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Sally Cunningham: Gifts for gardeners - and the earth

In this season of generosity, sentimentality, and often good times, we might stop to consider the needs of another close relative: Mother Earth.

I am happy to see that many retailers are doing that to some extent, offering products related to reducing, reusing or recycling. From garden centers to trendy gift stores (Thin Ice on Elmwood Avenue among them) you’ll see gifts that represent environmental responsibility: washable produce bags, metal drinking straws, compact nylon sacks to keep in your purse or car, and Rainforest Alliance coffees.

Socks are good gifts, but consider locally produced alpaca wool socks, or cotton Conscious Steps Socks that dedicate some profits to help people who lack clean drinking water. Environmentally aware shoppers may also be motivated by low-energy lights, cloth napkins and condensed laundry products that don’t come in huge plastic jugs.

Whatever you buy, shopping locally is always the right start, especially in garden centers that are so challenged by a limited retail season.

Here are some ideas from nurseries, garden centers and local shops that might please the gardeners in your life or anyone who is trying to care for a patch of the earth.

Plants are ‘in’

It’s fun to see that houseplants are having a surge in popularity, especially with younger homeowners and apartment-dwellers. Longtime collectors (or plant rescuers) like me may laugh to see new zealots dragging home foliage plants – but it’s all good.

Chris Lavocat, of Lavocat’s Family Greenhouse & Nursery in East Amherst, recommends snake plants (Sansevieria). “They are easy to care for, perfect for low light environments and great for air purification according to scientists,” he said.

He also recommends fiddle leaf figs: fast growers with great structure, good for a dramatic statement. The garden centers with houseplant departments now have more low-maintenance houseplants than ever, suitable for actual home conditions.

Succulents and air plants represent a trend that won’t quit, excellent for the busy career person who claims to kill everything. You’ll see them in dish gardens or fish bowls, planted in gourds or on wall hangings.

Or – seen in many shops this year – you’ll find air plants resting in glass containers that seem to float in air. These plants might actually suit the new or non-plant person better than the plant nerd, because they thrive on neglect. (Don’t overwater; just mist once in a while.)

I received a souvenir necklace from the Tropical Plants International Expo (held in Florida every January), that is a tiny succulent glued into a small white vial on a cord. I’ve kept it alive for two years.

Do you know somebody who likes flowers – but only if they need no maintenance? A new gift plant has appeared this year that requires no vase, no soil, and no effort: The wax-coated amaryllis!

I saw it on Instagram from online sources, but then I spotted it at Murray Bros. Nurseries in Orchard Park. It’s for one season only, but it’s just as beautiful as the bulb with roots (that you can pot up and get to re-flower).

Another short-term commitment could also be the ever-popular poinsettia (and, no, it is not poisonous for your cat). Best bet for a healthy one: Buy locally grown.

Honey for your honey

Masterson’s Garden Center in East Aurora is the place for all things bee-related. They are the premier educator of beekeepers and make great honey products themselves.

Wherever you live, buying locally produced honey has health value and supports beekeepers who are providing valuable ecological service (which isn’t always easy). Then after you buy some honey, spread the message with bee-themed gifts such as beeswax soap or lip balm, pollinator plant seeds, a book on native plants, or the perfect bench for a pollinator garden. (Native pollinators need attention, too.)

(Photo courtesy Erin Masterson Holko)

What gardeners want

I cannot image a gardener who would not honestly love a gift certificate to a garden center or nursery. Money can get tight when gardening season starts, and a gift card is thrilling at just the right time.

More specifically, if you know that gardener is challenged by compacted or depleted soil, give the gift of prepurchased compost, whether bagged or a planned bulk delivery. Maybe your gardening loved one would love a raised bed kit, or a landscaper company certificate for a stacked stone wall or new path. Or consider a composting system, or a kitchen scraps bucket for the kitchen, or even a worm-bin (with the family’s permission first.)

Long ago I was so happy to receive credit for a load of aged horse manure for my large garden. In less rural settings many gardeners would dearly love a prepaid spring delivery of the Big Yellow Bag garden soil.

Gardeners also appreciate high-value tools and products they might not buy for themselves, such as top quality pruners from Corona or Felco. At Lockwood’s Greenhouses I spotted a gorgeous gift set of Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gloves, trowel, and kneeler in floral patterns.

For the indoor or apartment-bound gardener, super gifts could be plant lighting shelves or boxes, or beautiful containers. At Urban Roots, I’m told that wool pellets (inserted in plant pots to hold water and add fertility) are selling very well for houseplant fans.

Growers of specialty plants – orchids, violets, cacti – always appreciate a soil mix or fertilizers specific to their collection. And as proof that everything old becomes new again: Macramé plant hangers are back in craft stores as well as sophisticated gift shops. (Or you might just have to start to crochet again.)

Stop by a garden center or gift shop and see what strikes you – and mention it if they feature eco-sensitive products. I haven’t gotten to every garden center but I can tell you this: Whether it’s Adam’s, Russell’s, Johnson’s, Mischler’s or another favorite, you can expect to find customer service, knowledge, positive energy, pretty things, and great plants, without the pressure of the mall or the impersonality of the internet.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant. She and Jim Charlier are the authors of “Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95).

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