The Tasteful Garden: Gifts from the garden and the kitchen

CorrespondentsDecember 20, 2013 

Carol Stein grows it

Children are fascinated with magical things, especially during the holidays. The container-grown fantasy worlds called fairy gardens are a wonderful way to introduce children to gardening. They can also be a family project that connects everyone with the natural world.

Karen Fitzgerald, a landscape architect and fanciful garden designer in Fuquay-Varina, shared tips with me on growing winter-hardy, low-maintenance fairy gardens.

Depending on how many fairies you want to attract, containers of any size will work – as long as they have drainage holes. You can even use old metal containers with a few small rusted-out holes in the bottom for outdoor gardens. Think creatively.

Fitzgerald has made fairy gardens in a dilapidated Red Flyer wagon, an antique enameled washtub and a rusty wheelbarrow. Her modern ceramic and stoneware containers include 20-by-8-inch dish gardens.

In outdoor containers, use fresh container potting mix that contains fertilizer and water retention granules. The granules help maintain consistent moisture.

For indoor gardens, use regular container potting mix and apply a slow-release granular fertilizer three times a year – half the recommended amount in March, a full dose in summer and a half again in the fall.

A new breed of mini-evergreens including juniper, holly, pine and cypress can give structure to the garden. These evergreens are 4 to 8 inches tall.

The tallest trees used in fairy gardens are no more than 12 to 15 inches.

Ground covers such as moss or mondograss add interest. For added color, height and texture, deciduous and flowering plants that are bred as miniatures, such as spirea, elms and Japanese maples, add upright interest. A dollop of violas for winter blossoms completes the landscape.

Fairy garden furniture, gazebos, faux water features, fences, trellises and even chicken coops are available. Many garden shops also have classes in this popular gardening trend, and they could make great family gifts.

Debbie Moose cooks it

The idea of making and decorating Christmas cookies can lure any kid into the kitchen, turning it into a place for making memories and sparking a love of cooking.

There’s still plenty of time to have cookie fun – and don’t forget the important cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. You could even make teeny-weeny cookies for Carol’s fairy garden, so Santa doesn’t forget its residents.

One friend of mine began a Christmas tradition of making cookies with a 2-year-old neighbor boy who was a little out of sorts after the arrival of his new brother. She doesn’t bake a lot, but still made things special by giving him a child-sized rolling pin and an afternoon of fun. Today, he’s almost 12, and both of them still look forward to making cookies and having time to talk.

Another friend, who is more into baking, planned cookie day with her grandchildren weeks in advance. She selected special music to play and made the kids Christmas aprons to wear. It sounded like such a wonderful day that I wanted her to adopt me.

My friends’ approaches show that you can make cookie day as simple or elaborate as you want. But I urge you to avoid taking the easy way out and purchasing a log of commercially made dough.

If you do that, you’ll miss a great chance to convey all the things that cooking can teach children. Measuring ingredients boosts math skills. Recipes teach about following directions and build reading ability. And actually participating – even if it’s just stirring the dough or measuring and adding the vanilla – can give a real feeling of pride and accomplishment when everyone enjoys the delicious result.

Making cookies from scratch also shows that you value cooking at home with quality ingredients. And there’s nothing like baking cookies to get everyone of all ages into the kitchen and having fun.

This sugar cookie recipe from the Betty Crocker website is simple and requires no rolling out, which will get you to the fun part – decorating – quickly.

Reach Carol Stein and Debbie Moose at tastefulgarden@hotmail.com.

Best No-Roll Sugar Cookies

1 cup sugar

1 cup butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 egg

2 1/3 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Colored sugar and frosting for decorating

HEAT the oven to 375 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper for even baking and easy cleanup.

USE an electric mixer on low speed to beat the sugar and butter together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Stir in the vanilla, nutmeg and egg until combined. Then stir in the flour and baking soda.

USE your hands or a cookie scoop to shape the dough into teaspoon-sized balls. Place the balls on the cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Gently flatten the balls with either your fingers dipped in water or the bottom of a glass sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. You can also dip the bottom of the glass in colored sugar to lessen the chance of it sticking to the dough.

BAKE 9 to 11 minutes or until cooked through. Remove the cookies from the cookie sheet and cool them completely on wire racks before frosting.

Yield: About 45 cookies.

 From www.bettycrocker.com

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