A Holiday Season Dilemma: Where Will People Shop for Us?


Yes, yes, it's better to give than receive. We all know that.

But we have it easy. We don't have to give to the mad gardener in the circle of family and friends. Because that would be us.

And shopping for gardeners, is, I think, extremely difficult. Of course, most of us always like plants. You can give me any amaryllis at any time, and I will be thrilled.  Ditto a citrus tree in a pot.  I'll be polite about an orchid, even though I have never gotten one of those inert things to bloom twice. I'll even take a whack at keeping a potted gardenia alive again, though I've killed a few of these in my time.

But when it comes to the hard goods, it's not easy to find something nice. Let's face it, we are really short of great merchants in our world.  And the endless collapse of garden purveyors from the West Coast Heronswood Nursery to Smith & Hawken–as well as the slimness of most gardening magazines, with their relatively few advertisers–suggests that it is not easy to make money off of us.  Are we too earthy?  Too bored by material goods?  Too cheap?

As a result, most garden things sold by most garden purveyors have no dignity. Too small, too silly.  The only thing that's right about them is the price point.  I mean, resin bunnies?  Most garden ornaments seem to be made for children, and I don't think we gardeners are an exceptionally childish group.

Personally, I miss the old Smith & Hawken terribly, Smith & Hawken circa the early 1990s, when my mother-in-law, a very talented and considerate gift-giver, would send me a handmade white clay Guy Wolff pot at Christmas.

You can still buy Guy Wolff pots: his website sends you to a purveyor called Goods For The Garden, which has interesting pots by other makers, too, including these poppy pots:

Poppypot They also have the very nice planter below in a pretty purple color for $33 including shipping.

Footed pot

It would be great if we could all persuade local potters to make reasonably-priced, cool things for our gardens. But I don't know…so few artisans seem to think of us, I suppose because we are so hard to make money off of!  Always spending it on bulbs and not on stuff.

Of course, there are antique stores, which give the present-giver the opportunity to look for ten years without finding anything nice that's garden-related.  Yet, I just found the perfect present for myself, and pretty cheap, too, in a New Jersey antique warehouse otherwise stuffed to the gills with gold leaf:


I've been searching for one of these big dragon pots for years: I love the color combination of olive brown, golden yellow and turquoise and I love the rough finish. My friend Bob tells me that these pots were used to store century eggs, weird Chinese preserved eggs, as in the wikipedia photo below.


Apparently, these give off such a powerful stench of ammonia that they are sometimes referred to as "horse urine eggs."  You eat the eggs, I'll keep the pot.

It's still possible for an extremely devoted relative or friend to find very nice-looking English and Dutch garden tools on-line, but the great thing about the old Smith & Hawken was that it was a major advertiser and catalog-mailer accessible to non-gardeners, and it had fantastic tools. Again, I cleaned up here, thanks to my mother-in-law, who sent me wonderful elbow-length gloves for rose-wrestling and an English-made edging spade that continues to be beautiful and useful 18 or so years later.

Of course, if there is a sugar daddy or sugar mama in the picture, a gift-giver for whom price is no object, there are always English companies like Haddonstone that will make your garden monumental.  But I think Elizabeth Licata, who has a cool piece of art in her garden, has the right idea: befriend a sculptor or ironworker, who will want to give you a holiday present or at least sell you his or her work at a price you can afford.



  1. If price is so much a matter then shop at Wal-Mart! Befriending a potter just to get a piece at cost?

    Yup! The greedy consumer still lives despite their pleas for “sustainable” everything. Get a pot cheap so you can sustain your lifestyle but deny the artist their chance at sustainability.


    The TROLL, Scrooge, Grinch etc.

  2. There are no real gardeners in my family, and since I’ve been gardening for nearly 40 years I don’t usually think their choices of ‘stuff’ are wonderful, but I am always happy with a Gift Certificate. What seems impersonal can actually be the most thoughtful gift they could give. I just got a pair of fabulous gauntled Rose Gloves from a non-gardening but brilliant gift-giving friend who can look into the heart of all his friends. And right now I’m GIVING AWAY Nan Ondra’s new book, The Pernnial Care Manual, and 2 dozen CowPots if you come and leave a comment at my blog. Consider it an early Christmas present. The drawing will be on Sunday so you have til midnight tomorrow.

  3. Yeah, you only need so many tools and the good ones last for ever. I tell my strong, tall husband all I want is the gift of labor without questioning (You are moving these stones AGAIN?) or grumbling. Or to drive the extra miles to get the good mulch. Or accompaning me to the nursury (the plants are always greener on the other side of the state). Gift certificates are always good.

  4. Do you know how many landscape design clients I have that must keep something horrendous because it was a gift?

    When a step-daughter, mother-in-law, etc. gives how do you not display it?

    Here’s the game plan: display it for a year then suddenly it will ‘be broken’. A limb fell, lawn mower bumped it, whatever. Of course you know it’s residing happily at Goodwill.

    AND, how presumptuous of non-gardeners to give gardeners a resin angel. Non-gardeners just don’t get it. Would they appreciate a horrendous shirt and still wear it?

    Until I realized I had to be proactive myself, I received terrible garden gifts. Not anymore. Books, gift certificates or specific items are verbalized.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  5. My campaign to make it abundantly clear who my favorite local garden center is lasts all year long. Not only do I get gift certificates as Christmas presents but I get a free gift card from the store itself and all of it gets used along with my frequent shopper discount. A win win win.

  6. Great tools are still available … but you have to look … which is part of the fun!

    I make a habit of perusing old hardware/farm stores in small towns. (Don’t waste your time with the big box stores.) Many of these have a few special tools snicked away, forgotten in a corner, that somebody ordered years ago and nobody ever bought. They often still have the same price tag from twenty years ago.

    I recently discovered a high-end stainless steel spade (you never know what you will find) languishing on the back of a tool display rack with a yellowed tag. The owners couldn’t believe somebody actually bought the thing. Incredibly, it was priced cheaper than all of the new spades in front of it!

  7. I admit I’m a little worried about what my mother-in-law might give me this year… Don’t get me wrong, she’s an incredibly sweet woman I love dearly, but her taste is rather… well, let’s just say a resin angel would be just up her alley. We shall see. I might have to follow Tara’s advice and plan a lawnmower accident sometime soon.

  8. I buy pots from stores because when I look at the prices and quality, I know I could never make money turning those out for gardens. Between time, clay costs, design, bisque firing, potential glaze firing, the cost is up there. I have started making sculpture based on fiddlehead ferns, but my first batch broke in the kiln and/or warped. I’m figuring out a different technique to fire the next load. I admit to feeling quite dejected to get one piece from 19, but I’m learning, right?

  9. My partner and I are very practical with one another when it comes to Christmas gifts. We ask each other what we’d like and or set a budget and suggest a few choices.
    This year I’m gunning for a Dramm Hose and my partner gets to pick the color.
    I’m tired of my kinky, limpy boring green one.

    In regards to family members, we too are practical. Gift cards to either Trader Joes or Target.

  10. If giving gifts and receiving the right gift is so difficult, not least because we have so much already, why bother?

    I’ve always wanted to grow a mango tree, so as ‘gifts’ to some friends I bought 10 mango trees. I, and I hope my friends, will have the pleasure of thinking about those mango trees, planted and tended by school children in places that I am unlikely to ever visit, and providing delicious, nutritious fruit to those children.

    As to asking local potters to make garden pots, I have and even at cost price nobody buys them. What can you expect when cheap pots are imported from countries where people are ill-paid and where the environmental costs of making and transporting are not a factor in the price.

  11. My husband and his brothers have had a pact since they were in high school that they don’t give each other Christmas or birthday gifts. They occasionally run across something they know the other would love and gift it to him, but it’s not for a holiday.

    When we got together we did the standard gift giving. Then one day four years ago, or so, I realized I hated forced shopping too. So we just took to throwing parties instead of giving gifts to each other. Planning New Year’s Eve Dinner Parties and Birthday Bashes is way more fun than scouring the mall for something that isn’t perfect.

    Now my side of the family has decided they too don’t want to have to mess with gift giving this Christmas. I believe there is going to be a white elephant type deal with a limit of $5. The big focus is one serious all day food and games extravaganza.

    This is getting to be a long story, so I’ll just make my point. Don’t get me anything for Christmas; just bring a bottle of wine to the party.

  12. Yes, I have the old poacher’s spade (for transplanting) from S&H. It’s such a great tool — and has done so much work over the yers and years.

  13. I come from a family of mad gardeners, so I tend to find something that I think is awesome for around $20-30.00 and buy one for everyone. Fun Garden art is what I have been getting the last few years. Two years ago, there was a company that was making large colorfull Iguana like lizzards with big springs for tails and bobble heads, on sale for $20.00 each. I bought all of them (about 18) and they were the hit of the Xmas party (I kept 4 for myself). Xmas shopping is fun when your family is as wacko about gardening and plants as I am… Happy Holidaze! Patrick

  14. I did a short post about gifts for gardeners. I like tools from Lee Valley – they’re so lovely. I also think a pair of Ethel gloves would be perfect for any gardener, I love love love mine and wouldn’t mind a new pair every year.

    I would love a dwarf citrus, or some other interesting houseplant, although I agree, some are difficult to keep alive.

    I think a membership to Seed Savers would be a fantastic gift. And how about a mushroom growing kit? I would love one of those.

    Some nice plain Italian terracotta pots would be lovely, everyone can use some of those.

    I too miss Smith & Hawkin, they used to have such lovely good quality stuff. Now they’ve gone the way of most retailers. That’s why I try to do my shopping at Etsy.com or other small local places. Search for homemade pots on Etsy, there are some wonderful things!

  15. I always ask for gardening books for Christmas. Although I hate to be really specific on other gifts (I feel like I am not giving the gift giver any lee-way when I say I want the 10 inch brand XYZ spade with the lime green handle), I don’t feel bad about asking for specific books.

    For some of my recommended books, check out my blog:




    Of course, in my family, we still give each other Christmas lists. It might take some of the surprise out of Christmas, but you are more likely to end up with things you actually want and will use.

  16. We have a gorgeous dragon pot, thanks to the wife-in-law (my husband’s ex). She used to have it on her front porch, but all it ever did was collect the butts that the smoking friends of her at-the-time teens would toss into it. When she moved, she gave it to us, and now every summer, it becomes the pond-in-pot on our patio. We love it.

  17. I hate to say it, but I strongly suspect the reason there is such a dearth of good garden hardgoods is that gardeners are, by and large, cheap. Even those great Guy Wolff pots you like so much? He only makes a few these days and outsources the rest–probably to China. The Guy Wolff pots I can buy in my local nursery aren’t the same quality I used to be able to buy–because people wouldn’t pay for them.

    It’s too bad, really. I consider hardgoods an investment. You pay for it, take care of it and have it for a lifetime.

    Now, I lust, lust, lust after those Siebert & Rice pots. But they are so dear they don’t even print the prices in the dang catalog. You have to practically beg to get the prices on their website.

    Still, I may buy one someday. Especially if it is on sale.


  18. Great post… as I started reading I immediately thought ” I miss Smith & Hawken”. Then you mentioned it as well. If money were no object I’d get a wheel and kiln myself and try to throw my own pots during the long winter months. I would LOVE to find a terracotta rhubarb forcer in the states to suggest to my husband, but I can’t find one anywhere and I can’t justify the shipping from the uk. Anyone know where I can find one?

  19. As a young gardener, this year I’m asking for books. Used books, specifically from local bookstores. I might not find exactly what I want, but I might find a book I never knew about. Plus, it will be less expensive and I don’t have to worry so much about getting dirt on the pages.

    Of course, what I love best is getting pieces of plants from friends and family. Even the non-gardeners usually have something to give. Grandma and grandpa gave me snowdrops a couple years ago. I hope to get mums and a snowball bush this spring. How wonderful is it to have a piece of something from their yard? Those plants aren’t all that special to them, but for me the connection is priceless.

  20. We have a big buy local push here, and a lot of the artisans try to make their stuff as affordable as possible to support that. It’s a few extra dollars but worth it, I think.

  21. I think gardeners are the EASIEST to shop for — one word: Gloves! Can never have too many pairs and always need more — leather, cloth throwaways, mud-proof, etc. Then of course, magazine subscriptoons – either new to them or add on a few years to ones they already love. Finally, BIG pots. Anything freeze-proof and over 24 in. in diameter is always welcomed, I’ve found.

  22. My husband and I have purchased pots from a favorite local potter for many years. They are not cheap. He needs to support himself and his family, buy clay, pay taxes and health insurance. We buy his pots at a price that gives him a living wage.

    When we buy art from local artists we know we are getting something useful and beautiful and we know where our dollars are going — to keep them in business and to put food on their tables. It’s another page in the local and sustainable book.

  23. Gift certificates are the gardener-gift-giver answer. Yes , they may seem boring or uncreative and maybe it’s not like “really” getting something, but since it’s impractical to give actual plants, gardeners can store up their plant gift credits for that spring splurge or parcel them out through the year.

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