This is the season when plants fade away and retail sales grow, as evidenced by last weekend's record-breaking pre-Christmas sales. If there are gardeners on your holiday gift list, here are some ideas:
* Indoor water gardens top my list. A great variety of mass-produced features is offered this year. Calming pools and water cascades are showing up in major department stores all over town, and, of course, most garden centers too. Prices range from $40 to $280.
My favorites are one-of-a-kind pieces, hand carved out of lava rock. They are built and sold by Maryland Aquatic Nurseries in Jarrettsville, Md. Some have plantings, bonsai style; others are gently flowing water cascades. In addition to being attention-getters, these pieces are such aesthetically pleasing art objects that they'll add a refined touch to interior design. Visit the company's retail outlet on the Internet at www.marylandaquatic.com, or call 410-557-7615 for a catalogue.
Another water garden company is Lilypons. Its holiday gift catalogue features turtle table lamps, tadpole toys, lotus soap, water lily lamps, books, note cards and a "flood" of other gift items and stocking stuffers. Visit its Web site (www.lilypons.com) or call 1-800-999-5459 for a holiday catalogue.
* Gardener's Supply Co. has an innovative collection of mail-order gifts. I especially liked the Smart Plant Care System, a self-contained, user-friendly, miniature growing platform. It holds only one plant, but amateurs can't fail. Set it, and the grow light automatically simulates day length to represent the change of seasons. An indicator light flashes when the plant requires water, and there are directions for growing a range of plants and making them flower. A holiday catalogue is available at 1-800-955-3370, or visit the company's Web site at www.gardeners.com.
* Books are always a good bet, and even better if they're the type gardeners can curl up with by the fireplace. These three are my choices because they have a country or traditional theme, offer new perspectives and will have practical value in season as well as out.
In "The New Traditional Garden" (Ballantine Books, 1999, $35), landscape architect Michael Weishan has written the definitive text for creating a garden that will mesh harmoniously with any historic home. Weishan has made this book applicable to all levels of expertise. It has everything you ever wanted to know about understanding, installing and caring for a historic landscape. He covers traditional American landscape design from the late 17th century to the 20th century and discusses exactly what type and style of garden is required for a particular house.
The 337-page, hardcover tome offers complete landscape design guidelines and is the most thorough compendium of historic plants that I have read. He also gives pruning techniques, garden installation and plant care practices. If a friend or family member ever wondered what to design for an older home, how to discover the garden that was once there or the way to lay out walls, fences, walks, drives and garden spaces, this is the perfect gift.
"Storey's Basic Country Skills" (Storey Books, 1999, $34.95 hardback, $24.95 paperback) is a 544-page compilation sharing 150 individual authorities' information on virtually all aspects of traditional country arts. This eclectic collection is 500 books in one, packed with ingenious ideas to make anyone self-reliant in a country setting. One- to six-page write-ups with diagrams offer fairly complete guidelines for maintaining home and garden, growing edibles, building shelters, planting, woodworking, restoring furniture, attracting and discouraging wildlife and a multitude of other aspects for homesteading on almost any property.
An innovative, 381-page opus about how to stir up some brews that can protect your plants is Jerry Baker's "Old-Time Gardening Wisdom" (Jerry Baker, 1999, $27.96). For example, his spring root revival tonic consists of a tablespoon of soap, a quarter cup of tea and a tablespoon of Epsom salts. His wild mustard tea, made of a handful of mustard leaves, four cloves and one clove of garlic, keeps cabbage worms, loopers or potato beetles away.
Much of his advice is gleaned from the experiences of his grandmother, who gardened from her kitchen cupboard, medicine cabinet and shed. While I usually take exception to the emphasis Baker puts on buying food items to use in the garden, in this book, he promotes earth-safe gardening and offers multitudes of common sense remedies for the landscape. This book is available only directly from Baker, not through the usual bookstore channels. Visit the Web site (www.jerrybaker.com) or call 1-800-355-0559.
* An item that can be used in the garden now is a pH meter. This might be the most valuable gift you could give to the avid gardener, because pH, the measure of acidity or alkalinity, is the most important factor affecting the health of your plants. Many nutrients are already in the soil, even in all clay. But they're unavailable to the plants if the soil isn't aerated enough or the pH isn't correct.
My choice for quick pH readings is the rapitest pH Meter or Country Cottage Soil pH Meter. They are both distributed by Luster Leaf Products and cost from $16 to $25. No batteries or extra chemicals are needed, and they can be used for years. The literature accompanying the meters includes a listing of pH preferences for plants, how-to instructions that must be followed to get the most accurate readings and suggestions to bring the soil into the correct range if it tests too high or low. You can find them at most garden and home-improvement centers.
Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is email@example.com