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Last winter, my friend and downstairs neighbor Celeste decided to move out of her ground floor apartment, which she had shared with her husband for the last 9 years. My studio had a pair of skinny windows that faced onto a noisy gas station and body shop, but Celeste’s unit received bright southeastern sun and opened directly into a secret garden. I called my landlord, signed the paperwork, and waited to move downstairs.
Celeste, an avid gardener, had spent the last decade nourishing this Brooklyn space into a lush, dappled paradise—planting frilly ferns and pothos lillies against the shaded back fence, winterizing the fig tree in thick blankets before the first snow, and, building and tending to the three large raised beds where she grew vegetables and herbs, which she’d harvest and leave on my doorstep, edible bouquets stuffed into a mason jar. Now, the garden was mine.
I was eager to keep it going, but although I had worked with plenty of beautiful fruits and vegetables in my past job as a pastry chef and was a general produce enthusiast, I’d never gardened before and had no idea how to start. But friends came to my rescue, gifting me their time and expertise as well as actual amazing stuff, like the tray of onion seedlings Mindy drove up from Florida; a trio of worn tomato cages Bob dug out of his garage when I complained about my drooping vines; or the giant bags of hay Jared brought over to keep my topsoil warm. They gave me exquisite heirloom starts, including psychedelic varieties like “reisetomate” tomatoes and “sugar rush peach” peppers and taught me how to make compost tea (a compost-and-water concoction that nourishes your plants).
I filled bucket after bucket in my bathtub and trudged through the length of my apartment, every day, to keep the beds watered. I felt heartbreak, so deep, when squash vine borers killed my first zucchini plant, then my second, then my third. I cried when I ate my first tomato, sweet with skin split from rain. I had big, messy parties in the garden, the slugs sliding up our thighs once the sun went down. I made new friends who gardened. I gave away food. I ate everything else. I forgot about my old kitchen job, at least until I felt the deep, familiar ache after a long gardening session. I’d really missed that feeling.
The advice and items from friends and family members kept my garden alive, and while I can attest that the best gift for gardeners is the gift of self-sufficiency, a beautiful mosaic flower pot does not go unappreciated. I’ve culled these gardening gift ideas based on my own experiences over a season spent digging, watering, weeding, and harvesting. These tools may not be the flashiest or fanciest, but they are the ones I use myself, and they’d make a thoughtful gift to anyone just starting out—even with just a few indoor plants.
To prepare my raised beds for a late spring planting, I tilled (fluffed) all of the pre-existing soil, which was compacted and dry from winter exposure, with a small trowel. Then I bought 160 pounds of organic top soil and scattered it on top using a pint container as a scoop. I tossed it all together with my hands—using the same technique I use to mix biscuits and scones—and was rewarded with the garden equivalent of a blank canvas.
There are many ways to stabilize tall, spindly plants like indeterminate tomatoes (which are vining varieties, like sungolds, that produce fruit throughout a season), but I use waterproof, braided twine to loosely tie vines to wooden stakes. Besides being my favorite color, the hot pink hue is easy to spot while I’m literally in the weeds, and they provide just the right amount of support for 10’ tall tomatoes, peas, and beans.
Conical steel wire cages are my go-to for determinate tomatoes (which have a shorter season of producing fruit and often grow fast, compact, and wide) and other high-yield, bushy plants like peppers. They provide structural support on all sides once the plant starts producing heavy, fat fruit. The key is to lift the plant off the ground and encourage air circulation; the closer to the soil, the more likely the plant will be exposed to blight, rot, bugs (and, in NYC, um, rats).
I dilute a few capfuls of this organic cold-processed liquid kelp fertilizer into my watering cans during the early growth stages of my plants, when the tiny, vulnerable seedlings in my raised beds rely heavily on the soil for nutrients. My potted plants need even more love; because potted soil dries out so quickly, I like to supplement with extra nutrients.
These indestructible stainless steel scissors are sharp and strong as hell. Cookware brand Material designed these with kitchen and cooking use in mind, but honestly my pair lives outside, where I use them to prune the unruly, thick branches of my lilac and fig trees and quickly snip herbs, salad greens, and flowers for my home. These make a great gift for gardeners and home cooks alike.
Chemical insecticides, while being terrible for both animals and humans alike, also wipe out bee populations and pollute our water supply. So I stay away. Instead, I bought this organic, non-toxic Bonide BT spray (short for the bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis) from Crest Hardware in Williamsburg (where I also stock up on immune-boosting elderberry lollipops #selfcare). It doesn’t hurt beneficial insects (like pollinators and earthworms), but does kill the infuriating, destructive worms and caterpillars that gobble up my lacinato kale and other brassicas.
For everything else I mix a 1:2 dilution of Tabasco sauce and water for a DIY insecticide. Hot sauce contains capsaicin—the zippy chemical compound that I squirt over my noodle soups and fried eggs—which causes damage and dysfunction to most invasive insects (bonus: it’s also a turn-off to bigger city beasts like squirrels, rats, and birds). For best results, transfer the mixture to a small spray bottle and spritz all over your plants on a dry day with no rain in the forecast and reapply every few days.
I keep a stack of durable woven straw baskets—like these fair trade, pine needle Mayan baskets, which I picked up at the food bookstore Archestratus—outside with my gardening tool set. When I’m ready to harvest, I grab a basket and fill it up with veggies. It would even make a thoughtful gift for a non-gardener—it looks as beautiful outside as it does inside, resting on my kitchen counter.
Although the majority of my vegetable gardening happens in raised beds, I keep about a dozen smaller plants (mostly drought-resistant herbs like rosemary, lavender, thyme, and rue, as well as persistent herbs that are prone to sprawl in beds, like mint) in ceramic pots lined up on a ledge. My most prized pieces are the pearlescent mosaic-coated terracotta pots from Brooklyn-based glass artist Kevin Newcomb. Whether your favorite gardener has indoor succulents or an outdoor herb garden like mine, every cluster of pots deserves a personal disco ball.
Growing a full garden from seed still feels too intimidating, but I did direct sow (that’s when you drop the seeds right into the tilled soil as opposed to in a small container indoors) about a third of my garden, focusing on quick growing, immediate-gratification greens like lettuces, arugula, and cilantro, and prolific vines like zucchini.