Plants as Conversation Starters

All About Plants

by Sandy Swegel

One of the awkward parts of the holiday season is ending up at gatherings where you only know the person you came with and everyone else is a stranger. There’s always the option of getting a plate of food and finding a comfortable chair to sit in and people watch but it can be awkward. I recently had a great time at a party I was going where I didn’t know many people or have much in common with them and it was entirely thanks to plants. So I know you’re supposed to bring a small gift when you are invited to a dinner, but wine or even grocery store flowers can set you back $15- 20 and I’m frugal or cheap or broke, depending on my mindset that day. So I’ve taken to making my own flower arrangements from gathered natural items and thrift store vases. These can turn out quite creative and cute (I used ornamental cabbages as the center “flowers” recently.) or so unusual that my family says things like “What weird thing is that?”

So at this recent party, the hostess took my cabbage flower and evergreen arrangement politely said thank you and put it on an out-of-the-way table. I sat on a comfortable chair with a plate of food and stumbled over small talk. As my mind idly looked around the room I looked up at the ceiling and saw a stray ivy vine tacked up along the beams near the high ceiling. Its pot was on a narrow ledge about ten feet high and I blurted out without thinking, “Who gets up to water that pot?” The husband came over and said proudly, “That’s my job.” And together the two of them started an animated story about this little vine had grown over 40 feet long in just the past year and now was entwined across the ceiling like a spider web or halo over their living space. We had a great bonding conversation about the marvels of this ordinary little vine and its impact on their lives as they had to find new places to attach it every month. They appreciated that I noticed and admired it too.

The nice part of this brief encounter was later in the evening when the hostess stood by the little arrangement I brought and looked at anew and commented how beautiful the cabbage and juniper berries were.

It was a win-win-win situation. We came to appreciate each other in a new way because of how we each appreciated nature. And the ivy? Well, you know how vain plants are…it loved being the center of attention.


You can use plants as a conversation starter in your own home by having unusual plants like a string of pearls or bloomers most people aren’t familiar with like a clivia. At other people’s homes, you can just take a moment to remark on the plants that grow there. Turns out the plants we live with and manage to keep alive are important to us.


Gifts FOR the Garden

Gardening Tips

by Sandy Swegel

Growing up in the South, we always had a wrapped gift under the tree just in case we needed an extra gift. This was in part a combination of Southern graciousness and straight-out guilt. What if someone brought us a gift and we didn’t get one for them? Or what if someone brought a guest to Christmas and we felt sad that everyone was opening presents except that person. The extra gift was just perfect to make the holidays smooth and happy for everyone.

This year I’m thinking I need gifts under the tree for the one who gives me so many gifts but I don’t have anything for them. The Earth. The Garden. Gaia. Mother Nature. Whatever name you use.

I was reflecting on the many lists of “Gifts from the Garden” like jellies and preserves, or flower arrangements, or just the pine cones I use instead of bows in gift wrapping. And I thought of all the food the earth gave me. And the daily gift of earthly beauty.

Nature provides naturally for herself so I’m not sure what to give her. Other cultures have traditional gifts in their spiritual rituals. Native Americans offer tobacco or burnt sage, cedar or sweetgrass. Some Hindu traditions offer rice and ghee in fire rituals.

What can we modern Americans offer? A shamanic friend tells me the gift itself isn’t as important as the intention behind the gift. My intention is gratitude and acknowledging that my relationship with Nature is two-way…not just us receiving but also us giving. I haven’t decided yet what to give, but here are some of the gifts I’m considering:

Gifts For the Garden

A Gift for the birds. A feeder for the tiny birds that live in the tree across the street. Or a birdbath heater to provide water when the temperatures are far below freezing in January. The nearest lake or creek or ditch is over a mile away.


A Little Bag of Leaves. This is a symbolic gift to represent all the leaves I left unraked this year in out-of-the-way places….behind the shed, under the deck, in the garden beds…to provide winter homes for the crickets and ladybugs and all the beneficial insects…and even the aphids.

A Bigger Compost Bucket. I love to compost but sometimes in winter, it’s easier just to let things go down the disposal or put it in the City Yard Waste container. It’s still getting recycled, but the garden that gives me so much would probably appreciate extra food for its microbes and earthworms.

A Heart-shaped Stone. A friend collects these while hiking. She has at least twenty rocks in natural heart shapes that she’s run across over the years. She puts them under a tree to remind the earth how much she loves it and appreciates it.

A Little Pair of Shoes. Something for dolls or some discarded kids’ shoes. This would be a reminder to me to walk more often and leave the car at home.

You get the idea. What gift would you like to give Nature in Appreciation this year?

Holiday Gifts for Gardeners

Gift Ideas

by Sandy Swegel

There’s something about winter coming on that sparks the desire to garden. Suddenly we think of all the things we wish we had grown. Or we remember how nice it was to always have a vegetable or flower bouquet to give away. And now what. We want to grow and create to give something.

These are the gifts that I’m giving that I can grow indoors quickly in time for the holidays.

Flowering Amaryllis

A lucky visit to the garden center showed me this year’s casual gift. Amaryllis bulbs already starting to bud right in the box were on sale at 50% off. Amaryllis are ridiculously easy to grow…in soil or in water. I soaked the roots of the bulbs overnight and potted them in plan plastic pots and put them on the windowsill. Once they bloom, I wrap the pot in holiday wrap, add a bow and have awesome gifts ready to go.

Fresh pots of basil.

If you soak basil seeds overnight and plant them densely in clean potting soil in a warm place they’ll germinate very fast. Keep them in a sunny spot or under lights and in two weeks they will be a vigorous aromatic patch of basil micro greens that make a great winter gift.

Vase of coleus

Before your coleus freezes, take lots of cuttings of the most beautiful leaves. Put several stems in a mixed vase. It will be a beautiful arrangement (the reds are quite poinsettia-like.). This is the perfect gift for people who say they have a brown thumb…they just have to monthly refill the water. Those with green thumbs will have rooted plants next Spring.

My favorite gift idea a gardening friend gave last year is pretty hard-core. It is a gift from a serious gardener to another serious gardener. The gift? A bucket of goat manure pellets. Goat manure is one of the best manures…dry, no weeds and not very smelly. I love my eccentric gardening buddies!

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