Usually at least one family member has a knack for picking just the right gifts at holiday time. Most of the rest can use some help, though, especially when it comes to buying a gift for someone with a special interest like gardening. So we did what we expect you might do if faced with such a problem: We asked our gardening friends to tell us about favorite garden gifts they've received (or wish they had), and what they plan on giving this year. Here are the results of our informal poll, a gardeners' wish list that's idiosyncratic but -- we hope -- useful, too. Most gifts are under $40; none costs more than $100.
By nature, gardeners tend to be weather watchers, and for those interested in gauging atmospheric changes, a high-tech thermometer makes an ideal gift that can be put to use right away. Contributor Robin Chotzinoff claims that she's found "8 million uses" for hers. The Acu-Rite maximum-minimum indoor-outdoor digital thermometer features memory with manual reset to allow long-term monitoring, and its 10-foot probe is useful for checking soil and water temperatures. Charley's Greenhouse Supply, (800) 322-4707; $26.
While Robin looks to the sky for clues, our senior horticulturist, Charlie Nardozzi, takes the soil's temperature. "My rust-resistant brass soil thermometer is indispensable in early spring. I use it daily to check whether my compost is ready and whether the soil is warm enough to plant tomatoes," he says. Widely available; $19.
For the gardening maniacs on his holiday gift list, National Gardening's former editor-in-chief, Mike MacCaskey, loves to give the world's best compost -- his own, of course. He begins preparing it each fall and at holiday time presents a coupon redeemable for about a cubic foot of his special blend when it's ready in the spring. To help make more compost for next year, he's asking Santa for an odor-free kitchen compost pail. Widely available; $19.
The favorite tool of web content developer Suzanne DeJohn isn't really a garden tool at all. It's that ultimate utility tool, Super Leatherman, which features needle-nose pliers, a wood saw, several screwdrivers, and other instruments that fold into one compact tool. As she puts it, "When I'm out in the garden and something needs fixing, I don't want to have to run to the tool chest in the basement for pliers, then back for a screwdriver or a knife." She adds, "I have a bad habit of leaving tools in the garden. My Super Leatherman has been a marriage saver." Widely available or from A.M. Leonard, (800) 543-8955; $60.
But for gardeners who don't own a Super Leatherman and so need to go between garden and house, garden clogs are a necessity. They're easy to slip on and off and come in a range of prices and styles. (They'll also provide a big lift to the fashion impaired: As well as being practical, they're in.) Gardeners Eden, (800) 822-9600; $44 to $46.
Another practical option, and one appreciated by anyone who does yard work, is a tool that will ease exhausting weeding, digging, and hoeing chores. Contributor Dick Dunmire treasures his Wilkinson Sword Swoe, a lightweight, ever-sharp scuffle hoe that's outlasted a number of other hoes. Kinsman Co., (800) 733-4146; $39.
Former National Gardening contributor Rick Darke has long depended on his Japanese hori (or hori-hori) as a trowel alternative. Seeds of Change, (888) 762-7333; $25. But recently he discovered the Lesche Standard Digging Tool, which like the hori has a wide blade with one smooth cutting edge and one serrated cutting edge, but also has a rubber grip handle that he finds more comfortable. W.W. Manufacturing Co., (800) 452-5547; $37. Especially handy for dividing grasses and digging holes for replanting, both are, according to him, "required tools for anyone who gardens with large ornamental grasses."
One year, a simple, unassuming gift became a gardening epiphany for former National Gardening advertising sales rep and new homeowner Ruth Kennedy. She received a bulb planter and discovered for the first time how much time and backache such a simple tool saves. Gardener's Supply, (800) 863-1700; $15.
But to avoid being practical two years in a row, this year she has garden chimes and sundials on her wish list. "They're great gifts if they are well thought out for a specific yard and location," she says. Widely available or from Gardener's Supply, (800) 863-1700; $15 to $50.
For the meditative gardener on your list, consider a gazing ball. Citrus farmer and former National Gardening contributor, Lance Walheim, loves these large, reflective globes. "They're perfect," he says, "for those gin-and-tonic evenings after a day of working in the garden." Gardeners Eden, (800) 822-9600; $40 for ball, $95 for ball and pedestal.
Lance has another recommendation for friends who might not get the gazing ball idea: Poo Pets. These animal-shaped, cow manure sculptures decorate the yard as they fertilize. Now that kind of utility is definitely something to reflect upon! Gardener's Supply, (800) 863-1700; $14 to $25.
Although we all know that the best gift is the one given from the heart, a little extravagance at holiday time certainly doesn't hurt either. Rosarian and NG contributor Karen Dardick remembers the joy of receiving a crystal vase for displaying her homegrown roses. And because she is passionate about roses, she often gives her friends a rose -- by mail order so it's delivered at the appropriate planting time. Jackson & Perkins, (800) 292-4769; prices vary.
Enjoying cut flowers attractively displayed is also the point of the gift at the top of consulting editor Margaret McKinnon's list: "The Flex Vase is perfect for inept flower arrangers, of which I am the star." This "vase" is essentially 10 test tubes joined by acrylic connectors. You can twist it into a circle or undulating shape, then add to it any flowers or leaves your garden offers. The Museum of Modern Art, (212) 767-1050; $35.
Pruners are purely practical and never extravagant, right? Wrong. A pair of top-of-the-line Felco pruners is pure luxury to initiated or novice gardeners. These pruners are sturdy, built to last, easy to sharpen and repair, and work like a charm. There are several models to choose among, but the consensus here is to go with the No. 2. How good are Felcos -- Charlie Nardozzi is such a fan that he gave them along with a leather holster to his wife for their first wedding anniversary. (Tip: Better test the waters with your partner before making such a key decision.) Widely available or from Seeds of Change, (888) 762-7333; $45 and $7, respectively.
For a gardener who has everything, why not a Colormark purple watering wand? Our former editor-in-chief saw one at a garden show and was immediately taken with it. "According to the cynics, it's just another color. But that's exactly what I like about it," says Mike MacCaskey. "Who knows? Just because it's purple I might do a better job of watering my container plants." Widely available or from Dramm Corp., (800) 258-0848; $28.
Also thinking about watering his plants, seedsman and contributor Peter Kopcinski has "fallen in love with drip irrigation." At the top of his wish list is a Rainbird electronic water timer that runs on four AA batteries. "Any kind of timer is an incredible boon for perennially short-of-time gardeners, and the new battery-powered kinds are much less expensive," says Peter. A.M. Leonard, (800) 543-8955; $65.
Since many gardeners share a passion for home-grown treasures, it's not surprising that a gift from the season's harvest was at the top of just about everyone's wish list. Seedsman Shepherd Ogden explains that the best gifts for him "would be things that aren't bought, but simply given: harvest gifts, things made from the harvest, or divisions or other parts of special plants." Peter Kopcinski agrees, but his favorite is a gift of seeds a friend collects from his garden.
If you include yourself among the horticulturally well versed, you might consider giving a gift of time and knowledge. Chances are you'll discover that a garden consultation or labor IOU is much appreciated. As Karen Dardick notes, "Difficult tasks like pruning roses and mulching are better with more hands and fellow spirits!"
Formerly managing editor at National Gardening, Shila Patel is currently garden editor at marthastewart.com. She makes her home in Brooklyn, New York.