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Garden centers offer great gift ideas

If you're like me - and judging from the department store lines, the majority of other Americans - you've procrastinated about finishing your holiday shopping and are scurrying to finish things up in the last few days. I tell myself every year that I won't get into this predicament, only to find myself with a list of things not yet purchased and only a few shopping days left.

Over the past few years, I have developed a no-fail plan to finish my shopping without worrying about finding a parking space, standing in long check out lines, and dealing with testy, overworked sales staff. The plan is simple: I shop at my local garden center.

If you haven't noticed, the parking lots at garden centers are not that crowded during the holiday season. A few customers may stop in to buy holiday items, and you may see a few hard-core gardeners who are there buying seeds or plants, but you won't find a mob of people like you do at department stores and malls. The gardening staff is more than helpful in finding items you might be looking for, and they just might be willing to talk about anything under the sun since panicked shoppers haven't deluged them. Gift items are readily available for the gardeners on your list, as well as for those with a brown thumb.

Hand tools make an excellent gift for a gardener. A nice pair of hand pruners, a trowel or a bulb planter is always a welcome addition to most anyone's tool shed. There are also those newfangled weeder and ergonomic hand tools to choose from, if you're unsure about whether the recipient is already well-stocked with the standard tools.

Bird feeders are always a safe gift idea for gardeners - and even for most people who don't garden. I've never met anyone who didn't enjoy watching, either through a frosted window or from a deck or patio, colorful birds come to a feeder on a pleasant winter day. Styles of feeders vary widely. There is little chance that you will duplicate a purchased feeder to one that already might be in the recipient's garden.

A unique gift idea for anyone who enjoys being outdoors is a chiminea - an outdoor fire pit - which can also be purchased at most garden centers. Chimineas are made of clay and are used on decks and patios to help keep you warm on cool days and evenings. A few pieces of pinyon or mesquite burning in a chiminea provides a relaxing atmosphere. Although most of these outdoor fire pits are quite safe, it would be a good idea to also include a small fire extinguisher with the gift to deter any possible accidents.

Garden centers always have a nice selection of gardening books as well, which could be given as gifts. If a friend is crazy about a certain group of plants, such as African Violets, there is a reference book for them. Gardening books are often a great gift idea, especially during this time of year, when a colorful picture can be a wonderful interlude until spring blooms can be seen.

Statuary is also a great gift idea for those who enjoy being outdoors. Concrete or stone benches, birdbaths or planters are available at most garden centers. The really great thing about these gifts is that they can go straight into the garden without having to wait until the spring thaw.

One of my favorite gifts to purchase for most anyone on my list is an amaryllis bulb. Everyone seems to welcome these plants, from gardeners to people who have trouble enjoying the outdoors because of allergies or other health reasons. No matter what the recipient does to this plant, as long as it is potted and watered, it seems I always receive reports on how lovely the blooms are and how many flower stalks it sent up. That translates to a well-liked present to me.

If all else fails, and you can't decide on a perfect gift from the local garden center, you can always give a gift certificate. At one time, I was of the belief that gift certificates were given by some because they didn't know what else to get. Now, with age, I realize that these gifts may be more thoughtful since they allow the recipient to purchase what he or she truly likes. I can't think of a better gift than one the recipient will continue to think of in May, when picking out spring annuals to beautify the garden or purchasing a tree that will be part of the garden for years to come.