This article has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
This time of year we start thinking of the upcoming holiday season, often with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread. Stuff, stuff, and more needless stuff: despite our values, sometimes we feel trapped in the holiday gift cycle. How can we spare ourselves the last-minute, mind-wracking stress of choosing holiday gifts for friends and family who are already well-provisioned in life?
There are two things everyone will always need: natural beauty and delicious edibles. Homegrown gifts are a natural part of the growing global movement for simple, sustainable holidays. Take advantage of harvest’s bounty, and look to preserving, packaging, and presenting this nourishing surplus for our loved ones. Both giver and receiver are blessed by this wholesome exchange.
1. Favorite flower bulbs
Flower-lovers will delight in a nicely boxed gift of favorite bulbs, with instructions on their over-winter care and planting. If your bulbs are ready for dividing this fall (every 3-5 years), plant the small offsets into a holding bed so they can mature for a couple of years. Then you can gift them with the assurance they will flower the same year.
2. Forced bulbs
Many bulbs, including tulips, narcissus (daffodils), hyacinths, crocus, and lily of the valley can be “forced” indoors in winter — a little burst of spring on our kitchen table, just when we need it most. A whimsical found container such as a vintage candy dish, casserole, or teapot adds flair. Plan ahead and follow instructions: these bulbs must be in cold storage for a minimum of 12-13 weeks before gifting, and in most cases must be discarded after blooming, as forced bulbs usually won’t flower again.
3. Special seeds
Save the seeds from your favorite high-performing crops, and distribute little packets with planting and care advice. Little ziplock bags may prove more durable than clever origami paper packets — after all, you want the seeds to make it to the garden next spring. Save your craftiness for pretty labels, and find a nice cloth drawstring pouch to tuck them all into.
You can also purchase a gardener’s seed saving kit as a gift in itself.
4. Dehydrated treats
Long-lasting dehydrated foods are a welcome treat. Apple rings, pears, sun dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, fruit leather — the choices are limited only by your creativity (or recipe book). We’ve experimented with everything from mission figs to salmon jerky in our trusty Excalibur. Try making a dried soup mix with a variety of seasonal vegetables: onions, carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers all dry beautifully, to name just a few! Kale chips are another favorite choice, spiced up any way you like.
5. Braided onions or garlic
A braided string of onions or garlic makes a beautiful and useful gift. A warmly glowing enhancement to autumn decor, these papery gems will continue to generate goodwill through many dinner preparations. Or simply box an assortment of prime garlic bulbs, paired with home-jarred tomatoes, dried Italian herbs, or heirloom dried beans: savory inspiration for the season of soups, stews, and roasts.
6. Homemade liqueurs
Have bounteous berry bushes or fruit trees, but no time or inclination to can preserves? In fifteen minutes (plus steeping time), you can whip up a sophisticated homemade liqueur to wow the gourmands in your life.
The basics: slice fruit into a large jar, add sugar, cover with vodka or the alcohol of your choice (brandy and rum are holiday traditions in some families). The artful addition of herbs, spices, or vanilla bean can add depth and interest. The unusual Italian liqueur Nocino is made using unripe green walnuts, if you’re lucky enough to have any of those in your yard!
Allow at least 2-4 weeks for steeping. When fully matured, strain and decant into your choice of bottle: liquor bottles can be reused by covering the original sticker with your handmade labels, or junk stores are full of “fancy” old cut-glass decanters.
7. Fruit cordial
A non-alcoholic fruit cordial is a wonderful alternative, but generally requires the same boiling and sterilizing as any canning project, without alcohol as a natural preservative.
8. Lavender sachet
If your lavender bush is flourishing, stuff the dried flowers into cloth sachets, or tie little bundles together with ribbon for garnishing gifts. Save your withered roses as a foundation for your unique blend of garden potpourri: add any dried scented plants which strike you as harmonious. Include a beeswax candle or a pretty cut-glass dish from a yard sale.
9. Dried culinary herbs
Make little jars or packets of dried culinary herbs with favorite recipes attached. Thrift stores are a great source of used spice racks, often containing a dozen or more little jars. To dry most herbs, harvest on a sunny morning before the flowers have opened. Use a dehydrator for tenderer moist leaves, including basil, tarragon, all the mint family. The hardier rosemary, sage, thyme, and savory can simply be hung bundled in a well-ventilated room until brittle. Keep out of direct sunlight for best flavor.
10. Home canned preserves
Share your home-canned fruit, jam, pickles, salsa, or veggies. Little glowing half-pints of preserves or chutneys are doubly prized by those who don’t make their own: no store-bought condiment can compare. This is a wonderful use for any grown or gathered crop which has been particularly bountiful this year. To add glamor to our bumper crop of Gravensteins, we’re making a dark and rich spiced apple butter this fall.
11. Herbal vinegars
A simple gift made while your herbs are still green, herbal vinegars are easy and inexpensive. Gather an assortment of tarragon, savory, thyme, or rosemary and steep in boiled white vinegar for 4 to 6 weeks. Remove herbs and replace with fresh snippets or leave clear. Use in salad dressings and drizzle over vegetables.
12. Fragrant herbal teas
Like dried culinary herbs, herbal teas are best made from herbs harvested in the morning, before the plants have flowered. Gather an assortment of sweet and savory herbs such as mint, lemon balm, fennel, sweet woodruff, rosemary, and catmint, and dry by hanging in a dark, well-ventilated area. Blend using some of our favorite recipes. Package in jars or small paper bags.
Packaging: think green
If you’d like your receiver to feel truly special, take some care with presentation. If you’re taking the time to grow and save your homemade gifts, wrapping them up in a lot of virgin paper and plastic from the local chain store surely doesn’t feel right. Try thinking outside the big-box:
Check your recycling bin.
Items such as shoe boxes, yogurt cartons, and olive oil tins can be covered in re-used scraps of wrapping paper or fabric to make perfect containers.
Mine the thrift stores.
A quick wander through the “miscellaneous” aisle can reveal some wonderfully unique gift vessels: try tucking your seed packets into a handmade coffee mug, or nesting your tulip bulbs in a weathered galvanized bucket. Traditional receptacles like woven baskets and vintage metal cookie tins are also common.
Start your own stash.
We’re not trying to add clutter to your life, but consider thinking ahead and saving promising-looking packaging that comes your way over the year. Once you get in the habit, it’s easy to recognize.
If you have the time and inclination, now is also the golden age of easy at-home internet crafting tutorials. Use your old clothes to make gift bags, cover an old wooden crate with mosaic tiles, make your own wrapping paper — whatever tickles your fancy. These packages are an extra gift in themselves, sure to find a new use in the recipient’s household, or get passed on to the next lucky giftee.
Gifts from our gardens touch the heart and feed the soul. The more you know about your recipient, the more personalized your gift: no sugar for Uncle Charles; extra spice for Cousin Maddie; Grandma makes that wonderful squash pie, so bring her a crate of butternuts, plus some seeds and spices. Luckily, most of the ideas here are free of gluten and other common food allergens.
You can scale up or down as appropriate: single jars of jam with decorative bows for everyone at the office; an assortment basket overflowing with goodies for a family member living alone, or a friend facing hardship.
For the investment of a little time and your labor of love, you can save hundreds of dollars on disposable factory-made gifts. You’ve created no waste and reduced your holiday’s carbon footprint to a minimum. Just imagine how free you’ll feel in December, when everyone around you is fighting traffic and standing in endless checkout lines.
What’s flourishing in your neighborhood this season?