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Lillian VanDenBerg demonstrates the art of making the perfect German potato dumpling at Jano Nightingale's home in 2003.
Lillian VanDenBerg demonstrates the art of making the perfect German potato dumpling at Jano Nightingale's home in 2003. Photo by Richard Vandenberg
ColumnsJano's Garden

A garden of gratefulness

I often think about my paternal grandmother at Christmas. Edna VanDenBerg was one of the strongest women I have ever known, in spite of becoming a widow at 55 years old, and living in a tiny bungalow in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1950s.

She became a cook at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) club and amazed us all as she prepared dinners for 50 or more Milwaukee veterans every weekend. Her recipes live on in my memory, and the care and creativity she expressed through her Christmas presents were not truly appreciated by me until recently.

Grandma VanDenBerg worked on handmade afghans, woolen caps and snowflakes (crocheted from the smallest stitch I have ever seen), every day until Christmas.

What I learned from her, although I certainly did not realize it at the time was this: “It is the thought that counts.”

I guess all I can say is that if you receive a soft, squishy hand-wrapped gift and it ends up being an orange winter hat, just say, “Oh, I have always wanted an orange hat to go with my denim jacket.”

In other words, not everything has to come from Amazon, or worse yet, be a gift card… yuck!


Although “mindfulness” is a phrase we are all striving for in recent years, I think we must all remember “gratefulness.”

According to the Harvard Health Education Journal, August 2021: “The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways, gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, being grateful also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”


Coming from a long line of non-professional cooks, I also remember with great fondness my mother, Lillian VanDenBerg, and her annual Christmas homemade Swedish Nuts production.

Now our family is Dutch and German but almost half of our friends in Milwaukee were Scandinavian. Hence, “Swedish Nuts.”

We had a friend whose family owned a pecan farm, and five pounds of pecans arrived every November in anticipation of the Great Swedish Nut Bake Off.

Lillian VanDenBerg visiting California in 2003. Photo by Richard Vandenberg
Lillian VanDenBerg visited California in 2003. Photo by Richard VanDenBerg

The kitchen was laid out perfectly, and my Dad was in charge of packaging. Brightly colored cookie tins were readied for friends and neighbors with homemade Christmas cards for each family.

The rest of the day was spent whipping egg whites, melting butter and pouring the lot over the pecans. The hardest thing was waiting for the nuts to harden, and we received a friendly pat on the hand if we ate them too soon. The batch needed to be divided into cookie tins and delivered to friends and neighbors.


So, search those family recipe boxes, for the holiday treats you remember, and replicate them for your friends and neighbors. Sadly enough when my Mom passed away in 2006, some of her recipes were lost, but I have located one from

SWEDISH NUTS (Adapted from


Ingredient Checklist

  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 pound pecan halves
  • ½ cup butter
  • Step 1

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

  • Step 2

Beat egg whites until soft peaks begin to form. Add sugar, salt and vanilla; beat until stiff peaks form and turn glossy. Fold in nuts and coat well with the egg white mixture.

  • Step 3

Melt butter in a 9×13 inch baking pan by placing pan in the oven. Evenly spread coated nuts over melted butter in pan.

  • Step 4

Bake for 30 minutes, stirring and turning nuts about every 8 minutes, or until butter no longer remains in pan. Place hot nuts on foil and allow to cool. May be stored in an airtight container for several weeks.


In a previous column (August 2020), I discussed the art of seed saving. If you have been diligent in saving your seeds this year, package them in small brown paper bags, with instructions for planting.

Many of the gardeners in my Carlsbad Senior Center Garden class have been collecting seeds all summer, and our most exciting find was Multi-Color Zinnias from Croatia! Now a package of those seeds would make your relatives shout hurray!

If you have been successful forcing bulbs over the past few months the Paperwhite Narcissus bulbs, now in bloom, make wonderful hostess gifts, as do Amaryllis which you can find at local garden centers.


In the end, I have found that the gifts I most appreciate are those produced by my family. If you are looking for a last-minute gift, why not make it yourself! Happy Holidays.

If you have questions or ideas for a column, contact me at [email protected]. – I am always looking for new ideas.

JANO NIGHTINGALE is a horticulturist and teaches gardening classes at the Carlsbad Senior Center. She is available for adult and children’s classes, by contacting her at [email protected].