When I visit with my friends Janet Lester and Paula Johnson, I never leave their homes without a treat: a gift from their gardens. So it’s only natural that I looked to these two generous friends to share their tips on making creative gifts from the garden to give this holiday season.
Fayetteville resident Janet Lester (Fayette Woman Cover Lady, Aug. 2011) is a master gardener who, with husband Addison, grows a large vegetable garden and loves to share the harvest. She is an avid canner and preserver of food. This year, Janet is “putting up” pickled okra, pear preserves, peach preserves, caramel preserves, fig preserves, pepper jelly, grape jam, picked squash, salsa, and chocolate sauce – just to name a few!
“This is a way to share my garden,” says Janet. “I enjoy canning. I put up so much more than we can eat, so I give jars to friends and family.”
They definitely appreciate it! Janet’s five-year-old, grandson, Grady, told her, “A biscuit is just not the same without your pear preserves.”
Janet and three friends exchange homemade food gifts each holiday season. One year, Janet gave each friend a quart-sized mason jar filled with her Aunt Belle’s vegetable soup and included the recipe. Another year, she made chocolate sauce and attached an antique silver spoon to the jar with ribbon and raffia. Pepper jelly is also a favorite, and she includes crackers and cream cheese with the gift. To embellish her presents, Janet scouts for sales on mason jars, pretty platters, trays, silver forks and spoons, and tea towels at antique and thrift stores or online.
For anyone interested in learning the basics of canning and preserving, Janet suggests buying a copy of So Easy to Preserve, sold online through the University of Georgia Extension Publications Store. Janet still uses a tattered copy of this book that belonged to her mother.
Dried Herb Rub
Any leftover chopped herbs and spices can be dried. Cover selected herbs with paper towels and let them dry. Store in a decorative small jar (or baby food jar with ribbons as embellishment) and give the dried rub to sprinkle on meats, poultry, fish, or vegetables
Janet Lester makes pickled okra, pear preserves, peach preserves, salsa, grape jam, pickled squash, and much more to give as gifts during the holidays and throughout the year.
Janet Lester cans fruits and vegetables to give as holiday gifts and then adds creative touches such as a pretty tray, tea towel, or antique silver spoon.
Janet’s Spicy Pickled Okra
- 2 lbs. medium okra pods
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 4 sm. dried chilies
- 2 Tbsp. yellow mustard seeds
- 1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
- 4 c. distilled white vinegar
- 2 c. water
- 2 tbs. pickling or kosher salt (do not use table salt)
- Wash okra and trim the stems to a half-inch.
- Place two garlic cloves, one chili, a half-teaspoon of. mustard seeds and a quarter-teaspoon of peppercorns in the bottom of each of four sterilized, pint canning jars (use the wide mouth variety).
- Divide the okra evenly among the jars, standing them up vertically, alternating stems up and down.
- Bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
- Once boiling, pour this mixture over the okra in the jars, allowing at least a quarter- inch of headroom.
- Clean the rim of the jars with a damp cloth and secure the lids tightly.
Janet Lester “puts up” vegetables, like okra and tomatoes, in mason jars to give as gifts during the holiday season. For extra tomatoes, Janet suggests using the recipe on Mrs. Wages© Tomato Salsa Mix packet to make a delectable salsa.
For refrigerator okra: Place the filled jars on a rack and let cool to room temperature. Store in the refrigerator up to one month.
For shelf-stable product: Process pint jars for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. Store unopened jars at room temperature for up to one year. Once the jar is opened, store in the refrigerator for up to one month.
Janet’s Pear Honey
- 1 qt. ground pears – (peeled, cored, then ground)
- 1 20-oz. can crushed pineapple
- 6 c. sugar
- Cook until pears are tender and mixture has thickened to desired consistency.
- Process in a hot water bath 10 minutes
Paula Johnson, a Tyrone resident and member of the Peachtree City Garden Club, is known to club members as the “herb lady!” Paula grows dozens of herbs in her garden and then utilizes them in her cooking and gift-giving. She also has a reputation as an exceptional cook among her family and friends, and the flavor of every meal she prepares is enhanced with fresh herbs from her garden.
Paula’s Fresh Herb
Turkey Rub for Thanksgiving
Chop the following ingredients fine and blend:
- 2 Tbsp. orange zest
- 1 Tbsp. thyme
- 2 Tbsp. chives
- 1 Tbsp. rosemary
- 1 Tbsp. sage
- Add drop of olive oil to the herb blend and rub on outside and inside of turkey before cooking.
One of Paula’s favorite and easy gift ideas is to prepare “simple syrup.” Use equal parts water and sugar.
- Heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot.
- Cut sprigs of lavender (with blooms for flavor) and place in the pot.
- Let the lavender mixture steep for several hours.
- Taste and continue to steep until you are pleased with the flavor.
- Transfer the mixture to a decorative glass bottle and keep refrigerated.
Simple syrup can be poured over ice cream, mixed fruit, pancakes, and pound cake, or used in lieu of water in recipes.
Paula’s Mint Gifts
Before visiting a sick friend in the hospital or nursing home, Paula often puts up some mint in a pretty container. According to Paula, “Mint has a fresh, clean, aroma that helps people focus, releases stress, and clears the head.”
Another thoughtful gift idea utilizing mint is an air freshener sachet for the car. Paula dries spearmint or peppermint, then adds it to a sachet with a couple drops of mint essential oil. Paula then gives out her sachets to friends and family to place in their cars for a fresh, clean scent. Mint sachets can also be used in the toes of tennis shoes (when you aren’t wearing them) to reduce odor. Paula makes her own sachet bags with bits of extra fabric or from antique, embroidered hankies she buys at thrift stores. She also looks for sales on sachets and interesting containers and baskets to buy for future gifts, as well.
Throughout the growing season, Paula enjoys blooming plants and herbs and then, as the flowers start to decline, she clips them and places them in a basket to dry.
“You will enjoy your garden so much more if you first relish the bloom and then clip the flower as it starts to fade and use it for potpourri,” says Paula. “You are extending the magic of your summer blooms and the fragrance all year long!”
- Use a wide range of colors, shapes, fragrances, and textures of blooms for an attractive potpourri.
- To dry blooms, place the clipped flowers and herbs in a basket, then place the basket in a dark room with good air circulation and low humidity.
- Leave them for up to two weeks to dry.
- After she makes up a batch of potpourri, Paula places the mixture in a stylish container, creating a beautiful and fragrant gift.
- When sending presents through the mail to family, she tucks in a few Ziploc bags filled with potpourri for them to enjoy during the holidays.
Looking for more ideas? Herb-infused sugars, herb-infused oils, and herb butters are also easy to do and make delicious gifts. You can find numerous recipes online. Why not make your gift-giving more personal this year by making it yourself!