Gifts from your garden are nice for the giver as well as the receiver. They are so easy.
About the easiest one is to take a shovel, a good-sized clay pot and head out to the garden to dig up a thyme plant, plop it into the pot and dress it up with a red ribbon. Thyme is about the only good culinary herb left in the garden at this time of the year that's still green enough to dig and give.
An alternative is herb vinegar. The ideal time to make herb vinegars is in the fall when you're harvesting your herbs, but if you dried any, or have some fresh potted plants on the windowsill, you can still make vinegars now so they'll be ready for Christmas.
Use any store-bought vinegars as the base -- white, wine, malt or cider -- but plain old white vinegar works best to allow the herb flavor to come through. It also takes on the color of the herb. Thus, opal basil will turn the vinegar to a gorgeous deep red, parsley and tarragon will tint it green and golden, respectively. Use about four ounces of fresh herbs or three ounces of dried herbs to every quart of vinegar. To enhance the flavor of the vinegar, you can heat it after you add the herbs, then allow it to cool before bottling. Find yourself some attractive little bottles (the small-sized Paul Masson cruets are ideal) and package two or three together. The flavor of the herbs gets stronger as the vinegar sits.
HERBAL WREATHS are becoming increasingly popular. They appear in gourmet magazines and catalogs. If you're crafty you can make them yourself. I've never had much luck with dried herbs: they seem to crumble badly as you're making the wreaths. You almost have to start with fresh herbs and allow them to dry slowly away from a direct heat source after the wreath is made. Dried peppers work well. Live wreaths can be made by taking cuttings and jamming the ends into a sphagnum moss base. The moss has to be quite dead. I've never tried this method but my guess is that while it may be time-consuming, it would be easier than trying to mess with dried herbs. Put small amounts of herbs into sachets, tie them at the top to resemble Christmas balls, label each one, and tie them onto a wreath. Add little bundles of cinammon sticks, some boxwood cuttings, or better yet, cuttings from that busy rosemary plant you brought in from the garden, and you've got yourself a nice gift.
JELLIES are a pain to make, but if you happen to be good at it, consider buying some apples now and making up a batch to which you add rose geranium leaves, mint, basil, and even hot pepper. These jellies are a treat when served with game, lamb or pork.
HERB TEAS are often appreciated. Make tea bags from Handi-Wipes. Cheesecloth can also be used but it has a tendency to unravel when cut into small squares. Cut the teabags first, sew them on three sides, and add the tea combinations. Lemon balm and mint, camomile, comfrey and borage all make good teas and the plants are easy to grow.
ROSEMARY is a very old Christmas tradition, largely because of its piney scent. If you have more than one large plant, trim one to resemble the shape of a Christmas tree, add some lightweight decorations and use it as a centerpiece.
HERB GIFTS can be purchased if you don't have enough herbs around the house. There are quite a few places that offer live plants, herbal wreaths, vinegars and jellies, and lots of rosemary plants. A sampling of some of them: MARYLAND
ST. JOHN'S HERB GARDEN, Bladensburg, has a hefty supply of herb-related gift items because they wholesale to stores all around the Beltway and in town. They have herb and spice wreaths, spicy yule logs, all sorts of small containers for dried herbs, vinegars and homemade products. They also have handmade potpourri pillows and sachets, herbal bath mits, rosemary trees and plants and dried flowers. They are open Sunday through Thursday from 2 to 8.
BITTERSWEET HILL GREENHOUSE, Davidsonville, (just off U.S. 50 East), offers live herb wreaths in several sizes, herbal vinegars and jellies, a good variety of live plants, as well as combination pots with a variety of herbs in one pot, and potpourri pillows for pets, to keep fleas away and make your dog smell good. Open daily.
SHERATON GARDENS in Bethesda has rosemary plants.
SMILE HERB SHOP, College Park, has dried wreaths. VIRGINIA
EARTHWORKS, in Arlington, offers a variety of unusual herbs and indoor plants as well as rosemary plants (they wholesale to other outlets in the area) and some fine dried herbal wreaths. Earthworks has an open house this weekend, but generally remains closed during the winter, so call for an appointment if you can't go this weekend.
THE HERB BASKET at Adams Square on Columbia Pike, Fairfax, has fresh rosemary plants, but otherwise specializes in dried spices sold by the scoop. They have a few herbal vinegars left. Open daily.
SENECA FALLS GREENHOUSE, Vienna, has herb baskets, herb wreaths, rosemary Christmas trees and lots of unusual houseplants including poinsettia trees. Open daily. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
WASHINGTON CATHEDRAL'S greenhouse specializes in herbs, and has many good gift items in stock for Christmas.