useful stuff for holiday giving to gardeners, 2017

Recycled ornaments wreath by Pam Kueber of Retro RenovationI’M UP TO MY NECK in “stuff,” which means my filter for any purchases these days—whether for myself or for holiday gifting, even—is all about their utility factor. Does the item in question really do something for me, and do it really well? The things on my 2017 holiday-shopping list meet that mandate. (The wreath up top, meant for indoor use, was made for me by my friend Pam of RetroRenovation from vintage ornaments, like this, should you be feeling crafty.)

useful gifts for giving (or for you)

“Garden Insects of North America,” second edition: I have long relied on Colorado State’s Dr. Whitney Cranshaw’s 2004 version of this encyclopedic reference to the borers, mites, grubs, beetles, weevils, scale, slugs, sawflies, aphids, you name it that we may encounter in our outdoors rounds. The new edition, in collaboration with Dr. David Shetlar of Ohio State, includes more and larger photos, organized the way we encounter the creatures: by where they occur, with chapters on insects that suck fluid from leaves, for instance, or others associated with roots or tubers. There is also an expanded chapter on beneficial insects like pollinators and spiders that help create balance. This is an incredible ID guide, not a “what to do when” prescriptive one, but without proper ID there can, and should, be no action plan even contemplated (beyond simply marveling at the cast of ingenious characters in the insect world). A must for every gardening household: “Garden Insects of North America.”

“A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America:” By Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, this new fully revised second edition from Princeton University Press is just what I was missing: a photo-driven butterfly ID tool. You wouldn’t think I had need of even one more field guide, but “A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America” fills a void in my overstuffed cupboard. The reason: photos. Unlike more conventional guides that may have substantial text about each species, this one is all about the images. Butterflies are grouped into the six families occurring in North America (with the pages of each family color coded at the edges for fast thumbing).  Pointers on each image call out the keys to ID’ing that species from near-lookalikes. A visual index at the back grids 150 thumbnail images over three pages, so you can just scan for the one your current “it” might be and turn quickly to those pages. If you want to pair it with a guide with expanded entries about each species, I recommend “The Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.”

2 books about birds—and us: Apparently I cannot get enough wonder-filled stories about birds at the moment. Two recent reads, one from 2014 and one from 2017, both offer one miraculous tale of a species’ particular gift after another, but rather than merely reporting the science puts it in compelling context to our own lives. I recommend this two-fer for any bird or nature lover on your list: “The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human” is by extreme birder Noah Strycker (remember our recent interview?). “The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future,” is by longtime “New York Times” science and environmental writer Jim Robbins.

signed books by margaret

I ORDERED a stack of my two most recent books, “The Backyard Parables” and “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” and will sign and even gift-wrap them if you like, for your holiday gift-giving pleasure. Click here to browse the offerings.

Kuhn Rikon kitchen peelers: Who doesn’t need one (or three!) of these in their stocking? I have used the Y-shaped Kuhn Rikon peelers for years, and my cookbook-author friend Ali Stafford reminded me of them the other day. Indispensible, and inexpensive.



Cookbooks galore: Cookbook author and food blogger Alexandra Stafford and I just did a roundup of favorites old and new, in case you have some cooks on your list. The story (and podcast) is here.

Thermapen Mk4 of Classic instant-read kitchen thermometers, from ThermoWorks: As it sounds, an instant-read thermometer for cooks, whether grilling or roasting meats or even baking, or making caramel or custard. Get a highly accurate reading in a mere 2 or 3 seconds. “Cook’s Illustrated” says this is their favorite thermometer (whether the Classic model or the updated MK4), and my various cookbook-writing and chef friends agree.

Sneeboer Flower Bed Trowel: This fall, while planting garlic with help from a friend, I noticed that I was having an easier time of it as we worked our way toward the middle of a long, multi-row bed from either end. Compared to the usual garden-variety trowel he was using, the Sneeboer version—with a not-too-big, nicely scooped blade of stainless steel–just cuts into the soil better and gets the job done. The handle (mine is cherry; you can get ash as well) is nicely turned for a comfortable fit; browse all the Sneeboer trowels at Garden Tool Company to see which style is right for you. Want a slightly narrower blade for tight spots? Try the Sneeboer Great Dixter model...and there are even narrower choices in the line, for digging dandelions and such. Perhaps you require a trowel that’s slightly wider, all-purpose? Try their Transplanting Trowel or the Half-Round version.

Hunter Chelsea rubber rain boots: I have a thing for short black boots, but you can have yours in orange or pink or blue or various other colors. I keep promising myself to reserve a pair that I don’t go out into the muddy garden with, for wearing when I need to look a bit more presentable, but then the urge hits and there I go, and these otherwise-fashionable Hunter rubber rain boots start to look like the rest of my footwear (and trouser knees, and gloves, and … Sigh.

ARS needle-nose nips, or fruit pruners: Did you ever use a regular pair of pliers when a needle-nose was really called for, or otherwise over-effort a task? I confessed earlier this year that I rarely use my pricey, famous-name pruning shears these days, instead doing many jobs with what are variously called grape scissors or needle-nosed fruit pruners, specifically ones by ARS. A traditional pair of bypass pruning shears might weight 8 or 9 ounces—like 224 or 252 grams—and the fruit pruners weigh like 4, or about 110 grams. Why place unneeded strain on your hand? In carbon steel, or stainless steel.

Brome birdfeeders: I do think Brome, as I have said repeatedly, has built a better birdfeeder with its Squirrel Buster line of various-size models. If an animal of squirrel weight or greater grabs on, the seed ports are automatically covered to prevent access. Plus: These feeders seem to keep seed in fresher, drier condition that conventional tube types, with a patented ventilation system as part of the design. Important note: I still use metal baffles on the poles my feeders are hanging from to limit squirrel attempts, like the ones Audubon recommends in either wraparound style or “torpedo” (canister) style.

(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)

  1. Katie C. says:

    Thank you for the link to that garden tool company. They have some items, like the garden knife, that I’ve been looking for.

    I’m surprised that you didn’t include the North American book of weeds. I got it at my library after you recommended it and found it very useful!

    I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Ivy says:

    We too have far too much stuff! This year we’ve asked all of the family to buy us fruit trees for the allotment. We’re getting six trees which saves us quite a lot of money but spread out over the whole family isn’t expensive and they’ll give us joy and fruit for years! :)

    1. margaret says:

      Brilliant idea, Ivy. Lately my family and I have been buying one another cooking-class tickets and going together to learn new techniques and recipes, for instance. Love the fruit tree plan!

  3. I adore those pruners. I keep several in stock and give as hostess gifts. No matter the host (gardener or not) they come in handy for a billion things. I have several in my car, one pair at the front door (in the key jar), one at the back door (in the basket with the dog leash). Ya just never know when you’ll be standing on your screen porch and see that limb.

    Plus, b/c they’re small, great stocking stuffers.

    They should hire me for marketing. :)

  4. Mtnlou says:

    I want to put in a plug for Florian pruners if you have tired (old) hands. Lighter than my fancy left-hand pruners, DURABLE, and do amazing work.

  5. Tina says:

    Any way to order “Garden Insects of North America”, 2nd edition without doing so on line?
    I never order on line, I always call (security concerns). Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tina. Just call your local bookstore and have them get you a copy, no? Any bookstore can special order any book. Or, you could try ordering by phone directly from the publisher, Princeton University Press, Phone: 1-800-343-4499.

  6. Cool ornament wreaths. You can likely find older ornaments at rummage or estate sales.

    re: insect book that doesn’t tell what to do about an insect. Search engines (Google) will give answers once you know the name of the bug. I try to find websites that end in .edu to get advice that’s not an ad promoting some product and likely has been tested.

  7. Cice says:

    The best gardening gift i gave myself this year was floret farms stylish leather tool holster. I wore it every day this past summer to hold my tools and its so practical and now wouldnt be without it. It holds those pruners you reccomend perfectly with room for phone. Check it out. Perfect gift for hard core gardeners.

    1. margaret says:

      I guess everyone loved the suggestion! I’d email or call Garden Tool Company and find out when the resupply will come in (not till after Xmas, but in time for spring use of course), 855-GTC-TOOL (482-8665) or gtcsales [at] gardentoolcompany [dot] com. They do have every other Sneeboer trowel model in stock, they say, so you can ask for help comparing which is which.

  8. Shelley Delaney says:

    Its funny, we are now well into post holiday season and I still wanted to see what fun things you had suggested as gifts… ended up with some field guides for insects, birds, butterflies… for me! Its never past self gift giving season is it? haha

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