)

What makes the information accessible, no matter how big or small, urban or rural your garden is, is Culp’s writing, which is as textured as his garden, and his approach, which is hands off only in terms of not making drastic and cost-prohibitive alterations to his landscape. Otherwise he’s as hands-on as any obsessed gardener and clearly willing to spend his vacation budget on plants (he is a self-confessed plant-aholic). But he expects them to survive and thrive with minimal to nil life support in the form of supplemental watering, fertilizers and pesticides. That’s the kind of gardening I can relate to. There are even whole pages dedicated to the gorgeous critters and creepy-crawlies that call his garden home. He’s definitely my kind of people.

Andrew Keys is also my kind of people and I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend. His first book, “Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants,” was also just released by Timber Press and is the perfect the potting bench companion to every pretty coffee-table book we already own. The plants listed are actually eye-openers to the world of choices open to us, local and exotic.

But it’s his descriptions of the “problem” plants (some are invasive, others just high maintenance or boring) that make for wicked-entertaining reading. For instance, Henry Lauder’s walking stick, which we would plant for its sculpturally twisted branches, is, “at summer’s end … like a plant that just rolled out of bed, his leaves all shabby and rumpled.” Too true! Why not plant a contorted flowering quince instead?

What makes this book truly useful as well as inspiring is Key’s own nuts-and-bolts advice on how to choose the best plants for our gardens based on the kind of conditions (soil, light, climate) our garden has on offer. After all, the most inspiring gardens are full of carefully curated and edited plants that thrive under nature’s care.

If you already have all the weeding tools and birdbaths you need, try leaving this page open on the counter where your chef chops veggies or in the bathroom magazine basket. With any luck, this Christmas you’ll get some great ideas instead.

Head over to Andrew’s blog, Garden Smackdown in the next couple of days for a chance to win a copy!