Gifts That Gardeners Give

What do gardeners give as gifts?

Staff around the Chicago Botanic Garden get creative this time of year, sharing harvests of fruit, nuts, herbs, and more in creative—and delicious—style. We asked our staff to share their handmade gift ideas, and their responses were so creative that we knew you’d say, “Share.”

From a Fruitful Garden

Web designer Christina Weisbard has a weakness for fruit trees…which explains the bounty of mulberry, quince, and crabapple jellies that she’s made for holiday gifts this year. Of the pickled green tomatoes that she also canned, she says, “They may never make it as gifts—we’re eating them too fast.”

PHOTO: Jars of jellies and pickles.
Crabapple and quince preserves are joined by end-of-season pickled green tomatoes.

Not Handmade, but “Hen”made

Lucky Sarah Paar (coordinator of flower shows). She keeps six Plymouth Barred Rock chickens, all black-and-white and gorgeous, at the suburban farm where she lives. She’s saving the four to six eggs she gets every day and handing them out as precious gifts, perfectly presented in a green berry box softened with raffia.

PHOTO: A variety of natural-colored hen eggs in a bowl.
Not just for Easter: Plymouth Barred Rock hen eggs are this season’s gift, too.

Currant Events

Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, gets the most out of the fruiting vines and brambles in his suburban yard, creating beautiful, jewel-toned vodkas (black currant, blackberry, Michigan peach, and Moroccan mint), and syrups (elderberry and peony blossom).

PHOTO: Ruby-colored blackberry vodka in a delicate bottle with a cork stopper.
Homemade infused vodkas are as beautiful as they are flavorful.

A Bloom That Thrills

Teachers, neighbors, and far-off friends are receiving amaryllis bulbs this year, complete with pot, lightweight soil mix, and growing instructions from Stephanie Lindemann, manager of horticulture events. With care, amaryllis will repeat the show next year. This long-lasting pink and coral beauty is Hippeastrum ‘Amalfi’.

PHOTO: A blooming amaryllis wrapped in burlap is ready to gift.
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum ‘Amalfi’) make great “repeat” gifts.

A Tiny Terrarium

Hold one of Clare Johnson’s bubble bowl terrariums in your hands, and you can sense the horticultural therapist at work: each terrarium is a perfectly shaped jewel, fresh and green and carefree enough to leave on your desk all winter, with little care required.

PHOTO: A tiny terrarium.
Bubble bowl terrariums are filled with dainty succulents.

Handmade & Heart-felt

Filled with lavender from her garden (plus a bit from the neighbors), Lynn McKay Ledford’s wool felt and cotton sachets can scent drawers, shelves, and suitcases for many months. Feel free to compliment Lynn on her sweetly modern design next time you see her at the Information Desk at the Visitor Center.

PHOTO: Hand-sewn square sachets are decorated with felted leaves.
Wool felt and cotton sachets are filled with fragrant lavender.

Simple, Elegant, Fresh

As outdoor floriculturist, Tim Pollak has a deft and knowing touch with plants—which shows in his fresh ideas for host/hostess gifts or centerpieces. Simply arranged, stemmed greenery looks elegant in a clear vase filled with cranberries and water. Fresh fruit looks like the luxury it is when it’s hand-arranged and nestled into a simple, raffia-filled box.

PHOTO: Floral arrangement.
This colorful and long-lasting arrangement includes evergreens, carnations, and cranberries.
PHOTO: Fruit basket.
Fruits are arranged on a bed of fragrant rosemary for this simple seasonal basket.

Grandma Agnes’s Recipe

Fond memories of her family’s Iowa farm inspired horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg to follow her Grandma Agnes’s easy recipe for crabapple pickles (leave the stems on!). An extra handmade touch: cards decorated with leaves from daily walks in her neighborhood this fall.

PHOTO: Recipe 3x5 card.
Grandma Agnes’s original pickled crabapple recipe—a family heirloom.
PHOTO: Pickled crabapples.
The finished product

A Handmade Breakfast Treat

So bountiful was the apple harvest at the Garden this year that staff was invited to help harvest—and to take home a box of the fruit. Assistant horticulturist Leah Pilon turned the opportunity into a sweet treat: wonderfully smooth and flavorful apple butter to give as holiday gifts.

PHOTO: Apple butter in a Ball jar.
Leah Pilon’s homemade apple butter even has a handmade tag.

Chill Out

It took customer support manager Karen Angel four to five hours each to hand-crochet cozy cotton/wool neckwarmers that she’s gifting friends and family with this year. An interesting stickpin or piece of jewelry serves as a “close” to each piece.

PHOTO: Lilac crocheted neck warmer.
A stickpin holds this beautiful crochet work in place.
PHOTO: A bar of handmade soap wrapped with a twine bow.
Handmade soaps delight the senses.

Handmade Candles & Soaps

Like many handcrafters, economics drove exhibitions manager Courtney Quigley to teach herself how to make candles and soaps when she was in college: “I was young and broke!” she explains with a laugh. Her deliciously flavored soaps (scented with coffee beans, cocoa, ginger, or orange slices) and soy candles are, of course, all natural.

PHOTO: Photo of boy and his mother making cookie cutouts.
Gabe Hutchinson documents “the year in review” in photo albums.

The Gift of a Labor of Love

For many of our staffers, gardening isn’t their only passion. Assistant horticulturist Gabe Hutchison is also a terrific photographer, who’s turned the notion of “family photos” into a deeply personal, meaningful effort. Each Christmas he begins a year-long series of photos of his son, documenting family occasions, visits, and everyday life. As the next Christmas nears, he assembles the past year’s work into a handmade photo book for each grandparent (and a few lucky relatives), documenting the family’s interactions with his son, and presents those precious books as gifts at the holiday.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Parsnips: Patience Pays Off

Some vegetables are more satisfying than others when it comes to harvest. Parsnips are in that category, as we discovered the other day (just three days before it snowed!), when we harvested a crop that’s been quietly growing in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden since April.

PHOTO: A freshly dug parsnip with a long, thin, tap root.
Parsnips have long tap roots that need to be dug gently from the soil.

The sun was out, the air was crisp, and the nights were frosty: parsnip weather. Cold weather is actually a good thing for parsnips—in fact, they need it to convert the starch in their roots to sugar, transforming them from lowly, nose-turned-up roots to gourmet, thumbs-up side dishes. We used a pitchfork to loosen the dirt deeply around each parsnip top—a gentle harvest is required, as parsnips are brittle and can snap if eager hands try to pull the roots by their leaves.

Aren’t they gorgeous? We planted ‘Albion’ this year, a variety that’s creamy white and elegantly long and tapered. Inspired, we’re adding two other varieties to our seed list for next year: ‘Lancer’ and ‘Half-long Guernsey’.

Speaking of seeds, parsnips can be a bit fussy about germination. Knowing that, here’s the strategy we employed for sowing this year:

  • Plant fresh seed. Parsnip seed viability is short, so plant only newly-purchased seed every year.
  • Sow heavily. We’ve found that germination can be spotty in our heavier clay soil. Of course that means we had to…
  • Thin ruthlessly. We thinned four times to guarantee them the wide spacing they need.
  • Mark the rows. A few radish seeds (which germinate in a few days) marked the ends of each parsnip row—which took their sweet time to germinate, in about three weeks.
PHOTO: Freshly dug parsnips.
So satisfying: Some of last week’s parsnip harvest.
Photo by horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg

Once germinated, parsnips are low-maintenance veggies in the garden—as befits a vegetable that takes 120 days, plus a cold spell, to reach maturity.

A gardener’s patience with parsnips really pays off in the kitchen. How can you serve parsnips?

  • A bowl of parsnip soup.
  • In a roasted root vegetable side dish.
  • As a snack of parsnip “fries,” brushed with coconut oil, sprinkled with salt, and baked in the oven.
  • As a secret ingredient in mashed potatoes.

Or as my chef-friend Brad does, make parsnip cakes for a light main meal or delightful side dish. Here’s his recipe as he knows it by heart:

Boil parsnips in salted water for 3 minutes. Grate with a medium fine blade, then add one egg, white onion, flour, salt, pepper, and lots of Italian parsley. Form pancakes about ½-inch thick and 3 inches wide, and fry in oil on medium heat until parsnips are cooked through and cakes are golden brown and caramelized. Yummy with a roast chicken!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and