It's getting tougher every year to find Christmas gifts, for children, that aren't (choose one) made of plastic; based on the most recent Disney animation; a junior-grade computer or smartphone; or made up of a thousand tiny pieces. Even when kids are young, by the time they reach age 5 or 6 it seems the need for another stuffed animal or Lego set has been met many times over. It's long been my theory that kids don't need toys anyway, and my pediatrician daughter agrees: her kids, she's observed, seem to prefer digging in the dirt with a sharp stick to any manufactured toy.

But if you don't want to be the Scrooge type of parent or grandparent that gives pajamas for Christmas and you're a gardener, you can give a child a gift that may instill a love of planting and growing things. Warning: These gifts may include books, which means they must be read to their young recipients, and/or working parts that need supervision and interactive time with the giver. But reading about gardening and the outdoors can plant the seed in a young child's mind and set him or her to dreaming about the possibilities outside the window once the snow and mud have retreated. Can there be any better story to encourage a potential gardener than Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden"? The story of a lonely young girl who discovers a walled and locked secret garden that has been forgotten for years and slowly brings it back to life has been loved by all ages since it was first published in 1912. Get the edition with illustrations by Tasha Tudor and children as young as 5 will be enthralled.

More a practical guide than fiction, “Sunflower Houses: A Book for Children and Their Grown-Ups,” written and illustrated by part-time Maine resident and syndicated garden columnist Sharon Lovejoy, is no less enchanting when it comes to capturing a child's imagination. In addition to instructions on how to plant a sunflower house or a floral clock garden, with appealing watercolor illustrations, the book also includes poems, stories, games, garden plans, craft ideas and planting projects.

Give a set of good-quality gardening tools to the fortunate child to accompany these books and you'll have a small companion to take in to the garden with you next spring. Don't bother with plastic tools that can't perform in the garden. Burgon & Ball of Sheffield, England, manufactures a small garden trowel and fork of stainless steel that are strong enough to be used by adults who prefer smaller, lightweight garden tools over full-sized ones.



Another all-time favorite for reading to a beloved child is the Laura Ingalls Wilder nine-book series that begins with “Little House in the Big Woods” and “Little House on the Prairie.” In the first book, author Wilder describes her childhood in the Wisconsin woods in the late 1870s, where Pa and Ma and sisters Mary and Baby Carrie reside in a log cabin built by Pa, who also hunts and traps, while Ma makes her own cheese and butter. In “Little House on the Prairie,” the Ingalls family travels from Wisconsin to Kansas, and there builds their little house on the prairie. The descriptions of farm life in this new country are enthralling, and they're detailed enough to make a child feel that he or she could just as easily be a pioneer and start their own garden in the backyard instead of on the prairie.

The Little House books and Laura Ingalls Wilder have so captured the imagination of generations of readers that they've become a cottage industry, with a historic home and museum in De Smet, South Dakota. They've also spawned a cookbook, “The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories,” written by Barbara M. Walker and illustrated by Garth Williams, who also was the illustrator of the entire nine-book series. After reading the books, children can learn to make cornmeal mush or corn dodgers or, as in Chapter 6, Foods from Gardens and Orchards, how to use garden produce to make such old-fashioned delights as succotash or green tomato pickles. Anyone choosing a book from the House series and the cookbook would of course have a wealth of tie-in gift items to choose from for the young cook — child-sized aprons and potholders, small spoons and mixing bowls, as well as spatulas, measuring cups and spoons, rolling pin, and more. Best of all, kids can test the recipes and cookware during the winter, while waiting for planting time to arrive.