I'm looking for gift suggestions for a beginning gardener.
December 9, 2007 5:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for suggestions for good gifts for a beginning gardener. Books? Seeds? Tools?

My friend has recently developed an interest in gardening; she is enjoying it but hasn't done much before and is currently meeting with limited success. I'd like to give her some gardening-related stuff for Hannuchristkwanzaa, but I myself have a black thumb and am capable of killing plants just by glancing offhandedly at them.

I'd like to get her something that would be good for a beginning gardener, but all I can really think of is a nice pair of gloves and a spade, and I think she already has those. I was also thinking about some seeds and a good gardening book, but I haven't the expertise to select the right ones.

She lives in San Francisco (in the Western Addition) and has a bunch of patches of somewhat sandy soil in her backyard. Her neighborhood isn't the sunniest in the city but it does get some sun. Her previous experiments have mostly been with vegetables (radishes, carrots) and flowers.

I read this previous question, but I think she's not at the stage of needing hours of massage time yet - I guess I'm sort of aiming to encourage her to get there.
posted by whir to Shopping (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I used to think I had a black thumb, too, until I got this book: McGee & Stuckey's Bountiful Container which is specifically about growing things to eat. It turns out that container gardening, which is necessary in my case as my "yard" is a big square of concrete, can be a lot easier because the quality of the soil can be more easily controlled. I had a lot of success with this book, even though I don't have a lot of sun. Nothing like home-grown tomatoes (and peas! and lettuce!).
posted by tractorfeed at 5:12 PM on December 9, 2007

How about a serious shovel? The kind you stand on to drive it into the soil, so you can dig in the compost that sandy soils really need. It's not glamorous but extremely useful even in a small garden.

Compost bin? Even less glamorous but mighty good for the soil.
posted by Quietgal at 5:49 PM on December 9, 2007

A nice wide-brimmed, meshy hat for the sun would be nice (unless she's already got one).

My wife uses these things called Seed Starters, which are covered, protected little domes where you can raise a seed to a larger, sturdier size before transplanting into the garden. It also has the psychological benefit of reducing the imposing size of an entire backyard into a small, cozy little box.

And, of course, there's always our buddy the garden gnome.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 6:03 PM on December 9, 2007

For books I would suggest this. I bought it for a class but and it is a really great reference. For organic gardening I would suggest Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Now is the time of year for garden planning, but amaryllis and other forcing bulbs make great seasonal gifts.

As for gardening supplies pots, saucers, and nice stones are always great. If your friend is really into house plants I would suggest a sampler pack of soil mixes (vermiculite, peat moss, coco fiber, sand, perlite, decorative rocks) and a large container to keep them in. As chintzy as they are I would suggest gift certificates in lieu of actual plants, as not all plants are meant for all people (i.e. a cactus collector wouldn't know what to do with a fruit tree). Additionally selecting an unhealthy plant could bring disease to your friends yard. I would also suggest something like a Seed Savers gift certificate.
posted by kscottz at 6:09 PM on December 9, 2007

Agreed, pots and saucers are great; I started out with the cheapo plastic ones from Home Depot and now that I'm garden-obsessed I'm upgrading to sturdier, funkier/prettier pots as I find them. Possibly other nice tools beyond the trowel. Does she have nice pruners yet? Tomato or flower stakes? If she wants to grow a cutting garden, a nice basket for picking flowers? Books also always good, especially ones focused on small spaces. Square Foot Gardening seems to be a popular one in the vein, though I don't love it myself.

One of my favorite gardening presents given to me is a little mini-greenhouse that lets me extend my growing season a bit (and I'd love it all the more if someone would give me a cold frame), but I'm way over here in PA and not sure if anything like that would be useful in San Francisco.

If you're handy with building at all, what might be really nice (depending on her plans of course) would be to have someone build or help her build some raised beds. If she doesn't have a lot of sun and her soil is not great, that would be a great way for her to get more fertile soil and possibly squeeze a bit more sun out of her space by lifting the plants up. Or possibly I am projecting here because I am hopeless at building and keep hoping one spring my partner will get around to helping me build some raised beds of my own.

One other possibility in a different vein - not how-to garden books, but other types of more memoir-y garden books that might be a good inspiration for her. Michael Pollan's Second Nature: A Gardener's Education is great. So is James Dodson's Beautiful Madness: One Man's Journey Through Other People's Gardens. Beverley Nichols' Down the Garden Path is completely charming in that old-fashioned British way, and is the first of several though I can only vouch for that one. And I've got Mirabel Osler's A Gentle Plea for Chaos sitting on my shelf coming highly recommended, though I haven't cracked it open yet.
posted by Stacey at 6:27 PM on December 9, 2007

Get her a book on native species that work well in her area. Garden centers sell all kinds of plants, but not all plants do well in all regions or soil types or with particular light sources. Choosing native plants will go a long way toward a successful garden because it is stuff that would grow there anyway. Beware the beautiful plants they sell at Big Box store and go with a local nursery. I learned my lesson after buying some beautiful pineapple plants and watching them die. Those stores carry a wide variety to appeal to the eye, but many are non-native species so it will be an uphill battle the whole way.
posted by 45moore45 at 6:29 PM on December 9, 2007

There's nothing quite like a nice metal watering can.

You haven't mentioned if she has a hand trowel. That's essential. Seconding the proper shovel, as well (square-ended).

A worm farm is a great way of turning kitchen waste into nutrients for the soil.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:33 PM on December 9, 2007

You might want to check out this list from gardenrant. (And, if she's a blog reader, you might want to point her to that blog generally, it's got tons of info.) For the beginner, the list suggests pruners and hand tools, and specific brands for both. Also suggested is an amaryllis.

Or, what about a gift certificate to an online nursery? I have had great experience with blusetone -- they've got all sort of plants, and great deals, and they also do planned gardens which are GREAT for people just getting started. There are also good online nurseries that have plants native to the west. (Bluestone is in Ohio -- it has all sorts of plants, though.)
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:26 PM on December 9, 2007

Seconding Bountiful Container. I got it this year and had my first successes with growing anything food-like. It's perfect for a beginner.
posted by nev at 7:36 PM on December 9, 2007

For West Coast gardeners, you can't go wrong with the Sunset Western Garden Book. It gives incredibly detailed zone maps, and tells you which plants will do well in which zones. And Sunset magazine has a monthly calendar of what to do in the garden during the year, also with the zone maps, and is fairly inexpensive for a yearly subscription, if she doesn't already subscribe.

Check the gardening section of your local bookstore for books on gardening in the Bay Area/San Francisco. (I have several region-centric gardening books for my area, one of which gives a monthly to-do list as well)

I was given a pair of Foxgloves gardening gloves that I like very much. They protect your hands, but you have enough flexibility to pull weeds and dig around in the dirt. Before I got those, I'd start out with gardening gloves, but then yank them off to grab that last pesky root, and then end up getting scratched & dirty.

Lastly, and it's going to sound like a joke, get her a Japanese hoe. Specifically, something like the small garden hoe on this page. Short enough to use with one hand, but sharp enough to cut roots, and a great digger.
posted by mogget at 8:33 PM on December 9, 2007

Seconding kscottz's suggestion for The New Illustrated Guide to Gardening. My brother and I both took the same class (Go Blue!) and loved it; I still refer to my copy of that book. The guy who teaches the class told us not to sell the book back at the end of the semester because we'd use it later on, and it looks like he was right.
posted by splendid animal at 10:21 PM on December 9, 2007

mogget is correct: The Sunset Western Garden Book is pretty much required reading for every serious West Coast gardener. If she has patches of sandy soil, perhaps you should give her some amendment for it. Something like $7.50 buys a nice big bag of aged manure, if you like the idea of giving her a sack of shit.
posted by mumkin at 10:50 PM on December 9, 2007

3rding Sunset. It's a necessary book.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:12 PM on December 9, 2007

Felco pruners. Any gardner would love 'em.
Or, a gift certificate from the nearby nursery.
posted by artdrectr at 12:56 AM on December 10, 2007

Sunset and Seed Starting Trays. Check this mini-greenhouse out, too. It would be a great tool for germinating sprouts in our sometimes brisk climate.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:05 AM on December 10, 2007

Thanks very much for the suggestions, everyone, they're very helpful.

As far as the manure goes, I don't think I can get away with it, because I teased my friend mercilessly about buying a big bag of dirt when she started out gardening ("would you like to buy this fine stick from me? How about this rock?" etc). Anyways, I'll post back with what I end up getting for the curious.
posted by whir at 1:38 PM on December 10, 2007

You also might find some good books at the San Francisco Botanical Garden bookstore.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:00 AM on December 11, 2007

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